This particular scene finds our heroes in a place that looks and sounds like a carnival of hell. The scene is the final descent into madness and the last we see of the US Army in the film. To this point the soldiers on the boat have met a US Army in control of both their minds and the areas they have traveled through as they move up the river. But this is where that changes and the sound design throughout these few minutes lets the audience know that we are no longer in a place that is under the Army’s or Willard’s control.
As Lance hops off the boat, the sounds of the roaring fives are amplified over the gunshots. Loud enough to draw you closer to the characters. Then like many times before in the film, the sound of a helicopter soars over head and an immediate explosion. This is a reoccurring sonic character throughout the film and it is here, where you wouldn’t think would be this time at night. Just to remind you, you’re still in the shit. Long before we see the insanity of the soldiers and based on the lighting we see around the bridge that looks like a circus big top, we begin to hear crying and wailing. These sounds are nondiegetic but they seem to represent the soldiers’ pain.
As the wailing fades what sounds like music heard at a circus begins to play. The sounds of Willard and Lance are completely silenced while they walk alongside the path overlooking the lights. The continuing sounds of gunfire, fire, and explosions ring as loud as the non-diegetic soundtrack that plays, as faint sounds of soldiers over intercoms are heard. Lance and Willard’s silence are probably not intentional or selected not to be there as much of the sound for the film was lost, however, the sounds heard tell you exactly what you should hear, this place is a circus and the men here are in pain. It’s an allegory for the perceived insanity of the Vietnam War and why it was possible for Kurtz to end up the way he did. It is sonically designed for you to feel this way about the scene and maybe even the war. All control has been lost.
Let us remember that Lance is on acid so there is a chance that since almost every other sound in this scene is diegetic that maybe Lance is the only one hearing the circus music as he gazes at the lights. This disorder will make Kurtz’s camp seem like a well run utopia by comparison shortly. As Lance jumps down into the trench the music ends and the momentary insanity is over. Explosions and gunfire off screen as Willard passes by some men sitting in the trench a rock guitar is heard.
At first it sounds like a score, but is eventually revealed to be a diegetic sound coming from a tape player. In a great use of perspective Willard is very close to the soldiers firing the large machine gun towards the enemy. The gun is very loud and it feels close. We are introduced to Roach and the sounds heard seem to be everything he hears and he hears alone. His necklaces rattling, bombs far offscreen and in the distance, crickets and the enemy soldier screaming “Fuck you, GI!” Roach is listening for the soldier to be able to aim his weapon. We are hearing what he hears though these few moments as he aims up fires and hits his target as all distant offscreen sounds disappear for a moment. All the “war” sounds fall off before Willard tries to find out for the final time who is in command here. No one.
So grab your headphones and crank up the scene and watch for yourself. Get lost in the sound of the film. It truly is spectacular and this scene could be one of the best post-produced scenes in film history.
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