Figure 5.4 The release of Apocalypse Now was a threshold event in film sound, introducing both new technology and a new approach to using sound in film.
The recent success of films sporting stereophonic sound tracks—Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and The Deer Hunter (1979)—laid the groundwork for Coppola's innovative use of a quadraphonic sound track and the introduction of surround sound. When a prerelease version was shown at the Cannes festival, the organizers had to install additional speakers in the theater at the last minute to produce the effect as it was designed by the film's creative sound director, Walter Murch. Indeed, the now standard Hollywood term for work on a film's sound track—sound design— was coined to describe what Murch and his assistants did in Apocalypse Now.
The sound design in Coppola's popular war film supports its depiction of the Vietnam War as a conflict like no other in American history. The director is certainly attempting to portray the confusion and terror American soldiers faced in the jungles of Vietnam, as they were pitted against a determined enemy that was willing to fight to the death and yet was difficult to detect and identify. Of course, Apocalypse Now does this in a bizarre fashion, bordering at times on a satirical, picaresque depiction. This style is not intended to diminish the horror of the war but rather to capture the sheer madness of it. Coppola seems to avoid taking any particular moral stance on the war or American involvement in Vietnam, but he clearly wants to show how those Americans who participated in the war (whether generals, elite special forces, draftees, or news reporters) were at risk of losing their own sense of moral decency. Among other things, the film reveals how even the archetypal warrior among the American troops (Willard or Kurtz) was encountering new and bizarre combat situations that defied traditional conceptions about war.
Willard's voiceover clarifies the perspective of the absurdity of war, or at least of the Vietnam War, at times with pointed comments: "We rip them to shreds with machine guns and offer them a Band-Aid to patch themselves up." Yet some critics have cautioned against drawing the seemingly ready conclusion that Apocalypse Now is an antiwar film. As Saul Steier points out, the film's two warrior prototypes, Willard and Kurtz, stand out as the only two who maintain their resolve and understand the nature of the conflict. And even if Kurtz has strayed into an abyss, Willard is able to learn from Kurtz and keep the lessons he learned. Steier argues that these two characters do not manifest nostalgia for peace but for times when war was pure, when a soldier knew the rules of engagement and knew how to test his strength and will against that of the enemy. The overwhelming firepower of the American military is based on technology, but the weakness of the American soldier renders it ineffective against a more resolute enemy.
Steier goes on to suggest that in some ways the film attributes the vulnerability of the American forces to a weak society and, in particular, to the 1960s alternative youth culture that was undermining traditional American values. Against what might be the more likely way to read the film's abundance of rock music and hippie culture, he claims that the film strips this counterculture of its political critique and leaves it seeming merely decadent. Ultimately, Steier contends, the film implies that the rebellious youth movement divested the country of the strong father figure and the discipline needed to survive in a brutal world. He sees the figure of Kurtz as a father persona who has been relegated to an outlawed jungle outpost and whose only understanding son is a professional warrior sent to kill him. While critics disagree on how one should read the film's cultural and political message, most echo Steier's