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The Sounds of Hell

Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now is a cacophony of napalm explosions, whirring helicopters, and dying screams wrapped...

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Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now is a cacophony of napalm explosions, whirring helicopters, and dying screams wrapped in the natural sound of the Vietnamese jungles. The sound is largely what contributed to the intensity of the film.  It is an integral component of the narration, both the diegetic and non-diegetic elements. The sound of Apocalypse Now is representative of the culture surrounding the war itself, as well as the Vietnamese landscape.

The film’s infamous opening scene places the audience bluntly amidst the horrors of war and the audience is to assume the scenes of jungles ablaze from napalm fires that are intercut with an upside down Willard, the film’s protagonist, come from his memories or hallucinations. Perhaps one of the most creative uses of sound is the seamless transition of the diegetic sound of the helicopter into the rhythmic sound of the overhead fan in Willard’s room in Saigon. The film makes use of a non-diegetic narration provided by Willard as he stoically recounts the onscreen events. The score of the film manipulates the viewers to feel the anticipation of some kind of action and build tension. The sound of the film was key in demonstrating how the characters themselves hear the war, an example being in the film’s beginning when Willard is being briefed in the nature of his mission to “terminate with extreme prejudice.” They discuss the necessity of taking care of Colonel Kurtz despite his many achievements since he has become so “obviously insane” and a non-diegetic helicopter whir is heard from, presumably, Willard’s mind, indicting his own unsound state of mind.

The opening is a montage played with the accompaniment from the eerie and angst ridden song “The End” by The Doors. It perfectly encapsulates the overall surreality and hallucinatory tone of the rest of the film. It is a dreamlike sequence that dissolves in and out allowing the viewer to focus on the siege of the jungle and Willard’s contemplative expression.

Much of the culture of the era was heavily embedded in drug experimentation and rock n’ roll. The lighting is quite apparently establishing that effect. A clear example would be the scene when the characters arrive at the last U. S outpost at the Do Long Bridge. It is clear that this is supposed to be some kind of  hell. It looks and it sounds like it. The feeling of being in an altered, drugged state is presented with mad symphony of distorted carnival-like music in a descent to madness. One of the characters, Lance, beseeches Willard to “listen to the music” and it confused me as I was unsure if the music was non-diegetic or not. The influence of the psychedelic culture was quite apparent with the electric guitar solo woven in and out. The harsh lighting emphasized a very surreal and otherworldly feeling. After a series of expletives and booming gunshots, a contrastingly quiet, serene even, night sounds of crickets chirping and frogs croaking play the scene out.

Apocalypse Now skillfully makes use of music and sound to communicate it’s narrative and it adds another immersive dimension to the storytelling. It effectively communicates a state of mind for the characters or establishes the mood of a particular scene. A noteworthy scene where I was particularly struck by the music was when we hear the recording of Clean’s mother and it plays over his dead body as sharp, distorted string music and sour trumpets accompany it. The lighting turns a cruel, gray-blue and the music transforms into an unnerving melody akin to nails scraping on a chalkboard before fading into a quiet creak of a white rolling fog.The sound and music is a perfect marriage to the horrific and senseless acts of war in Coppola’s hellish grand opera.

Written by Citlalli Reynoso
Sociology major transferring to UCLA in the fall. Profile
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