Apocalypse Now and the Holy Grail
As related, the Holy Grail is to be found in Dante—it is written in the stars, “Love justice, ye who govern the Earth.” In this case, “justice” refers to a sacred sound, rather like the logos itself, that is invisible and can be detected only as a shimmer-haze around the air. There is also a physical Grail which resonates with this sound; it’s obsidian black and is made from meteoritic material, just like the sacred stone in the Ka’aba in Mecca—it fell from the stars. Once filled with blue Hyperborean blood it resonates with the sound of justice—perhaps we do not need the sacred cup itself to recover the sound; it may be possible to reconstruct the sound in an independent way.
However, there is another aspect to the Grail legend, as explored by JG Frazer in his Golden Bough and Jessie L. Weston in her From Ritual to Romance—and it is this Grail that appears in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The film is a Grail quest, a Grail romance—and Colonel Kurtz, at the film’s end, has copies of both The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance on his table (plus the Bible). Now, famously, the film is based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—but Darkness is also a Grail romance, it’s based on Percival’s quest for the Fisher King. So it’s Grail all day, all the way with Apocalypse Now—the “apocalypse” being, literally, a “revelation” if you look into the Greek.
The Grail as derived from Frazer and Weston is a symbol for death and rebirth. Frazer’s start-point is the priest of Nemi—an old institution in ancient Rome (perhaps older than Rome herself) whereby a priest held his position in Nemi’s sacred precincts, the sacred grove, so long as he could defeat any challenger. So the priest of Nemi had a rather unsettled life, for he always had to be on watch for anyone who wanted to sneak up on him and chop him up to claim his priestly office.
Frazer’s thesis is that the ceremonial death (and resurrection) of the priest of Nemi was a nature cult connected to rites of seasonal death and rebirth—the old king-priest is sacrificed so that new blossoms may form, his blood fertilises the soil. This theme is found across the Mediterranean—Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris (chopped to bits), and, latterly, Christ. Greek cities used to hold marginal prisoners—carpenters are the like—and sacrifice them to expatiate their city’s sins (you can see how this would eventually lead to the “ultimate sacrifice”, Christ). The Romans would occasionally adopt these foreign cults—including Adonis (and Christ).
Now, I don’t think this is what the Grail is—Weston and Frazer were secular scientific people for whom it wasn’t “real”. So as far as they were concerned they had uncovered a nature cult and the Grail itself was just a symbol for this cult of death and renewal—remember that in these ancient cultures it was held that, for example, the sun would not travel the sky unless certain rites were performed. So the Grail fits in here. What Weston and Frazer are correct about is that the Grail is an ancient Indo-Aryan tradition, with a presence in the Vedas, that long predates Christianity. The West is the Grail, the Grail is the West.
Weston (West-on) also connects the Grail to the cult of Mithras (which was the main rival to Christianity in the end, with paganism centralised into Mithraism). Weston paints a picture of legionaries on the Scottish frontier (Hartsfell) who achieved direct contact and knowledge of the afterlife through the Grail mysteries. They accessed the third heaven—and, perhaps, the seventh heaven too (the numerical designation of the heavens comes from Orphic religion and was incorporated into Christianity—there are old images of Orpheus crucified as Christ).
Weston then links these ideas to the Templars—suppressed by the Church as heretics—who, perhaps, continued an Orphic-Mithraic mystery rite. The Church has always been wary of the Grail, of the Minnesinger poets—the troubadours who sing of a-mor (itself an anagram of Roma—only the troubadour poets of the Grail know the true Rome, as opposed to the false Rome that rules from the Vatican; and Kurtz is himself described in the film as a “warrior-poet”, a troubadour—for all troubadours carried a ceremonial knife…).
Back to Apocalypse. The film recapitulates the circular Grail story described by Weston and Frazer: the young special forces assassin Willard (Sheen) has to go into “the heart of darkness” (Cambodia—beyond normal US operations in Vietnam, beyond the limits) to kill Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who has gone loco and runs his own highly unorthodox if highly effective guerrilla campaign with native tribesmen. Kurtz is the priest of Nemi—the old decrepit priest, possibly senile with age (in a tape recording played at the start he speaks about a snail on a razor blade, a reference to the priestly hermaphrodite; the snail being a hermaphrodite, and the path of the hermaphrodite being “straight and narrow” as a razor that cuts the initiate’s feet—it’s the bridge to the Grail).
Willard is the young challenger (springtime) who has come to take the priest’s place—indeed, at the end, Kurtz allows Willard to kill him (he is glad to die, he has seen enough—“Drop the bomb, exterminate them—exterminate the brutes”). The cycle of death and rebirth is complete—and, as Kurtz is killed, the tribesmen outside sacrifice an ox with a machete. Willard is the new priest and the tribesmen bow down to him—order has been restored to the land, the wasteland blooms again (Eliot is referenced throughout, quoted by Kurtz in his “wasteland”).
The Grail themes are much wider than that though. You may recall that along the way Willard, in his “Patrol Boat, River” (PBR), encounters Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore—1st of the 9th, Air Cav (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning, smells like…victory!”). Kilgore is none other than the character Klingsor from Wagner’s Grail romance Parsifal (Percival—pierced-through-the-heart). Klingsor is a corrupt king who tries to interdict the Grail knights on their quest with a sybaritic pleasure-loving life—similarly, Kilgore (kill-gore, the name works on many levels—it’s Klingsor-Kilgore, a Grail pun; puns are essential to find the Grail) offers Willard and his crew steak, beer, music (all the comforts of home, even though it’s “never like home”), and surfing.
In particular, Kilgore likes one of Willard’s conscript boy-soldiers, Lance, because he’s a well-known surfer south of LA (“Charlie don’t surf!”). Lance—the lance, the lance that pierced Christ, is essential to the Grail story; and the character Lance is the lance, just as Kilgore is Klingsor (we know because he plays Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries when the Air Cav attacks the Vietcong beach—Klingsor is a Wagnerian addition to the Grail legend).
Indeed, in Wagner it is the lance—the spear of destiny, the spear of Christ—that is brought by a knight to specifically slay Klingsor, but it is stolen by Klingsor and used to inflict a wound on Amfortas (who becomes the Fisher King, the priest of Nemi). In Apocalypse, this is represented by the tussle between Willard and Kilgore over Lance: Kilgore, the surfing fanatic, wants Lance “the lance” to stay and surf the beach he just captured—Willard wants to get on with his mission (find the Grail); in the end, Willard absconds with Kilgore’s prized surfboard.
The men then encounter an ethereal USO show in the middle of the jungle—Playboy bunnies jump off a Huey helicopter onto a stage (none of them particularly attractive, in my opinion—even the “Playmate of the Year”). In Wagner’s Parsifal, Kilgore has cultivated “Flower Maidens” to enchant and entrap Grail knights with their wiles, they live in a “magic garden” (rather like the incongruous illuminated stage that the bunnies perform on in the jungle)—and, above all, Klingsor has the sorceress Kundry to enchant and entrap travellers (Parsifal doesn’t fall for her charms).
Coppola has broken it up—dissociated Kilgore-Klingsor from the maiden temptresses—but the USO show and the Playboy bunnies are one and the same with the Flower Maidens and Kundry. The supply depot where the show takes place also has numerous other “goodies”, from Suzuki motorcycles to dope and LSD, to tempt the Grail knights—it’s a genuine magical pleasure garden.
So Apocalypse is the Frazer-Weston Grail legend put on screen, its narrative backbone is Heart of Darkness—itself based on a Grail romance. It’s garnished with poetry from Eliot—with Eliot’s “Wasteland”, itself based on Frazer and Weston’s work (and prefaced with an epigraph from Conrad’s Darkness—“Mistah Kurtz, he dead”; and Kurtz closes the film with the Conradian “the horror, the horror”). We have Wagner as well—and Coppola has claimed that the horrific entrance to Kurtz’s citadel, with bodies strung up about the place, is a nod to Dante’s Inferno (another Grail theme).
So if you put it all together you have circular story of a young Grail knight, Percival-Willard, who journeys out with a lance (Lance) and companion knights, faces temptations, finds the wounded king in his grove, and takes his place to allow new life to blossom (to lift the curse of Kurtz and his wintertime darkness).