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Classical Music in Film: Wagner + Apocalypse Now

Today we begin a new series here at Salon97 on the role of classical music in cinema. Our first case study: Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in the famous helicopter assault from Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

In his 1979 review of Apocalypse Now, Roger Ebert called the scene above “simply the greatest movie battle scene ever filmed.” I’m with him on that one and not because of its pacing, photography or that you could watch it 15 times in a row and not bore once. Try muting the sound and it’s still great cinema. Now turn it back up and the music takes a great battle scene and gives it another life–as historical double entendre and a microcosm for the film’s thoughts on war itself. In a hail of strings we all recognize, the triumphant arrival of our military becomes a ironic anti-climax, a white horse dragging a chariot piled with corpses.

“Ride of the Valkyries” opens the final act of the second opera in Wagner’s enormous four-opera “Ring Cycle.” The Valkyries (Goddesses of war and battle in Norse mythology) have gathered on a mountain peak to transport fallen soldiers to the underworld. Artistic renderings of the moment often capture the Valkryies as an assemblage of warriors–helmeted and bearing spears–striding across the sky on flying horses. It’s no great leap from there to the mid-air swarming of military helicopters (the flying horse of pre-computerized warfare) in Coppola’s overture to an attack on a Vietnamese fishing village.

He  did not stop there. Coppola had done his research and knew that both Nazi tankers and Lufftwaffe pilots listened to “Ride of the Valkyries” over their radios in preparation for battle. The Third Reich’s propaganda office had also employed the piece as the soundtrack to many its wartime newsreels. Wagner himself was an avowed white supremacist and Hitler’s favorite composer. D.W. Griffith, America’s first great movie director, had “Valkyries” underscore as the climatic final scene in the first great American movie “Birth of a Nation”–the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan on horseback.

Much of “Ride of the Valkyries’s life outside the opera house had been linked to regimes of hated and bigotry. America certainly didn’t see itself as one of them in the late 1960s when its air force dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than on any country in the history of the world, before and since. But the way Coppola uses “Valkyries” here, cutting being warlike heralds and silence, between the excitement of battle and the murder it masks, thrills us then accusingly asks why. It’s a confrontation we cannot avoid, here or anywhere else in the film. That’s not because Apocalypse Now is an anti-war statement, at least not out loud. It instead looks at war as an anthropological study of ourselves as human beings and demands we confront what we see.

We cannot hide from what violence does to us. Not behind power, ritual or purpose the soaring but empty glory of “Ride of Valkyries” and the unsettling history it carries, insists we pay attention.

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