Coppola opens the film with a bang by dropping us right in the jungle. There are no opening credits; only darkness with the faint sound of helicopters approaching from the distance. The first image we see is that of a jungle tree line, which stands alone until one of the helicopters crosses the screen in front of the trees, a similar technique as John Boorman used with his cars in the opening of Deliverance (1972) to express mankind’s rape of nature. As psychedelic smoke rises to the music of The Doors singing “The End,” we realize the genius paradox of opening a movie with the words, “This is the end.”
As soon as these words arrive, the helicopters light up the jungle with napalm, superimposed over shots of Willard in his Saigon hotel room watching a ceiling fan. As his POV of the fan blades matches the sound of ‘Nam choppers in his head, it’s a reminder that veterans never truly leave the battlefield; fragments of swirling smoke, screaming comrades and chopper blades always remain.
This battle against one’s self, against our own dark side, is expressed visually throughout the film in a series of half-lit faces, from Willard (the light side) to Colonel Kurtz (the dark side), or as later articulated, “the kind who loves” and “the kind who kills.”
This duality of lightness and darkness hangs over the entire film, as Coppola offers paradox after paradox, most notably Brando’s line, “We teach the boys to drop fire on people, and yet we won’t let them write the word ‘fuck’ on their airplanes.” When you understand Coppola’s artistic sensibilities, you come to understand that the half-lit faces of lightness and darkness represent our internal choice as people — and as a nation — between the “hawk” and the “dove,” an eternal battle of gungho military adventurism versus anti-war peacemaking.
These half-lit faces always from the side and looking in parallel a technique used in early film noir movies to convey mystery and tragedy. To loose sight of ones own face is to give into the darkness and let it consume oneself.