THE opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now is one of the finest in American cinema history.
The mesmeric montage immediately plunges us into the tortured mind of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). Napalm explosions, hazy allusions to the future, a ceiling fan that evokes the rotor blades of a helicopter, and drunken hotel antics. He is, to borrow from Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket, in a world of shit.
Yet the cherry on the top of this masterful opening is Coppola’s use of The Doors’ song The End. A psychedelic sound that taps into the film’s deeper themes and acts as the perfect prelude to the dark journey that lies ahead. The End later returns for the powerful closing moments of Apocalypse Now as the axe comes down on the sacrificial cow – and on Captain Kurtz.
With this, The Doors have been cemented in cinematic history for voicing the bookends of this delirious masterpiece, for giving a distinctive sound to ‘the horror.’ Coppola’s iconic use of The End landed The Doors a place in filmmakers’ catalogue of 60s and Vietnam War songs. Jim Morrison’s vocals would later be heard in ‘Nam films such as Taps (1981), Casualties of War (1989) and Air American (1990).
Even kids’ movie Minions (2015) grounded its story in the 60s with the help of The Doors and others.
Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump features four Doors’ songs in its coincidental chronicling of American history. Two of these – People are Strange and Break on Through – cleverly bleed into each other during Gump’s bizarre ping pong exploits.
Pilipino director Bebong Osorio one-upped Zemeckis by putting five Doors’ songs in his 1994 war film Mistah. Like Apocalypse Now, the film closes with The End – and on the lamenting note: ‘nobody wins a war.’
Apocalypse Now, however, was not the first time The Doors were heard in the cinema. Back in 1968, a young director of the name of Martin Scorsese used The End for a scene in his first feature-length film Who’s that Knocking at my Door (1968).
The scene – added to appease distributors – is a dream sequence in which J.R (Harvey Keitel) has several sexual encounters with prostitutes.
Where Coppola used The Doors’ to conjure inner-turmoil, Scorsese’s montage is one of liberated sensuality – and erratic lust. A tone that other filmmakers have looked to strike with The Doors, matching their sound with scenes of sexual freedom, as well as substance abuse.
People are Strange plays while Tony (Ron Thompson) tries to score smack in Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped animation American Pop (1981). Likewise, Moonlight Drive can be heard as blood runs down the nose of a coke user during a drug-riddled party in Marek Kanievska’s Less than Zero (1987).
A young woman who is the subject of Agnes Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond lays around and sleeps with a stranger to the sounds of The Doors’ song The Changeling. It is one of a few songs in the film that mirrors the woman’s blasé approach to life, drugs and sex. An attitude that later proves fatal.
Varda, clearly a fan of The Doors, would use The Changeling again in her 1988 film Jane B. for Agnes V.
All being said, Coppola’s evocation of the band in Apocalypse Now will be their lasting legacy in celluloid. One that dwarfs Oliver Stone’s attempts to portray the band in biographical form (The Doors, 1991). Apocalypse Now and The Doors were a match made in psychedelic heaven – completely erratic, unapologetically unique and utterly unforgettable. The End.