Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Madness

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Making Apocalypse Now drove everyone a little bonkers. The director contemplated suicide, the actors had meltdowns—the whole production at times seemed like one collective nervous breakdown. Psychiatrists in Hollywood probably made a pretty good living after filming ended and the cast returned home.

That sounds just about right for a film that explores madness and brings up some important question about the sanity of war in general. Colonel Kurtz has seriously lost it, embracing atrocities and unrestrained brutality as a necessary winning strategy. Kurtz is also fine with his followers worshiping him as a god. All those severed heads—crazy, right?

Not so fast, says Francis Ford Coppola. Isn't Kurtz's behavior just a logical extension of the brutality of the war he's fighting? His methods seem very deliberate and almost well thought out. Is the assassin Willard really all that different? And what about that manic photojournalist who babbles incoherently about Kurtz being such a great man? The film asks, couldn't any of us go off the deep end under the stress of war?

Hint: yes. People traumatized by war aren't likely to go around chopping off heads just to make a point, but war definitely isn't good for anyone's mental health.

Questions About Madness

  1. Was Kurtz always sick, or did the experience of warfare push him over the edge?
  2. How is Kurtz's madness different from or similar to the photojournalist's brand of madness?
  3. Does Willard ever risk going mad? If so, what prevents him from becoming like Kurtz? If not, why isn't he as susceptible as other people?
  4. Is Kurtz crazier than the officials who have sent Willard to kill him?

Chew on This

Apocalypse Now shows that war itself is a form of collective madness.

The movie shows that madness comes from within. It's not that war creates madness—rather, madness creates war and war is just an expression of humanity's own perversity.

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