Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now used every aspect of filmmaking expertly to make it one of the most hailed movies of the last 50 years. The cinematography, in particular, is an aspect that contributes to the film’s themes and character development. Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer for Apocalypse Now, won an Oscar for his work in the movie. Among the many outstanding scenes in the movie, the helicopter assault on the beach early in the movie is a prime example of how the cinematography added to the film as a whole. Through the use of different camera angles and shots including close ups, long shots, and different angle shots as well as high and low key lighting, the cinematography conveys the subjectivity of the war between Kilgore and Willard, Kilgore’s character and values, and the anonymity of war.
Willard is revealed early on to have mixed feelings of the war; He feels as if he can’t live without it but also dreading some aspects of it. Kilgore is shown as an adrenaline junkie who is a commanding figure and is ignorant to the war; he treats it more or less as a game. Before the attack, as the helicopter are approaching the beach during the dawn, the audiences are greeted to a long shot of helicopters with some magnificent low key lighting. After this shot, there is an extreme close-up of Willard’s face, also in low key lighting. These two shots are repeated with fades sometimes blending the two together (see fig. 1). The use of many different angle shots on the group of helicopters reveals Willard’s own fragmented or skewed frame of mind regarding the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The close-up of Willard with low key lighting established that this part of the scene is to be viewed through his perspective, the dark shadows of the low key lighting represents his lack of clarity on the war; this will play into what Kurtz wants later on. As soon as the group arrives close to the beach, however, there is a shift in perspective to Kilgore’s view of the war. Coppola uses Kilgore to represent the popular view of Americans during war, that America is an unbeatable powerhouse. Storaro chooses to use several high angle shots from the view of the helicopters to show the destruction of the village (see fig. 2). Storaro mixes these in with some low angle shots from below the helicopters (see fig. 3). The high angle shots down on the village show the mindset of the soldiers during this attack: the Vietcong are shown as puny and a pest as the high angle shot shows the helicopter as being a giant figure over the village. The view before the war ended was that there was no way that the brute force of the united states would lose to a guerilla fighting force. The low angle shot, from the perspective of the villagers, displays the group of helicopters as an unbeatable force that literally almost takes up the entire sky.
Many shots in this scene help convey both the ignorance and recklessness of Kilgore but also the control that he has over the situation. As soon as the troops land, Kilgore is shown as the tallest man on the scene with a medium shot from a slightly low angle (see fig. 4). Coppola establishes him as the dominant figure in the scene thanks to a tracking shot centered on Kilgore. This shot, with the medium shot, shows how Kilgore has immediate control of every situation as well as having everyone literally looking up to him, including the audience. As the camera tracks Kilgore, it begins to move closer and start angling a bit lower (see fig. 5) as the troops get even lower, holding their helmets in case of an explosion. This shot shows Kilgore’s lack of fear in war, in this situation he is still standing straight up and the tallest man in the shot. The low angle here again represents his command, in time of fear or danger, his troops will look up to him because of his fearlessness.
It is often said that in war, everyone is equal. War does not discriminate. Coppola defends this statement through his cinematographic choices in the middle of the battle. In the middle of the scene, Coppola chooses to have a pan shot of the helicopter attacks. This also shows the villagers scrambling with a high angle shot (see fig. 6). In this shot, the villagers all appear the same due to their hats, making them all appear the same. The same type of shot appears again when the American troops land (see fig. 7), as soon as they leave the relative safety of the chopper. When joining the fight on the ground, everyone is at risk of dying, no matter the rank. Coppola shows this with the high angle shot again, having all the soldiers appear identical thanks to their uniforms and helmets.
The cinematography in Apocalypse Now helps to support central ideas that guide the entire movie, as well as character traits and larger themes. This aspect truly elevates it to the masterpiece status it holds today.