Sensing Something More: Sensory Images and Descriptions in APOCALYPSE NOW
13 March 2011
Apocalypse Now didn’t win many Academy Awards, but Oscar recognized the film for Best Cinematography. This award seems fitting because the camerawork transports the audience directly to the deepest, darkest, most horrific scenes from the Vietnam War. There is no doubt the film is truly engrossing, but is it simply the cinematography that takes Apocalypse Now’s audience into the jungle?
The only other Academy Award Apocalypse Now earned was Best Sound. Although the film’s cinematography is brilliant, the Best Sound Oscar comes closer to identifying what is so enthralling about the film.
Apocalypse Now is sensory cinema. Frequently, the character’s trauma is highlighted through sensory memories. Moreover, parallel to the character’s sensory experiences, the film reaches the audience’s senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. By way of the mesmerizing cinematography, sensory images and descriptions repeatedly occur, causing the audience to fully experience the character’s ordeals just as they do.
Willard (Martin Sheen) is able to consciously suppress the traumas of war throughout most of the film, but is instantly thrown back in the jungle when something triggers his senses. The opening of the film is a sensory experience for Willard. In Saigon, lying in bed, existing somewhere between sleep and consciousness, he hears his ceiling fan, which is similar to the sound of a helicopter. This sound unavoidably transports him back to the jungle, causing him to relive this trauma.
This opening montage is as much a sensory experience for the audience as it is for Willard. Initially, the audience sees vibrant fire completely engulf dense forestry in the blink of an eye. The brutal image is as entrancing as it is horrific. Additionally, images in this opening montage are superimposed, so, as the audience sees Willard’s sweat covered face, visually, the fire in the forest is burning right on his mind. The dual images of fire and sweat effectively make the audience feel heat. Like Willard, the audience also hears the fan and sees the helicopters. Also, during this sequence, Willard lights up a cigarette. The smoke from the fire matches the smoke from Willard’s cigarette. All of a sudden, the all too familiar smell of cigarette smoke lingers in front of the audiences’ noses. In this one— less than four minute—sequence, nearly all the senses are alerted by the film.
The film maintains this play on senses (both audience’s and the character’s) through the film by using a variety of tactics. The sound effect of flies swarming in the jungle is use repeatedly to heighten anxiety. This maddening buzzing reminds the audience of their presence in the jungle and of the deterioration of humanity. Also, the character “Chef” (Frederic Forrest) takes Willard on a quest for mangos at one point. As they walk, “Chef” tells Willard of his skills as a saucier from New Orleans and how the Army lured him to enlist by placing a table full of prime rib in front of him, promising him a culinary education. Detailing such rare, delicious flavors is a tasty distraction from the horrors of Vietnam, which has the audiences’ mouths watering as much as the character’s. Lastly, during the helicopter attack, Kilgore (Robert Duvall) mentions the smell of napalm and shares a previous experience with the potent odor. Instantly, upon smelling the gasoline, Kilgore is transported back to another battle. The smell not only triggers a memory, but also reaffirms Kilgore’s (over)confidence; he associates the smell of napalm with “victory.” He revels in the good fortune of the smell despite the chaos and danger surrounding him. And, in mentioning the strong, but common stench of gasoline, the audience’s sense of smell is altered.
Additionally, this sensory experience is sometimes achieved by withholding a sense. For example, Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) face is never made completely visible, to Willard or the audience. Symbolically, concealing Kurtz’s face represents how neither Willard nor the audience fully understands the wayward Colonel. Nevertheless, in withholding Kurtz’s total image, the film is still pulling at the audience’s sense of sight.
The film’s attention to sensory images and descriptions makes a bold statement about the lasting affects war has on people. Pointing out how intricately the mind stores trauma supports one of the film’s strongest statements: the unconscious and conscious ramifications of such a horrendous trauma permanently affect the mind. Taking sensory images further, by calling on the audience’s senses, Apocalypse Now engrosses and provides a glimpse at the unconscious damage done to people in traumatic situations.