Invisible Scars: "The horror, horror!" of Kurtz’ Bipolar Nihilism in Apocalypse Now

In my previous piece, Kong in Halong, I guiltily admitted that Apocalypse Now (1979) drew me to Vietnam. It wasn't just the masterful reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or the astonishing ferocity with which the film tackles the starkly jaded Vietnam tour veterans and their do-or-die missions. No, during the height of my obsession with the film, I struggled with self-medication, drug use, and abject nihilism ̶ precisely what Vietnam veterans today struggle with in the aftermath of their experience in the shit. This film showed me that even the most damaged of people can accomplish terrible, yet astonishing things. During my times of crisis, the film became a troublingly stylized blueprint for accomplishing great things in the face of sheer misery. The trick, the film seems to imply, is to give into impulses of meaninglessness and create, from whole cloth, a new set of moral standards. And this is why the movie is both incredibly important and incredibly dangerous. Kurtz’ behavior is a reflection of his environment and mental state: he fashions himself as a god among men, one whom I was willing to worship wholeheartedly.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge I draw many parallels between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and bipolar disorder. I don’t mean to equate the experiences or downplay the immense suffering veterans of all wars may endure. I only mean to demonstrate how a great director, script, actors, and all those responsible for the film have created something deeply relatable in such wildly different contexts.

Even for a comparatively sheltered millennial like myself, the film resonates so deeply because of its incredible depiction of depressive alienation and manic destabilization, two hallmarks of the lifelong struggle with my own mental states, as well as real-world consequences for PTSD sufferers. However, I didn’t have to suffer through three years of duty tours to empathize with Ben Willard’s drunken breakdown in Saigon, nor did I have to endure enough martial savagery to feel like Kurtz' metaphorical snail, crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving. All I had to do was sit back and listen to my doctor utter my diagnosis ̶ bipolar disorder.

Coppola crafted a masterpiece of suffering based on his own struggle with bipolar disorder, one that deftly uses the wartime struggle to “express the various shades of manic and depressive behaviors he had personally known.”[1] This is, in large part, why this movie is so important, both to me and others like me. The misery of alienation permeates the action, perfectly exemplified by Kurtz’ quasi-religious seclusion. Living among ancient ruins, Kurtz’ self-imposed exile is deeply reminiscent of cenobitic religions, bringing others under his wing, like “children,”  as Dennis Hopper’s raving photojournalist so cryptically calls Kurtz’ Cambodian acolytes. Kurtz channels the Christian idea of self-imposed exile with a focus on communal living, much like Christian cenobitic hermits, who, incidentally, would renounce their hermitage out of loneliness and, for the “spiritually unprepared,” stave off “mental breakdowns.”[2]I know this feeling well. When you fall into a deep depression self-imposed social exile provides something akin to comfort. Kurtz' combination of exile and cynical apotheosis takes it further: even in a meaningless, chaotic world, you can go through hell and keep going, dragging others with you along your self-destructive path.

Colonel Kurtz illustrates a truly stunning mix of personal and political mania, spattered with jungle green and blood red, that made me feel like I could channel ̶ not overcome ̶ my demons into something noteworthy. These hallmarks of the sickness and their nightmarish consequences make Apocalypse Now more than just a war film. For a long time, it was, for me, true inspiration. Interspersed among the gunfire of hidden enemies is a story of a battle that people like me fight every day, facing the attendant nihilism and despair courtesy of our wild mood swings that make accomplishing anything feel impossible.

Linh Dinh, in “Apocalypse lies,” rightly acknowledges what many wrongly assume about Apocalypse Now, namely, that it’s a movie about the Vietnam War: “It is certainly not about Vietnam. I'm not even sure it's a Vietnam war movie.” However, she misses the meaning in the absence of pathos on Kurtz’ part, dismisses the “nutcases” who dominate the film (Colonels Kilgore and Kurtz), and even goes so far as to characterize Willard’s Saigon breakdown as “someone trashing his dorm room after a frat party.” As Dinh posits, this isn’t a movie about Vietnam. I’d like to add to this, though, and posit that the film shows us our own hearts of darkness and how we cope with them. Dinh misses the moments of uncharacteristic empathy, like Kilgore’s offering of water to the wounded enemy soldier, that give these exquisitely damaged characters relatable depth. Even in our darkest hours, we can find a moment, a reason to give a shit about someone we wanted to kill moments before.

Dinh’s observations about the characters’ lack of angst or remorse reflect a very real and horrific reality not only regarding victims of PTSD, but of the alienation and destabilization that plagues those with bipolar disorder. These experiences translate to maddening and contradictory misery, summed up grimly by Kurtz himself:

“We went back there and they [the Viet Cong] had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile: a pile of little arms. And I remember I...I...I cried....And then I realized, like I was shot...The genius! The will to do that: perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who have children, who are filled with love — but they had the strength — the strength! — to do that.”

This is what the disease can do, and what Coppola understood very well, it can seamlessly blend a deceptively positive appreciation with even the most disgusting displays of inhumanity. As I stated above, in these times of horrific personal (or social) crisis, we draw on our environments, our support groups, to guide us. Kurtz’ idea of support is illustrated grimly in the above quote; he states that if he had a contingent of warriors with that level of dedication, he could win the war. When everything in your world is turned upside down, you grasp for something ̶ people, meaning, purpose ̶ and if I can be so bold, Kurtz had the worst support system imaginable.

Now, with some perspective (and heavy doses of therapy and medication), I no longer see a demigod role-model in Kurtz, but rather a man suffering and grasping for meaning in terrible violence, just as I had for many years. Kurtz rejects a sense of self, his “former” self, and descends deeper into the void of moral nihilism that affects me when I find myself unable to cope with depression. Kurtz gives in: he channels his demons, just as I once wanted to, and plans to lead an army of darkness straight out of his own blackened heart.

The question the movie ultimately presents to someone like me, and perhaps even to you, suffering from severe bipolar disorder, is: Do you slowly let your slimy belly slit open as you crawl along the razor’s edge, simply “surviving”? Or can we make peace with cutting down people only to slap a bandaid over the wound, as Willard (rather pessimistically) suggests? Stay tuned: I plan to explore this question further by hacking Willard’s character apart, perhaps just as viscerally as that water buffalo gets chopped at the end of the film.

[1] Coleman, David. The Bipolar Express: Manic Depression and the Movies. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014; 200-201.

[2] C.H. Lawrence, “Chapter 1: The Call of the Desert” in Medieval Monasticism, 3rd edition, (Toronto: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 7.