Leeming’s Monomyth in Regards to Apocalypse Now

Published: 2021-07-18 13:25:05
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John Jarvis Mythology 211 October 1, 2012 Apocalypse Now Redux: Symbolically Mythology Nothing affixes attention, especially in literature and cinematic entertainment, more readily than a hero. Heroes and their journeys are the central focuses in many famous stories, either ancient or modern. The idea of the journey of a hero and their triumph is referred to as a monomyth, and there are a few approaches to determining if a story is or is not a monomyth. In his book Mythology: The Voyage of a Hero, David Adams Leeming proposes a method that involves eight steps or phases that coincide with the life and journey of the hero.
Many of our culture’s most revered and acclaimed movies fit the description of a monomyth, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux. The entire movie takes place during the Vietnam War and depicts the hero, Army Special Operations Captain Willard, on his quest up a river to kill a psychotic Army officer, Colonel Kurtz. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux coincides with David Adams Leeming’s method of a monomyth because Captain Willard symbolically undergoes every aspect of Leeming’s eight part process.
Leeming’s system first starts off with the birth of the hero, and the first scene of the movie corresponds to this point perfectly. The scene begins with Captain Willard in a hotel drinking heavily, and he eventually makes a very gloomy aside. In his aside, Willard states that he is back in Vietnam and that when he is back in America he can’t stand the fact that he is not in Vietnam. Willard notions to the fact that now that he is back he feels like he has a purpose, and it becomes apparent to the audience that the war has consumed Willard’s life.



Near the end of the hotel scene, two NCOs find Willard in an extremely drunken state and wash him in the shower in order to make him presentable enough to receive his next mission. While Willard is not literally being born, the act of the NCO’s washing him and making him new so that he can go back to performing secret missions, in a sense his life, is symbolic of birth or in some ways rebirth. Now that the hero has been born, the next phase in Leeming’s method is that the hero is made aware of greater forces, usually those which the hero will eventually face.
The segment in the movie that relates to this point occurs immediately after the hotel scene, when Captain Willard is briefed about his mission by a few higher ranking military officers. The officers inform Willard that his mission is to kill a rogue and mentally unstable special operations officer, Colonel Kurtz. Colonel Kurtz was once a highly decorated and respected officer, but the briefing officers inform Willard that Kurtz is now acting on his own accord killing at will with an army of people following him who worship him like a god.
By the end of the briefing, Willard is made aware of the greater force that he must face. After the hero is made aware of greater forces, Leeming notes that the hero withdrawals for a period of time to prepare to face the greater force. A little while after the briefing, Captain Willard boards a boat and orders the crew to take him up river. Willard takes time to reflect, in the form of another internal aside, upon his mission in the time before he and the crew run in to anything on the river.
Willard shows his concern for the rather novice and oblivious boat crew. He also wonders about what exactly he will encounter on the river, what he will find out about Colonel Kurtz when he finds him, and what Willard will ultimately find out about himself. Following the hero’s preparation to endure their quest, the next step is for the hero to embark on their journey. On this journey, a hero typically displays traits that affirm that he or she is in fact a hero. Likewise, Captain Willard exhibits several examples that affirm his heroic demeanor.
An instance where Willard shows that he has concern for his subordinates, the boat crew, occurs when he trades supplies at an outpost so that the boat crew can have a few hours with a couple of playboy bunnies that are stranded at the outpost. Another example of Willard’s concern for his men happens when they encounter a French plantation further down the river. One of the members of the boat crew had been killed, and Willard requested the permission to bury him on the plantation. Willard also illustrates the concept of putting the mission first when the boat crew, against Willard’s orders, searches a Vietnamese shanty boat.
The crew mistakenly fires on the innocent Vietnamese civilians on the boat, which leaves one of the civilians alive. Rather than he and the crew having to deal with the well-being of the civilian, Willard kills her and tells his men that they should have listened. Once the hero has undergone the main leg of their journey, Leeming states that the hero experiences a symbolic death. Captain Willard experiences this symbolic death when he and the crew arrive at Colonel Kurtz’s compound. They are immediately over whelmed by the vast number of followers Kurtz has brain washed, the most of whom being an American reporter.
In another aside, Willard constantly uses words and phrases to make the compound seem extremely horrific and hell-like. Willard also realizes that the only reason that he and the crew have not been over whelmed and killed is because Kurtz wants him alive, but Willard makes comments to suggest that he is already dead internally. When the reporter takes Willard to meet Kurtz, he tells one member of the crew who stays on the boat to call in an airstrike on the compound if he is not back within a certain amount of time. The next step in Leeming’s process, after the symbolic death of the hero, is the hero confronts death while in the underworld.
Captain Willard’s first meeting with Colonel Kurtz represents this point very well, with Kurtz embodying the force of death. Kurtz informs Willard that he has been expecting someone like him and asks Willard why he has been sent. Willard tells Kurtz that it is because Kurtz has gone completely insane, a fact that Willard backs up. Kurtz then states that Willard is insignificant and imprisons him. While Willard is imprisoned, Kurtz throws the head of the crew member who was to call in the airstrike on Willard’s lap, showing that Willard is truly helpless.
Leeming notes that after the hero has confronted death in the underworld, the hero experiences a rebirth and a passing on of knowledge. This passing on of knowledge occurs after Captain Willard’s first meeting with Colonel Kurtz. The brain washed reporter visits Willard while he is imprisoned and states that the reason Kurtz is keeping Willard alive is because the reporter believes Kurtz is sick of being praised as a false idol and is internally dying himself. The reporter says that after Kurtz is dead that Willard will be the one to tell the world what happened at the compound.
This encounter is what relights Willard’s internal fire, in a way resurrecting him from the symbolic hell he was in. Willard gains highly significant knowledge in his prolonged second meeting with Kurtz, in which an internal strife builds inside Willard because he begins to harbor affinity for Kurtz. In the meeting, Kurtz explains his position on war and how it should be carried out. Kurtz states that a perfect soldier is moral, but knows when to at times forget his moralistic views and use his primordial instincts to discern what the right course of action is.
However, Kurtz notes that common soldiers do not operate in such a way which is their downfall. Willard, eve concludes that he must operate on these instincts if he is to conquer Kurtz. The final stage of Leeming’s model to prove a hero, occurring after the hero’s rebirth and a passing on of knowledge, is the hero ascends from the earth and escapes the cycle of the world. With the compound in this case symbolizing earth and the war representing the cycle from which Captain Willard will escape.
Willard reaches these ends by letting his instincts take control, killing Kurtz at the same time Kurtz’s followers are sacrificing a bull in Kurtz’s honor. Willard then boards the boat and escapes with the one remaining crew member. Even though Willard had grown to in a way admire Kurtz towards the end, Willard implemented what he had learned by operating off his natural instincts he was able to make the right choice. The notion that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux is a modern day monomyth is bolstered by the fact that Captain Willard symbolically experiences every phase in David Adams Leeming’s method of defining a monomyth.
Even though Apocalypse Now Redux is a work of fiction, the concept of basing a story around a heroic figure is a staple of literature in our culture. Real people who act in a heroic manner will continue to inspire such stories. Hopefully, society will never see the day where stories based around heroes cease to be written; because that would mean that the people who inspire those tales will have disappeared. Works Cited Apocalypse Now Redux. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall. 1979. Miramax Films, 2001. Film.

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