When the Ancient of Days fashioned Martin Sheen, he used as his model the archangel Gabriel, the empathic spirit of truth — who records not men’s deeds but their heart’s desires; and who hears the cries of humanity, yet is powerless to assist us. US Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Sheen), the protagonist of the movie Apocalypse Now, is himself a moviegoer, one who is strapped into a front-row seat in a theater of war, unable to shut his eyes to the horror, the horror unspooling before them. Though Coppola’s movie is deeply fatalistic, it is at the same time a morality play about the competing virtues of civilized sympathy (caring enough about the pain of others to do something about it) and savage empathy (actually feeling the pain of others, yet doing nothing about it). The blocking in this short, dimly lit scene juxtaposes the sympathy of the supine, all-too-civilized Chef (Frederic Forrest) with the empathy of the squatting, savage Willard. In the existential jungle, empathy makes a man fitter for survival. But at what price?
An occasional series analyzing some of the author’s favorite moments in the positioning or movement of actors in a movie.
THIRTIES (1934–43): It Happened One Night (1934) | The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) | The Guv’nor (1935) | The 39 Steps (1935) | Young and Innocent (1937) | The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) | The Big Sleep (1939) | The Little Princess (1939) | Gone With the Wind (1939) | His Girl Friday (1940)
FORTIES (1944–53): The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) | The Asphalt Jungle (1950) | The African Queen (1951)
FIFTIES (1954–63): A Bucket of Blood (1959) | Beach Party (1963)
SIXTIES (1964–73): For Those Who Think Young (1964) | Thunderball (1965) | Clambake (1967) | Bonnie and Clyde (1967) | Madigan (1968) | Wild in the Streets (1968) | Barbarella (1968) | Harold and Maude (1971) | The Mack (1973) | The Long Goodbye (1973)
SEVENTIES (1974–83): Les Valseuses (1974) | Eraserhead (1976) | The Bad News Bears (1976) | Breaking Away (1979) | Rock’n'Roll High School (1979) | Escape from Alcatraz (1979) | Apocalypse Now (1979) | Caddyshack (1980) | Stripes (1981) | Blade Runner (1982) | Tender Mercies (1983) | Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
EIGHTIES (1984–93): Repo Man (1984) | Buckaroo Banzai (1984) | Raising Arizona (1987) | RoboCop (1987) | Goodfellas (1990) | Candyman (1992) | Dazed and Confused (1993) |
NINETIES (1994–2003): Pulp Fiction (1994) | The Fifth Element (1997)
OUGHTS (2004–13): Nacho Libre (2006) | District 9 (2009)
Joshua Glenn’s most recent books (2012) are UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).