“‘Apocalypse’ soon became a military fetish object, its Wagner scene influencing real-life behavior”

The entrance of the main Valkyrie motif coincides with a wide shot of fourteen helicopters in flight. The soldiers ready their guns; Kilgore nods to the music. Another wide shot coincides with a gleaming B-major chord, after which the trombones take over the theme. Then comes a brilliant stroke: one bar before the trombones complete their phrase, the camera cuts to the Vietnamese village that is about to be struck. The adrenaline rush of men, machines, and music abruptly ceases as the camera lands in a quiet courtyard outside a school. Milius had specified in his screenplay an armed Vietcong stronghold, but Coppola paints a more idyllic scene, with children singing as they come out to play. A female Vietcong soldier suddenly appears, ordering an evacuation, and Wagner seeps in from a distance. The trombones finish their statement, and the Valkyries enter with their “Hojotoho!” The first missile is fired when the Valkyrie Helmwige reaches a sustained high B. Houses explode, and villagers are mowed down.

The operatic bravado falters amid the chaos of battle. Copters land; soldiers jump out. A young Black soldier is badly wounded when a comrade fires into a house and sets off an explosion. Tellingly, Wagner drops out at the moment the soldier falls. The sight of blood gushing from his leg shuts down the Valkyrie fantasy.

An indictment of American hubris is intended, yet the visceral impact of the filmmaking saps the movie’s capacity for critique. “Apocalypse” soon became a military fetish object, its Wagner scene influencing real-life behavior. A Black Hawk helicopter blared the “Ride” at the time of the American invasion of Grenada, in 1983. Eight years later, a PsyOps unit played it ahead of the Battle of 73 Easting, in the Iraqi desert, during the first Gulf War. Speakers mounted on Humvees boomed out the “Ride” at Fallujah in 2004, during the second American war in Iraq.

Alex Ross, “Wagner in Hollywood”, The New Yorker (31 August 2020), 22-23.