If you recognize the iconography of canonical cinema, then the image of a paint-smeared Martin Sheen rising with piercing, purpose-filled eyes from a South Asian bog is something you know well. It is – perhaps along with a fleet of UH-1 Hueys descending like Valkyries out of a tempest, or the haunting visage of Marlon Brando glaring through a penetrating beam of light – the most identifying image of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece “Apocalypse Now.” And like so many other frames within, it is one rife with psychological and thematic context.
“Francis told me, 'Vittorio, we have to find some specific idea here,'” cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – who won an Oscar for his work on the film – recalls. “'Until now, he was a soldier. Now he understands that in order to kill Kurtz, he must become Kurtz. He should put on [the war paint] we saw from the soldier on Brando when he kills the other guy. He should be part of the horror to understand the horror, and to kill the horror.'”
The two came up with the idea that the water would signify the “amniotic suck of nature,” and that Sheen's Capt. Benjamin L. Willard was reborn in that moment as a new man.
“I had the lighting on top because he was not reborn in a kind of gentle, smooth, passive way,” Storaro says. “He was reborn to be Kurtz, to be someone to eliminate the king, to become a king. Freud would say there is a moment when a child has to kill his own father to become a father, because otherwise, he would always be a child. So that was the concept, the psychology we put into the image. The water had to be the primary liquid, the primary, elemental life, and he should be reborn from the mother earth.”
Nothing particularly challenging comes to Storaro's mind when asked about the practical task of achieving the image. But in a gargantuan film shoot as chaotic as this one was, stories of hardship probably just blur together anyway. “Nothing is easy,” he says. “But nothing is necessarily difficult if you have the right idea.”