American Interventionism and Second Wave Colonialism in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

In 1979, four years after the U.S withdrew from Vietnam, director, Francis Ford Coppola released a film which attempts to encapsulate the holistic experience of war in the context of the Vietnam War. Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, left a lasting impression in the heads of its viewers of the nihilistic nature of war yet additionally made a statement on the effects of American interventionism. In the film, Apocalypse Now, Coppola depicts the effects of American intervention in the Vietnam war to draw a comparison to attributes and effects of second wave colonialism. 

The Vietnam war initiated as a civil war between the communist North Vietnam and the anti-communist South Vietnam. Throughout the war (1955-1975) the two sides were heavily supported by countries that aligned with their respective ideological views, primarily the United States for the South and the USSR for the North. Foreign involvement with the dueling ideologies allows for the war to be considered a proxy war of the ongoing cold war between these two external powers (Herring, 18). U.S intervention with the war can be viewed as functionally being removed from the cause of Vietnamese people as the U.S observed the country’s internal conflict, not intervening, until North Vietnam received assistance from the Communist Party of China, implicating the Northern Vietnamese in the cold war (Herring, 18). 

Apocalypse Now is a loose adaptation of late 19th century writer, Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. The Heart of Darkness makes a poignant statement on the nature of colonialism, primarily through the character of Kurtz. Kurtz serves as a representation of Europe as a colonial power as he maintains control over an indigenous population deep in the African country of the Congo (Conrad). The character of Kurtz, and many other aspects of the novella are mirrored in Apocalypse Now. The film’s connection to second wave colonialism initially stems from it being an adaptation of The Heart of Darkness as the novella served to raise considerations of both, the ethics of the colonialism that was occuring in Africa at the time at the hands of Europeans, and the genuine differences between Europeans and the so called “savages” within Africa (Moore, 183). Apocalypse Now as an adaptation of The Heart of Darkness plays off of the considerations initially raised by Conrad. A conscious effort on Coppola’s behalf in focusing on raising considerations and evoking themes rather than accurately depicting a historical event is reflected through his stating of, “My movie is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” (Coppola). 

 Apocalypse Now depicts the journey of U.S military Captain, Willard as he journeys into Cambodia from South Vietnam on an assigned mission to find Colonel Kurtz, a U.S operative who has supposedly gone insane and maintains control of an indigenous population. A theme commonly evoked throughout the film is American involvement in the Vietnam war consisting of ignored collateral in the process of obtaining a goal. In the case of the soldiers depicted in the film, this meant overlooking the death and hardship caused to non-aligned Vietnamese people in the process of exterminating the Viet Cong. This theme becomes synonymous with American interventionism in the Vietnam war as the American government was disregarding said hardship in the process of eliminating the communist threat that the Viet Cong posed. 

An initial example of Coppola drawing a parallel between the effects of American intervention in Vietnam and second wave colonialism can be identified through consideration of the character of Kurtz representing attributes of second wave colonialism, whilst the U.S military officials represent American interventionism. Kurtz is able to represent second wave colonialism through his relation to the character of the same name in Heart of Darkness. Both Kurtzes managed to come into a large grouping of indigenous people and put themselves in the position of a deity or god, thus gaining immense power through a colonial process. The U.S military officials in the film seek to assassinate Kurtz as they both fear and condemn the power that he has gained through colonial means. The ironic element of the comparrison that brings Coppola’s intentions to light is the imperialistic position that the American military fulfils through extending their power and influence throughout Vietnam during the war. This extension of influence is reflected by the scene in which fishermen in South Vietnam are questioned by Willard’s PBR (Patrol Boat) about their papers, before being shot for sudden movement. The men eventually find that the fishermen were hiding nothing. Although paranoia was perhaps the cause of the shooting, the military’s extension of power is what allowed the innocent men to be under inquiry to begin with. The military officials thus take the role of hypocrites, condemning Kurtz actions for being reminiscent of second wave colonization whilst additionally pushing a type of imperialism themselves that does not stray far from the ethical flaws in colonialism. Through attributing the older process of second wave colonization to Kurtz and the newer process of imperialism to the American military, Coppola’s depiction effectively draws a link between American intervention in Vietnam and the process of second wave colonialism.  

Further evidence of a link between American interventionism and second wave colonialism present in Apocalypse Now is the similar styles of rationale used towards both the American and Vietnamese people in justifying America’s presence in the war. Coppola depicted American domestic justification through having an American videographer (played by Coppola himself) film the remnants of an already raided village motioning for Willard to run by “as if you were fighting”. The scene becomes summarizing of how the American media is choosing to reflect the ongoings of the Vietnam war, staging it as an admirable or worthy fight through showing a valiant unharmed soldier rather than any of the horrid sights Willard then witnesses throughout the village. This depiction becomes reflective of the justification of second wave colonialism in which the European population was given the justification of colonizing being a humanitarian cause, affirming that colonizers were performing as they did in order to righteously help people who require help (Bulhan, 245). Moments after the scene with the videographer, it is shown that the non-aligned members of the village who are still alive are being directed towards, and boarding, a tank with large doors. From the megaphone they are told of the directions to round up and repeatedly told, “We are here to help you”. The scene and this particular line become reflective of the justification used in second wave colonialism towards the indigenous people of locations being colonized. Just like the Vietnamese civilians in the scene, victims of second wave colonialism were told by colonizers that they were helping them and that it was a humanitarian cause (Bulhan, 245). In both cases however, similarly with the aforementioned domestic justification (American and European), the causes were not solely for a humanitarian cause. 

An attribute that additionally allows for the connection between American involvement with the Vietnam war and second wave colonialism to become evident is the dehumanizing of indigenous populations. In Apocalypse Now it seems as if distaste for the opposing Viet Cong extends to a dehumanization of Vietnamese individuals in general. This dehumanization is reflected through the continuous use of slurs such as “gook” throughout the film. This effect is furthered by the subtlety by which dead and dying Vietnamese individuals are portrayed in within the film. The film is in the perspective of the protagonist Willard and there is no point throughout the film in which the character is in disgust or dismay from seeing dead Vietnamese bodies, not even when faced with many decapitated Vietnamese heads. Furthermore there are many cases in which the film features introspective moments of sadness that Willard exhibits upon the deaths of fellow Americans. Although this emotional reaction may be to portray a greater emotional connection Willard featured with Americans through having spent more time with them, the complete lack of empathy for dead Vietnamese individuals would allude to a dullness or lack of sensitivity which is seemingly heightened in the case of witnessing dead non-Americans.  This dullness can be explained through a process of dehumanization that is very similar to the process of dehumanizing in second wave colonialism. Professor Nick Haslam states that an animalistic sense of dehumanization occurs when uniquely human characteristics such as moral sensibility or civility are denied to an out-group (Hasalm, 257). This attribute is commonly reflected through both the use of the term “savages” to refer to the indigenous people in common instances in second wave colonialism and in Apocalypse Now. By equating the indigenous people to that of “savages”, uniquely human characteristics are thought to be not present within them and thus allows for a lack of empathy towards indigenous people. In Apocalypse Now this dehumanization manifests through an overall hatred, and lack of sensitivity for hardship (including pain or death) for Vietnamese individuals, whereas in second wave colonialism this manifested in a lack of respect for African indigenous communities and cultures, not deeming them as “human” in comparison to European practices. The element of American interventionism in Apocalypse Now is connected to this dehumanization as American soldiers further dissociating from Vietnamese individuals as humans does not allude to America wanting to, or succeeding in aiding Vietnam or its people. 

Apocalypse Now’s depiction of American interventionism and its effects in the Vietnam war allow for a variety of connections to be made between the Vietnam war and the second wave of colonialism. The majority of links that can be made put America in the imperialistic role that Europe maintained in most of second wave colonialism. In this sense, Apocalypse Now is able to connect to the themes and notions that are present in the source material of Heart of Darkness. A formal link can be drawn between the effects of American intervention in the Vietnam war in the film Apocalypse Now and the facets of second wave colonialism, as shown by events, characters, and concepts depicted in the film. 

Works Cited

Herring, George C. “The Cold War and Vietnam.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 5, 2004, pp. 18–21. JSTOR,

Bulhan, Hussein A.. “Stages of Colonialism in Africa: From Occupation of Land to Occupation of Being.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 3.1 (2015): 239-256. Web. 21 Mar. 2019

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 252-264.

Tang, Shiping, and S. R. Joey Long. “America’s Military Interventionism: A Social Evolutionary Interpretation.” European Journal of International Relations, vol. 18, no. 3, Sept. 2012, pp. 509–538, doi:10.1177/1354066110396763.

Moore, Gene M. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dumbrell, John. “Rethinking the Vietnam War.” Rethinking the Vietnam War, 2012, pp. 1–21., doi:10.1007/978-1-137-02182-3_1.

“Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.” Pathé, 2011

Coppola, Francis Ford, et al. Apocalypse Now Redux. Miramax, 2001.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Hear-a-Book.

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