I Ran the Movie “Apocalypse Now” Through Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth Theory
Here’s the result.
Teacher and mythologist Joseph Campbell is the inventor of the Monomyth, better known as “The Hero’s Journey.”
The Monomyth says that all stories — ancient and au courant — follow a single thread of adventure. This is true for myths and religions. This is true for fables and allegories.
For example, Jesus’ path to the cross was parallel to Siddhartha’s discovery of the “Middle Way.” That one happened in Palestine and the other among the foothills of the Himalayas makes their commonality all the more remarkable.
The details, however, may vary. Widely.
Every story or legend or fairy tale does not pass through each stage cleanly. It’s easy to find one cocking his eye while reading A Hero with a Thousand Faces as you watch Campbell stretch a yarn to fit his framework. And this, say critics, is its biggest failure (not to mention a male bias).
What would be better to say is that the absurdly scholastic Campbell spotted patterns among the hundreds of stories he read. He then began to group and classify these patterns until he came up with seventeen common stages.
These are broken up into three categories as follows:
- The call to adventure
- The refusal of the call
- Supernatural aid
- Crossing the threshold
- Belly of the whale
- The road of trials
- The meeting with the goddess
- Woman as temptress
- Atonement with the father
- The ultimate boon
- Refusal of the return
- The magic flight
- Rescue from without
- The crossing of the return threshold
- Master of two worlds
- Freedom to live
When A Hero with a Thousand Faces was publish in 1949, Campbell and his Monomyth found a warm welcome. A nation accustomed to the psychoanalyst’s couch couldn’t get enough of his Freudian-shaped view of how stories are structured.
Campbell continued to teach, lecture, and interview throughout his life, reaching an apex of fame with the Bill Moyer documentary The Power of Myth, which aired in 1988, a year after Campbell’s death. Perhaps Campbell and his popular theory might have faded away like any good fad if not for George Lucas and his little Star Wars story.
As Lucas told authors Stephen and Robin Larsen:
It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs…so I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.
The Matrix, Indiana Jones, and Batman movies are all thought to be influenced by the Monomyth. This got me thinking. What woud it look like to run an unconventional movie through the Monomyth wringer?
Take the anti-Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now.
(From here on out all caps indicate stages in the Monomyth.)
Benjamin L. Millard, a demented Army Captain is hauled out of his ordinary world (terrifying nightmares during the night and hard liquor binges – with a little bit of dancing in your underwear, hallucinations, and punching mirrors thrown in – by day) and brought to an undisclosed mobile home somewhere in Vietnam.
In this creepy scene involving a near-pubescent Harrison Ford, Millard is given a mission … a top secret assignment to assassinate a Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
This is Millard’s CALL TO ADVENTURE.
And this is where Millard has the opportunity to REFUSE THE CALL, which is a plausible idea. Who really wants to ride up the Nung river into the remote jungle to kill someone who commands a troop of mountain people who worship him as a god?
But to REFUSE THE CALL means the end of the story. Besides, what’s Millard’s alternative? Go back to Saigon and descend into his own personal hell in a hotel room again?
Instead, he accepts and CROSSES THE THRESHOLD.
Note, there was no SUPERNATURAL AID in Apocalypse Now, unless you regard bare-chested Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duval), keen surfer and lover of the aroma of napalm, as a supernatural aid.
Another plausible idea.
Kilgore was the only one who stood calmly during an artillery assault on his troops. To boot, Kilgore was the one screaming during heavy gun fire that “When he says it is safe to surf … it is safe to surf.” Here is a man who holds providence in his hand.
After a little surfing, Kilgore and his crew cover for Willard and the Navy PBR that he’s joined. They get the PBR to the mouth of the river. Willard and Co. quickly make their way upriver away from Kilgore.
Traveling up river they are clearly in the BELLY OF THE WHALE, the place where they are separated from the ordinary world. This is also where Willard begins to change as he learns about his mark, Kurtz. Kurtz doesn’t seem like the type of man the government would want to kill. Something is wrong.
Up the Nung river Willard and Co. encounter a tiger, a Playboy Playmates show gone bad at a USO supply depot, a boat full of civilians whom antsy gunner Mr. Clean (a young Lawrence Fishburne) kills, and a chaotic US outpost at a bridge under siege. Moreover, Willard and the captain of the boat are at each other’s throats during this upriver journey. It is safe to call this portion of the movie THE ROAD OF TRIALS.
Furthermore, the Playboy Playmates scene might fit the WOMAN AS TEMPTRESS stage. Learning about Kurtz’s love for his wife and family in letters among his dossier that Willard’s been reading could be THE MEETING WITH THE GODDESS, where love and marriage of the hero occur – only in this version it’s been marginally perverted.
Willard finally reaches his target, which turns out to be a pagan idolatry dream come true: armed half-naked natives mill about while decapitated bodies cover the banks of the river.
In this environment, we meet a euphoric, chain-smoking photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who is an avid disciple of Kurtz. He utters one of the best lines in the movie:
Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…
The natives bind Willard and drag him to Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) quarters. Kurtz, who is suffering from malaria, wipes his head and neck down with a wet rag as he interrogates Willard. Kurtz knows Willard has come to kill him, but he eventually releases Willard, who roams the compound unmolested.
This meeting might be rendered ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER, given that Kurtz does not kill Willard, but instead ends up sharing his thoughts about war, civilization, and humanity — theories informed by poems like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Viet Cong policies. Willard becomes a disciple.
Willard, however, out of mercy rather than duty, kills Kurtz with a machete. Simultaneously, a real-live water buffalo is slaughtered. No CGI here, which is why the American Humane Association gave the movie an “unacceptable” rating. But since this scene was filmed in Philippines it wasn’t subject to American animal cruelty laws.
Finally, Willard drags the remaining crew member of the boat (one of the original four, the surfer dude whom Kilgore adored and has been on LSD since they CROSSED THE THRESHOLD) away from the natives and the compound, and the movie ends with them driving the boat away.
Roll the credits. The entire return stages of the Monomyth are skipped.
That’s right. No rest for Willard, which would be the APOTHEOSIS, a period of tranquility before the RETURN. Rather a transition from one nightmare to the next. One psychological, the other physical.
Moreover, it’s hard to understand exactly what Willard learned as THE ULTIMATE BOON – which would’ve been some kind of gift (an artifact or piece of knowledge) – that he can take back to civilization. Options, of course, include Kurtz’s manuscript and audio recordings. More sentimental would be Kurtz’s request that Willard tell his son everything about him.
One could argue that Willard REFUSED THE RETURN, given his growing distaste for the American government, but his sense of obligation to Kurtz’s son suggests he’d do otherwise.
THE MAGIC FLIGHT, an escape from the other world with the boon, that could be dangerous, comical, or both, is a fleeting, short scene: he drives away in the boat, the outboard motor churning the river water.
And there are no guides to RESCUE Willard FROM WITHOUT or to help him during THE CROSSING OF THE RETURN THRESHOLD, because it is more than likely he avoids anything that smacks of civilization.
And it’s debatable whether Willard has become comfortable in his own skin or in this world, so he’s no MASTER OF TWO WORLDS, rather the anti-hero. That’s natural given Apocalypse Now is an anti-war movie.
The one bright spot in this Monomyth tale might be that Willard has the FREEDOM TO LIVE, without fear of death. Death, as indicated in the killing of Kurtz, is a gift. A mercy. There are greater horrors in this world to face than death. Which is probably a message all in itself. I’ll leave you to figure that out on your own.