- One of the key devices Coppola uses in the film is Colonel Kurtz's Dossier. Kurtz's Dossier was actually Milius' idea. The Dossier first appears in the briefing scene with the General and twice more: a letter from Kurtz's wife and later a montage of photos of Kurtz with the only VO in the script. But the Dossier has very little significance in the story. Coppola's '75 script keeps the Milius' Dossier uses, but revises the VO's over the montage of photos to make Colonel Kurtz closer to Conrad's Kurtz as an Emissary of Western culture.
Apocalypse Now makes dramatic changes in the use of the Dossier. Its role is greatly expanded through the addition of completely new material. The Dossier now has a major function in the plot development and in creating the characters of both Kurtz and Willard.
Kurtz's Dossier appears seven times in the film. It's first introduced in the scene with the General. Lucas drops the Dossier so we can see from a distance some of the documents in it. The film develops six moments during Willard's journey on the boat in which he examines the documents and reflects on their contents (Colby's letter is a seventh document moment).
- The plot function of the Dossier.
In the scene with the General, the introduction of the Dossier initiates the plot. Willard is given a photo of Colonel Kurtz. As Lucas hands him the photo, he accidentally knocks the Dossier on to the floor. This "accident" is a brilliant means of introducing the Dossier to the viewers. Later on when Willard begins to look at the Dossier, the viewers understand what he's doing.
Willard then listens to the tape, which is the General's proof that Kurtz has gone insane. The tape convinces Willard and he accepts his mission to journey upriver to assassinate Kurtz. So the plot is set in motion.
A major artistic challenge was how to create dramatic suspense during the journey upriver. The encounter with Kurtz is a long time and distance away, so how create on-going engagement with Willard's mission? The answer is the Dossier. The Dossier appears six times during the course of the jouney to sustain interest in Willard's mission (See: Kurtz's Dossier).
But the Dossier has an even more important plot function: It becomes the means by which the real story emerges, which is Willard's gradual discovery of the discrepancy between what he was told about Kurtz by the General and what he learns from the Dossier and what he sees on the journey. The drama of the Dossier is completed as Willard tears up the documents and we see Kurtz's photo floating down stream just before they reach Kurtz in the flesh. When Willard finally confronts Colonel Kurtz, he has a completely different view of his mission than the one given to him by the General.
- Creating the character of Colonel Kurtz.
Another challenge was how to create a dramatically engaging Colonel Kurtz when he doesn't actually appear until near the end of the film. Coppola read his Heart of Darkness very closely because he uses the same technique Conrad used for creating his Kurtz. Conrad used the method of indirection. He has Marlow, his central character, find out about Kurtz indirectly through what others say about him, through hearing Kurtz's actual words from others, by finding Kurtz's painting of "Blind Justice," and by reading Kurtz's Report on Savage Customs. Kurtz is always vividly present as Marlow moves upriver, even though Marlow doesn't meet him in the flesh until late in the story.
Coppola uses the contents of the Dossier as a similar means of creating Colonel Kurtz's character.
- The photographs of Kurtz are key. Willard sees the first photograph of Kurtz in the interview with the General. The photo shows Kurtz as a clean-cut, handsome man--the model officer. Numerous photographs of Kurtz are used throughout Willard's exploration of the Dossier. It's a subtle detail of character development that the last photograph of Kurtz is a shocking, dark image of a hugh imposing figure who looks nothing like the Kurtz of the opening photo. These recurring photographs of Kurtz keep him vividly in the mind of Willard and the audience.
- Coppola also uses official documents effectively. Willard reads through lots of documents that track Kurtz's puzzling decision to give up his promising military future to join special services and return to Vietnam as a Colonel.
- Another important item is the Newsweek article: "Operation Archangel: Big Hit." This article includes the standard miltary photo of Kurtz, but, more importantly, indicates what went wrong with Kurtz. He got off the boat. He was acting on his own. And being successful.
- The photographs of the South Vietnam double agents and the numerous photos of atrocities and what they mean are all important aspects of developing Kurtz's character.
- The final key document in the Dossier is Kurtz's letter to his son. This is the last document that Willard reads and the most important dramatically. Willard's ends his study of the Dossier with reading Kurtz's own words. In his letter, Kurtz expresses his concern that his son understand what he has been doing. He give a powerful analysis of the war and an eloquent defense of his actions--words which are in dramatic contrast to his words on the General's tape that made him appear to be insane.
- However, the Dossier alone would not have worked. The key is Willard reading and thinking about the what the Dossier means. Again, Coppola follows Conrad's lead. Marlow is the one who makes Kurtz come alive throughout his journey. He is the reflective consciousness who hears the words about Kurtz, who observes what's going on in the Congo--the slavery, the corruption, the insanity of the European bearers of the torch of enlightenment into the heart of darkness. He's the one who meditates on Kurtz's words and deeds.
- Coppola creates the same kind of character in Willard. Willard is the one who observes, reads and reflects on the Dossier. Coppola uses two elements of the film medium to create this aspect of Willard's character.
Coppola employs a first-person voice-over of Willard speaking--telling what's going on--to those outside the story-world ( See:Narration in Film for a discussion of the nature of first-person voice-over).
Willard's voice-overs are beautifully written, spoken and acted. This isn't the place to discuss the artistic issues in these voice-overs (See:Narration in Film). The important point here is to understand how the voice-overs function in the six Dossier scenes. In each scene, Willard's voice is central to the scene (See: Kurtz's Dossier). He is the one who interprets the photos and documents. Without his reflections--questions and thoughts--the Dossier would be meaningless. By the end of his trip after reading and thinking about the Dossier, he has a very different undertanding of Kurtz than he had at the General's interview.
Willard's face--especially his eyes-- plays a major role in creating his character. Coppola picks up on Conrad. Marlow is above all an observer. He sees what's going on. He sees the absurdity of the French Gunboat firing into the silent jungle. He sees the insanity of pretending to make a railroad in the jungle. He observes the Accountant who keeps absolutely perfect accounting books a few feet away from the Grove of death. He sees and reflects on the terrible discrepancy between the Europeans rhetoric about bringing truth and enlightment to the dark continent and the realities of greed and destruction.
- Willard's reaction-shots serve much the same function in Apocalypse Now. Coppola's standard move is to take Willard through an experience--the encounter with Kilgore or the Sampan massacre--and constantly cut to Williard's face. The focus is on his eyes. He always has a look of dismay--he can't believe what he's seeing.
Coppola uses the reaction-shot technique to great effect in the Dossier scenes. As we hear his voice reading and reflecting on the Dossier we also constantly see his facial reactions.
- Artistic issues in the Dossier scenes.
Because there are so many examples of brilliant filmmaking in Apocalypse Now, it is easy to overlook the artful ways Coppola develops the Dossier scenes. There are a number of artistic issues in placing so much story significance in such non-dramatic scenes---Willard looking at photographs and reading documents. Furthermore, there is a fundamental problem in making Voice-over so central to the meaning of the action. The problem is this: Voice-over automatically splits apart the sound and the image. In dialogue scenes the words are in sync with the actor--the talking head. But a voice over an image has no intrinsic relationship to the image. That is, what you hear doesn't automatically fit with what you see. What is the relationship between the voice and the image going to be? The audience must be able to understand what the voice is saying otherwise the sequence becomes incomprehensible. But if the voice is central, what should the image contain? The artistic challenge is to make the voice and the image work together--the words comprehensible and the content of the image engaging but not distracting.
- I believe that Coppola has effectively resolved the artistic issues in the Dossier sequences. I want to show exactly how he does it. In order to do so, I'm going to analyze two of the Dossier sequences in some detail. The first scene on the boat as Willard begins his journey to Kurtz and the fourth scene in which Willard remembers his encounter with the General.
- The First Dossier Scene.
Here is the shot sequence (See: Kurtz's Dossier for Willard's VO).
- Close-up of Willard opening up the Dossier. VO begins.
- CU of Kurtz's resume.
- Slow dissolve to CU of Kurtz's photo (same one as in General scene).
- Extreme CU of Willard's profile. Gestures communicate he's reading, thinking.
- CU of documents. Willard thumbing through them.
- Slow dissolve to long shot of boat moving in the river.
- Dissolve back to the ECU of Willard's profile. Puts cig. in mouth. Concentrates on reading.
- ECU of document: Confidential. Willard leaves through them as he tells us they're Kurtz's requests for airborne training.
- ECU of Willard's profile. Reading and smoking. Turns his head--gesture of thinking.
- CU of photo of Kurtz getting commissioned.
- Martin Sheen's voice quality and delivery are perfect. His bass voice with its resonant sound is mesmerizing. He speaks his lines slowly and the pacing is perfectly in sync with the images. His voice communicates his surprise at what he reads--that the resume doesn't fit the picture of Kurtz he had from the General. His voice conveys the rhythms of thinking out-loud as he struggles to make sense of what he's seeing and reading.
- The images work beautifully. Viewers can understand what they see because each image is in close-up and easily readable. We can understand the resume and the documents partially because we can read them ourselves, but mostly because Willard's voice tells us what they mean.
- Coppola hit on a nice variation on the close-up of Willard. We never see him in full face, but only in profile. This extreme close-up of his profile is unexpected, but effective--the profile of a man reading. Coppola uses the same shot three times out of the 10 shots. The profile is not only visually engaging in itself, but it allows Sheen to do some effective facial acting. In each of the shots, Sheen moves his features to communicate he is concentrating hard in reading and trying to understand what he's seeing. In two of the shots, he gestures with his cigarette, which also helps communicate his act of concentrated thinking. All his facial gestures are in perfect sync with the puzzled and questioning tone of his voice.
- Notice the sixth shot: a dissolve to a long shot of the boat. What's the function of this shot? It's to orient the audience to the location of the action and to remind them that the boat is heading up-river to Kurtz.
- Finally, the photographs. The third shot dissolves into a close-up of Kurtz's photo--the same one as in the scene with the General. This Dossier sequence ends with another photograph of Kurtz. Two photographs to keep Colonel Kurtz vividly in our minds.
- This sequence is crucial in the plot development because it begins Willard's discovery of the discrepancy between the interpretation of Kurtz he received from the General and the Kurtz he finds in the Dossier. Each Dossier sequence functions to bring Willard a little better understanding of this discrepancy.
- Dossier Scene #4
Here is the shot sequence (See: Kurtz's Dossier for Willard's VO).
- Medium high angle shot of Willard looking down at something. VO begins.
- Willard's pov shot of what he's looking at: series of photographs of natives.
- Dissolve to CU of "Top Secret" Ivory IV Classified. Camera tilts down to show ID photos of South Vietnamese army officers.
- Extreme CU of "War Office" cover. On the other side is photograph of Kurtz.
- Extreme CU of Willard's eyes. Eyes flick up and an aural memory begins: the voice of the General at the meeting.
- Dissolves into a flashback memory sequence of the General. ECU of General's hand, name tag. Willard's voice now alternates with fragments of the General's voice as the camera pans left to the General's hand holding a glass.
- CU of the map and Lucas talking about Kurtz with the natives. Alternates Lucas' voice with Willard's VO.
- Dissolve to ECU of Willard's left eye. With Lucas' voice talking about the natives.
- Willard's pov shot of photo of the natives. Willard leaves through a series of photos of dead bodies. Willard pencils on the map and looks at more photos of bodies.
- Return to opening shot of Willard.
- Coppola varies his technique for composing each of the Dossier sequences. They are all visually different, yet the construction of each is simple. A series of cuts and dissolves between Willard's face and the documents, with an occasional shot of the boat moving upriver. Yet each sequence is imaginatively different in terms of the shots and their arrangement.
- This fourth Dossier sequence is of central importance to the plot function of the Dossier. In this sequence, Willard realizes the real reason that the General wants him to assassinate Kurtz. It's not that Kurtz has gone beyond all humane limits in his killing, it's not because he is insane. The real reason is that Kurtz has refused to follow orders. He has broken away from the Army hierarchy and is fighting the war on his own terms. Willard discovers that Kurtz assassinated double agents and he was right to do so. His actions were effective. But that doesn't matter to the Military command. What matters is following orders.
- So how does Coppola use the resources of the medium to construct this moment of Willard's epiphany?
- First, he combines the shots of the photos of the natives and the ID photos of the South Vietnamese with the voice-over which interprets the meaning of the images. Willard tells us that Kurtz was right about them--they were double agents. And furthermore, that Kurtz's action in assassinating them was militarily effective.
- Then a cut to an extreme close-up of "War Office" cover and a quick flip reveals the photo of Kurtz.
- Then the technical tour-de-force begins. First a cut to an extreme close-up of Willard's eyes. His eyes flick up and suddenly Coppola introduces an aural memory sequence. Willard hears in his head the words of the General about Kurtz. A brilliant move to construct the complexity of what is going on within Willard's mind. His realization about Kurtz 's assassinating the double agents triggers his memory of the General's accusations against Kurtz.
- The introduction of the aural memory then dissolves into a full-blown memory flashback of the General.
- Notice the visual and aural complexity of this memory flashback.
- First, Coppola shows only an extreme close-up of the General's hand and body. He never shows his face. The shot focuses only on his body gestures as his voice drones on about Kurtz. Why not a flash-back to the whole scene? The reason is that the dramatic force of the images would shift the scene completely into the past. Coppola wants to maintain this memory in the present tense of Willard on the boat.
- Second, the complexity of the sound. Coppola mixes Willard's present voice-over with the sound memory of the General's words. He alternates the voices in such a way that we are able to hear fragments of the General's speech in between the cadences of Willard's voice-over. This is a brilliant stroke of construction because Willard's voice keeps us anchored in the present, while the image and the General's words simulate the memory that is taking place in Willard's head simultaneous with his VO.
- The seventh shot continues the technique. It continues Willard's memory flashback, now of a close-up of only Lucas' pointing to the map where Kurtz was with his Montegnards rather than the complete scene. Again, fragments of Lucas' words are carefully synced with Willard's VO.
- Dissolve to a startling ECU of Willard's left eye as an aural memory of Lucas' words about the natives drone on.
- What is the point of this complex juxtaposing of Willard's memories and his VO? It's the decisive moment because he realizes that the General's intrepretation: "his methods were unsound," that his leading of the natives was a bursting of the bounds of civilization was in fact a false interpretation of what Kurtz was doing.
- The next shot is W's pov of looking at the photographs of the natives. But he sees these with new eyes. He understands now that he had been lied to. That Kurtz "kept winning it his way." That "They lost him. He was gone." And that was the real reason they wanted Kurtz killed.