Willard and The Art of Voice-over

The dominant narrative point of view of the film medium is external, third-person. The medium can employ first-person narrators but these are always embedded within the dominant external narration. A major technique for creating First-Person narration in film is the use of voice-over. Like the First-Person Narrator in fiction, the character's voice is not addressing anyone in the story. The voice speaks to the audience outside the story-world (See: Narration in Film).

Willard's narrative voice appears 28 times in Apocalypse Now and plays an absolutely central role in creating the meaning of the story. Without Willard's voice, the significance of the journey to Colonel Kurtz and the events that take place at Kurtz' compound would not be comprehensible.

Narrative Functions of the Voice-overs

What then, are the specific functions of those moments when Willard's voice addresses the audience outside the story-world of the film? It's important to understand that most of Willard's voice-overs perform multiple functions of exposition, character development and critical commentary. For purposes of analysis, I have separated out the three major functions. Each voice-over deserves to be carefully studied in the context in which it appears.

Presents expository information.

One of the functions of Willard's voice-overs is exposition. For example, the opening sequence of the film deliberately misleads us into thinking we are viewing an establishing shot of Vietnam from somewhere off-shore as helicopters fly over a napalmed enflamed jungle shoreline. As the sequence develops we gradually realize that we are not seeing the actual Vietnam, but the Vietnam in Willard's mind. As the sequence comes to an end, Willard moves from his bed toward the window and looks out through the blinds. His first voice-over begins: "Saigon, shit. I'm still only in Saigon." These words locate Willard in space, confirming that the whole tour-de-force opening has been taking place in his head. The rest of the voice-over conveys information about where he is--a hotel room in Saigon and why--waiting for another mission in the war. The voice-over also conveys important information about who Willard is. His voice articulates the kind of internal turmoil and anguish that we witnessed in the images of the opening sequence.

Creates Willard's character.

First-person voice-over expresses a character's most intimate thoughts and feelings--aspects of the self which cannot be revealed through the action and dialogue. That is, first-person voice-over adds a dimension of subjective consciousness to a character that cannot be presented by any other technique of the medium. So the character's voice-overs--reflecting, reacting and interpreting--are central to who he is as a character. We would not be able to understand Willard's actions and reactions without his voice analyzing, explaining and judging. Try turning off the voice-overs and see what sense his actions make. A good comparison is with Blade Runner. Ridley Scott eliminated Deckard's voice-overs in the Director's cut. The voice-overs were not integral to the character development of Deckard and had no essential role in creating the meaning of the film (See: Bad Art of Voice-over in Blade Runner). Willard without his voice-overs would be an incoherent character and film wouldn't ultimately make sense.

Willard is the central character in Apocalypse Now. What makes him central is his mind--what he is thinking about, his critical evaluation of what he sees on his journey and his final change in his understanding of Colonel Kurtz.

The meaning of the story is build around Willard's character development. He changes during the course of his experiences. The significance of Colonel Kurtz is registered through the change that takes place within Willard. Through Willard's voice-overs the audience comes to understand the story of Kurtz and the meaning of Apocalypse Now.

Willard as Observer and Commentator.

One of the important functions of Willard in Apocalypse Now is that of observer and commentator on his experiences as he journeys upriver on his mission. It's important to remember that Coppola incorporates into his film all of the major events that Millius had created in his original script ( See: Narrative Structure and Relation of Film to Text).

What is more important is to understand what Coppola added to the major events that actually transformed their meaning. What he added was Willard's reactions to and comments about the events. Here are three examples of Coppola's technique.

  1. After the encounter with the General as he begins his journey he reflects on his mission and what the General had said about Kurtz's insanity: "How many people had I already killed? There was those six that I know about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time it was an American and an officer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit...charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I didn't know what I'd do when I found him."

    This voice-over reveals two important issues that are absent in Milius' script and in Coppola's '75 revision. First, the voice-over shows Willard's inner struggle about his mission. He reveals his history as a military assassin but his doubts about killing one of his own officers and his uncertainty about what he will do when he gets to Kurtz. Second, he doubts that the General's reason for assassinating Kurtz is because he was killing without restraint. Willard questions the moral validity of such a simple judgment: Shit...charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.

  2. Willard's encounter with Major Kilgore. The scene with Major Kilgore is a tour-de-force of black comedy. The whole incident is a satirical comment on the crazyiness and absurdity of the war. Coppola uses black humor: a caricature--Kilgore--and slap-stick-- surfing in the middle of a war-- to satirize the abuses of American military power.

    But in terms of the plot--Willard's mission to kill Kurtz--the event is also a key moment. Willard's primary role in all the incidents with Kilgore is that of an observer. Coppola's major technique is to use reaction-shots to register Willard's dismay at the crazyiness of what he is encountering with Kilgore. Coppola shows a bit of action and then cuts to Willard--focusing primarily on his wide-eyed reaction to what he is seeing. But Coppola also, at key points, combines the reaction-shots with Willard's voice-overs commenting on the significance of what he's seeing. The most important of these comments is after the whole Kilgore experience as the boat is moving away upriver shortly after Kilgore's closing line: "Someday this war is going to end." Here Willard interprets the significance of Kilgore as calling into question the General's interpretation of why Kurtz had to be killed: If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone."

  3. R&R with the Playbunnies. This is a crucial scene in Willard's change in understanding Kurtz and of what is going on in the war. Again, this scene is from Milius, but its meaning is transformed through Willard's voice-overs. Coppola turns this seemingly minor titilating event into a major symbol of what was wrong with the way the Americans were fighting the war. He uses two brief Willard voice-overs to make the significance of this event clear.

    • Charley didn't get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory. Notice how this comment fits nicely with Colonel Kurtz's monologue about how the North Vietnamese will win the war because they have the moral strength to do what's necessary. The US with its extravagant notions of R&R simply don't have the will to win the war.

    • Willard's second comment is even more important: No wonder Kurtz put a weed up command's ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away. The lesson Willard draws from the aborted sex show is that it is symbolic of the incompetence of the Generals who were running the war. Willard will discover that this is exactly what has driven Colonel Kurtz insane.

Here are three extended essays about other aspects of Willard's role as observer and commentator.

Coppola's Art of Voice-over

Willard's voice-overs work so well because Coppola effectively resolved the three major artistic issues in creating voice-overs that are seamlessly integrated into the artistic whole of the film (See: Artistic Issues in using Voice-over for an extended discussion of the issues).