By Jessica Mookherjee

Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poem. This week is an almost overwhelming ekphrasis (art responding to art) that needs a PHD thesis, not my few words in this poetry blog. I am tackling Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now (which is a re telling of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness) and TS Eliot’s 1925 Poem, The Hollow Men.

This mesmerising cinematic experience may well be one of the finest films, certainly the best cinema describing war’s horror, colonialism and power. Coppola also tackles art, beauty and transcendence. Coppola shows man’s ability to make art, write poetry, novels, have love and create gods. But he asks, as Elliot asks, for what? The film is set in the Vietnam war and set in Cambodia. It is not told from the point of view of the locals. It is Willard (Martin Sheen)’s journey to go ‘up river’, fulfil his mission to the US Military chiefs to assassinate Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is a US military hero gone insane, running amok and posing a threat to the US military. The rewatching of this film alongside Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ gave me a deep meditation on the nature of war and domination.

Apocalypse Now is narrated by Willard (Sheen). Willard (Sheen) goes with a group of soldiers down a beautiful river – and the soldiers joke about, dream of home, they are kidslistening to pop songs. One (Lance) is a vain surfer boy who just wants to get a sun tan and play with face paint. They talk about the amazing nature and country in disparaging terms “the godam villages” and “asshole of the world”. Willardobserves what war does to the men, they come to know only brutality and fear. He learns this is a “War run by four star clowns who would give the circus away”

Willard realises that his mission, like the war, is divorced from any morality or justice. All are disposable in the pursuitof power and he can not understand what that power is for. He asks over again “who is the commanding officer here?” – when he sees situations descending into chaos. The only moments of tenderness are suggested and brief, either with women, who can only look on powerlessly, or between the soldiers – briefly in death. “All soldiers know they are already dead”. 

T.S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men was written in 1925, in the wake of the 1914-18 war and after he wrote the Wasteland. It is free verse poem in 5 short sections, begins with allusions to Conrad’s book and to a stuffed straw man. It follows the journey of straw men, devoid of logic or morals – who can only cry ‘alas’ and sing childish nursery rhymes, yet are heartbreakingly aware of their empty lives as they travel down a river into horror “death’s dream kingdom”. They are clothed in 

“such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field 

Behaving as the wind behaves 

No nearer- 

Not that final meeting

In the twilight kingdom”

TS Eliot birthed modernist poetry, poetry that didn’t have to rhyme or follow the orders of form, but contained rhythm, music and image. He was asking questions of what it meant to be a person in this new technological world that could look back to classical art and poetry yet create machines and chemicals that could kill and brutalise, subjugate and dominate. Elliot was interested in the ordinary people who could not make sense of their little lives in the vast swathes of murder, poverty, illness and history that they got swept up in. Eliot writes – in their voices, of weakness and pity,

“In this last of meeting places 

We grope together 

And avoid speech 

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

Apocalypse Now is also a film about words, having words and no words – for this utter horror show of a world we live in. Coppola and scriptwriter Millius give weight to this in the use of pop music (the Doors) and poetry. There is a scene where Willard visits rich French colonialists and they tell him the nature of colonialism and how the domination of the land and people is important – and that’s the problem, the American’s don’t understand either. A little boy is made to recite Baudelaire’s poem “The Albatross” to his father. “A cruel poem for children because life is very cruel”. Here the passing of the cruelty from generation to generation is done through words, through poems.

Finally, Willard meets Kurtz. Kurtz dismisses Willard asneither soldier or assassin – but simply an “errand boy set by grocery clerks to collect a bill”. 

On Kurtz’s table are the books that inspired TS Eliot to write the Wasteland and Kurtz recites “The Hollow Men”. In the film it is only the beginning of the poem that is recited – but here is a YouTube of the longer cut Coppola made of Brando reading the whole poem.

In Brando’s recitation of TS Eliot’s words, which in turn are inspired by Conrad’s book – which in turn has inspired this film, we see a deeper take on what we have watched, by the body of Brando who is the “Hollow Man”, and by his understanding of his situation – transcends it. Elliot and Coppola, both modernist poets, do the age old job of the poet, to tell tales of war and the heroes of war. They do it, like Kurtz, with awareness of poetry, with images of beauty. Yet Willard is no hero (unlike Kurtz) – he does his job with no understanding, leads no men, returns to a culture with no understanding of the ancient worlds they destroy, and for what? Both poem and film are beautiful tales of absolute horror.

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