For decades before Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” aerial warfare had been stirring thoughts of the Valkyries and their “air-horses,” as Wagner called them. In Proust’s “Time Regained,” the Germanophile dandy Robert de Saint-Loup watches a zeppelin raid on Paris, circa 1916, and exclaims, “The music of the sirens was a ‘Ride of the Valkyries’!” During the Second World War, an Arturo Toscanini performance of the “Ride” was associated with B-17 bombers in flight. The Nazis employed the same conceit: in a German newsreel, the “Ride” underscores a segment documenting a paratrooper assault on Crete.
Given that history, the “Ride” seems a foreordained choice for the helicopter operation in “Apocalypse Now.” The idea of an air-cavalry unit blasting Wagner originated in the mind of the film’s screenwriter, John Milius, who had heard that American forces in Vietnam were using music to galvanize troops and demoralize the enemy. Years later, he recalled, “They didn’t play Wagner, they played rock ’n’ roll and stuff like that. But I really thought the Wagner would work.” Nothing if not ambitious, Milius’s script gestures toward other exalted cultural artifacts. The chief literary point of reference is Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Willard, a Special Ops soldier, is sent on a mission to track down and kill a renegade officer named Colonel Kurtz, who, like Conrad’s villain, has gone mad in the jungle and created a private empire.
Milius, a Jewish American with conservative leanings, did not intend an antiwar message. He began work on “Apocalypse” in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, during which he had excitedly followed the Israeli advance. He told the writer Lawrence Weschler, “Tracking that victory day by day, I was throbbing to the Doors—‘Light My Fire’ was the big hit that summer—and of course to Wagner.” Although some scholars have linked the helicopter scene to the Ku Klux Klan assault in “The Birth of a Nation” (the air-cav men have the bearing of horsemen), Milius was apparently unaware of Griffith’s use of the “Ride.”
Alex Ross, “Wagner in Hollywood”, The New Yorker (31 August 2020), 22.