Use Of Light In “Apocalypse Now”

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
DoP: Vittorio Storaro

April 2019

Cinematography And The Story

The story of the film is sort of an adaptation of a novella “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, which primarily tells about one civilization overpowering another (in the book it’s Belgians in Congo, in the movie it’s the Americans in Vietnam). The plot of the movie follows Willard traveling along the river with his comrades to Cambodia to find and kill the Colonel Kurtz, who got “crazy” and is now ruling some tribes in the jungle. The themes of the movie are important to understand since from this understanding all the decisions by Storaro are being made. Following a journey, where every day the characters are losing their minds and in the end arriving into a complete “darkness” are determining the lighting during the course of the story. Storaro thought after he read “The Heart of Darkness”: if it’s a story about one civilization overpowering another, why don’t I use artificial light overpowering natural, and extensive colours overpowering natural ones? Therefore, the conflict between light and
colour represents the conflict between two cultures. The natural lights of Vietnam are interrupted by artificial light of American Army. Let’s not forget that the structure of the movie is tied to the river journey, and also the metaphorical journey of Willard into the darkness of human nature. The darkness in this movie represents unconscious, whereas the light represents conscious.

Opening Scene

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Let’s take a look at the opening scene of the movie. Most of the inside-the-room shots are in low-key, which creates a feeling of Willard being in a very dark place at this moment. The war has done something to him, and the normal life seems unbearable right now. After the napalm, and the smart editing used in order to explain what the character is thinking about and what is he bothered by, we cut to the picture #2. Look at the shadow of Willard, which looks way bigger than he is. He’s sitting like some sort of animal and looking right at his dark side: I assume that’s symbolism and foreshadowing of what’s going to happen to this character later. This character is already broken enough by the beginning of the movie, and he knows that.

Artificial Lights In The Nature

As mentioned before, Storaro decided to use artificial lights and colours to give a metaphor of American army invading the nature of Vietnam. The helicopter searchlights, flashlights, the colour smoke grenades: all that is so smart, considering that it is logical that it’s there; the means he uses do not look completely out of the place, looking at a fact that it’s a warzone. But with the peaceful nature in the background, these bright colours of light are catching our attention. Later, I’ll talk about extensive use of artificial lights in the “show scene”. 

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Use Of Colour Smoke Grenades 

Looking deeper into the use of this throughout the movie, because the colour and the amount matters depending on the scene. The first time we see the smoke grenades is when the boat crew meets Kilgore, a bit “over-the-top” officer, who likes surfing right in the middle of a battlefield, and seemingly enjoys the fun of “playing war”. After the Valkyries scene, he makes the boys go surfing while ordering to blow up the forest in the background. At the beginning of the scene we notice a few orange smoke grenades, but soon yellow and green appears; towards the end of the scene, the colored smoke embraces the main characters as if covering us from reality. We understand that these men are crazy, because war is just a huge festive event for them. 

Later, when the crew travels along the river, from time to time we notice the smoke grenades on the shore, they are usually one color — orange. The one time on the boat, when Lance, who’s gone quite crazy at that point, opens up a grenade himself, and it’s neon pink color, an acidic colour, which is mostly associated with drugs and hallucination. This happens right before their boat is attacked. At this point, most of the crew members have gone a bit insane (Pic. 5). Similar color appears in the end, when Willard is captured by Kurtz’s people, and he also feels like he’s losing his mind. (Pic. 6)

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The Show And The Bridge

The second stop the crew makes is at the docs to get supplies; but they stay for a playboy show, which is organized for the soldiers to have some fun. A huge stage in the middle of the jungle, on the water surface, a huge amount of the sophites in our face, that shine so brightly that it makes us forget what’s behind them. It feels like we are getting alienated from the rest of the world by the borders of this huge stage. A helicopter arrives, blinding us with its lights. It looks more of a live show or a tv-broadcast, makes people forget about all the things which are (literally) behind the fence. 

I think the extensive use of artificial lights, which are not even hidden is to bring us back to America, where lights are everywhere, where everyone shines and smiles, and no one wants the darkness to be around. 

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Later, when they arrive to the bridge, to the military outpost before the Cambodian border. This place is the utter state of the crazy mind, there are gunshots, explosions, fire, soldiers running around. There’s no one in command on this bridge. The soldiers are firing into the darkness without understanding who they are fighting against. 

The lights in this place are used extensively, flares, flashes, searchlights, some other artificial lights are creating this mix of random, so random that it implies true madness (Pic 9). The place is never just light or dark, here the light is changing every two seconds, going rapidly from the total darkness to being brighty lighten up. 

When the boat is leaving, we are given a good portion of all the sources of light being used at the same time, after which we realise that there’s total chaos of mind in this place (Pic. 10). So many lights around, but they give so few amount of actual light, it’s still dark around. 

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Picture 10

Meeting Colonel Kurtz 

When arrived to the destination point, the temple where Kurtz is hiding, Willard is captured and brought to him. During the whole journey we’ve been learning about Kurtz from the documents, we’ve seen pictures of him, and we heard he’s crazy. We are really intrigued to meet him finally, so is Willard. 

But Coppola doesn’t let us take a look at Kurtz at once, instead, he’s revealing bit by bit. Voice first, then Kurtz sits up on his bed. We see a huge man’s figure and the back of the bald head (Pic. 12). Willard, on the other hand is lighten up from the side, making his eye whites look even whiter, but his side, which is closer to us, is in darkness. 

At some point we get an interesting double-portrait shot (Pic. 11), where we get a full figure of the Colonel and the shadow of Willard. Remember in the beginning we’ve taken a look at another shot with his own shadow. Difference here is that we get to only see the shadow. Does it symbolize that the dark side of Willard is now completely separated from the other one? The shadow is facing Kurtz, as his crooked figure is looking way less powerful than we imagined before. Kurtz knows why Willard is here and he’s ready for his death. 

As we are told that silence can be sometimes more powerful than words, in this scene darkness is more powerful than light. 

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Another wonderfully beautiful scene takes place in some hut, where Willard is imprisoned. He wakes up in the darkness, there’s only one ray of light shining into his body. The frame reminds me of old paintings: it’s visible how much Storaro is influenced by great painters. We hear noises and voices around, but we can’t see where they are coming from. It seems like Willard is going crazy and these voices are products of his imagination. But then, we are revealed that these sounds are coming from ripped holes in the walls of the hut, and it’s children watching and discussing Willard. 

The camera pans right and reveals more holes, we notice Kurtz next to the kids. These holes create sort of a symbol in this scene, I think. They are like holes in his mind, in his consciousness, and madness with darkness are slowly soaking into him. After Kurtz opens the door, reads a newspaper and goes away, leaving the doors open but warning Willard that he can’t escape. Willard tries to crawl out, but faints and falls down. I think this scene is to show that he is at a point where he cannot escape the darkness of himself anymore, he cannot get back into the real world, with politics and other things, he’s gone too far, and the only way out now is to kill Kurtz. 

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In the ending scene, the scene of the assassination of Colonel Kurtz, is mostly in shadows or with the use of contra light, which makes total sense to me. They’ve both reached the point, where we don’t even see them as human beings but silhouettes or shadows, we only see the other side of the coin. Willard wears the same camouflage make-up as Kurtz was wearing a few scenes before. In most of the shots we cannot even see Willard’s face, we see only whites in his eyes, which makes him look even more terrifying and crazy. 


I remember watching this film in the fall without knowing how the cinematographer was, and I was just mesmerised by the beauty of the images. Watching it for the first time, I didn’t pay attention to particular shots, because they worked together so well, but after the movie finished, I thought: that was one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen! 

Now, watching this movie again, but looking really deep into the meaning of each shot, and how light and colours are used in order to tell the story, I can say without a doubt that Storaro is one of the greatest cinematographers in the history. The way he composes the shot, the way the colour palette is used, the beautiful light: any of the shots can be printed out and put into a museum, because this is what art is. And every shot serves its purpose. You look at the frame and you couldn’t add or take anything away. Considering the themes of the movie and the story, I think Storaro was the only one who could manage to draw it with his light.