Apocalypse Now 1979 as A Source for Historians


Final Project of the online course: Film, Images & Historical Interpretation in the 20th Century: The Camera Never Lies by Dr Emmett Sullivan, Senior Tutor and Dilara Scholz (Tutor, Department of History, History Department, Royal Holloway, University of London) from by University of London & Royal Holloway, University of London

For any film, television programme or documentary (FTVPoD) you have watched with a strong historical theme, discuss how it represents the historical incident or period it depicts, and how it might be used a source by historians today or in the future?

Apocalypse Now is a very well-made movie, that won many prizes, known especially because of the art of its director Francis Ford Coppola. Besides the stories around the production of the movie, I think that it is important to mention how Coppola adapted the book (Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad) which was about late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War story. Using the theme from the novel changes the setting to a completely different story. I read some articles years ago after watching the movie that Coppola’s point of view in this movie about the Vietnam War and how at that time, from pre-production to writing the scripts and finding a producer to post-production and screening, he decided to tell a story about Vietnam war in a very critique perspective, while it wasn’t that much common at the time to criticize the things that were going on during the war in the American’s bases.
So we have a historical movie (why historical: because it is about a real event (the main event is) the Vietnam War, but it’s not about the war itself), We have a novel (a story which is fiction, not a historical source), we have the director and the crews that have solid knowledge about the war and the material he is using (the book and the script). I think it is worth mentioning that in the first place, this is a movie, and the first purpose of this medium is for entertainment and also, obviously, making profits from that.
We should consider that because of the elements and basics of scriptwriting – we have to expect even in the documentary films that other proposes like making people think about an event or a situation or an issue or raising awareness, becomes important maybe as much as the main purpose which is entertaining – the dramaturgy is one of the most process that the story should goes through. So we cannot expect in the first place and in general that a movie can be considered purely as a historical recourse because it’s manipulated even a bit. We can also debate about the possibility of considering documentary films as a resource as well. While the director decides the Lenz they would choose, and also how to frame the picture, editing, cutting, and color corrections, etc., all of these processes are altering reality, so I believe that we should be careful while we are using any of these mediums as our sources.
With all these (this should be a short article so I wouldn’t continue the debate), apocalypse now, I think we can use it as one of our sources to gain knowledge about a historical event but a different perspective of that not the only and true perspective, and not the starting point as well. this movie represents the war in a very good theme and appealing and entertaining way, Try to look at the war critically and not tell the stories that had been told by the authorities and try to make us rethink about it.
To sum up, because in the movie Coppola adds many side points that existed during the war and hadn’t been told and considered by news and common people, I think it worth watching and thinking about them, besides thinking about the reason for the war itself we should try to also look at the things were going on and happening during the war as well.


Written by: Mohsen Ebrahimizadeh Ghahrood

8, Feb, 2023 Bologna

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