Scotman has written an great review and plot summary of Apocalypse Now. Therefore, because I am a history prof., my review will emphasize the important literary influences on the writers Francis Ford Copolla, (director as well), John Milius and Michael Herr. The movie is a seminal work because it was influenced by four important works of the twentieth century: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T. S. Elliott’s poem the WasteLand, Sir James George Frazer’s book The Golden Baugh, and Jessie L. Weston’s book From Ritual To Romance. By the way, anyone who has read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces cannot deny that the movie follows his paradigm of the “hero’s quest.” One actually gets a visual glimpse of this in the movie in a scene with Col. Kurtz in his cave. On his night stand one can briefly see T. S. Elliott’s poem the WasteLand, Sir James George Frazer’s book The Golden Baugh, and Jessie L. Weston’s book From Ritual To Romance.
Sir James George Frazer’s book The Golden Baugh was a groundbreaking work on ancient religion, paganism, and roots of early Christianity. Frazer does an in-depth examination of the sacrificial killing of god-kings to ensure bountiful harvests, which Frazer traces through several cultures, including in his elaborations the myths of Adonis, Osiris, and Balder.
Frazer spent his life writing fifteen volumes of history of myth and religion. His abridged book sums up his theory of magic and its connections to paganism, as well as fusing ideas from Jessie L. Weston’s book From Ritual To Romance and Gnostic texts that serve as a link to early Christianity’s influence from ancient nature cults. His chapter titles say much about where his work goes and why it is so influential on iconic twentieth century works. The King of the Wood explains the original nature of the task imposed upon the hero, it undoubtedly influenced both Campbell’s and Coppola’s works. The Myths of Adonis, Attis, and Osiris looks to establish a chain of descent connecting early Aryan and Babylonian ritual with classic, Medieval and modern forms of nature worship. Our Debt to the Savage explains the role of the Medicine Man or doctor in fertility ritual. The Killing of the Devine King analyzes how this title is prevalent in so many of humankind’s legends, and was a definite influence on Coppola’s Colonel Kurtz character. Sacrifice of the King’s Son regarded as an object of awe certainly influenced the movie.
Anyone wanting to understand the movie Apocalypse Now, especially the character of Colonel Kurtz, and what Milius and Copolla were trying to tell their audience need to read these five books! I promise you that in addition to a better understanding of the movie you will have a better insight into mankind’s thirst for spirituality.
I love the redux version, as a philosopher I find you can "peel" the movie like an onion finding all of its nuances.
By the way, how could I not love this movie, I am a retired army helicopter pilot! I recommend this movie and the books for anyone interested in literature, myth, history, philosophy, religion and fans of Apocalypse Now.
What did you think of this review?