Ride of the Valkyries
The Ride of the Valkyries originates in Die Walküre, by Richard Wagner. Composed during the mid-19th century, this prelude to the third act of Die Walküre one of Wagner’s most famous works. While it has been reproduced countless times in film, the two most salient reproductions occur in Apocalypse Now! and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).
In Apocalypse Now!, the Ride of the Valkyries accompanies Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duval) 1/9 Air Cav division on a bombing of a Vietnamese village. Kilgore justifies playing the music through the helicopter’s speakers to frighten away the Vietnamese. He relates, “I use Wagner, it scares the hell out of the slopes. My boys love it.” Amid the sequence Coppola begins to film the helicopters in flight formation, fading the background noise so that only the Wagner can be heard. This choice indicates that the speakers no longer produce the music; it is Coppola’s pairing of image and sound. One can interpret this choice as a tribute to Kilgore’s Air Cav division, or simply an inconsequential pairing. In either scenario, the pairing’s allusion to Birth of a Nation is significant.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), is one of the most significant productions in film history for its revolutionary use of film techniques. According to the American Movie Classics Company’s Tim Dirks, “The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s anti-black, 1905 bigoted melodramatic staged play, The Clansman.” In Birth of a Nation, the Ride of the Valkyries sequence occurs during the climax of the film. Liberated by an imagined black coup d’état in South Carolina, a black man named Silas Lynch attempts to force a white girl, Elsie Stoneman, to marry him. In this triumphant sequence, the music of Ride of the Valkyries is paired with the Klansmen on horseback setting out to rescue Elsie. Paralleling the two sequences one must ask, what exactly was Kilgore rescuing? Furthermore, is there a connection between the racist connotations of Griffith’s work and Coppola’s film?
One minute into the sequence Coppola films women and children in the village. These civilians are all dressed in white as they run to safety and the children are evacuated from a schoolhouse. The shot immediately transitions to Kilgore’s helicopters on the horizon, with waves in the forefront. One could propose that Kilgore’s mission is to rescue the beaches from Vietnamese territory, as he seems more concerned with his passion for surfing than anything else. When the helicopters reach the village, they obliterate the wooden structures with bombs and machine guns. After the bombing sequence the Air Cav releases a spray of napalm, prompting Kilgore to comment “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…smells like victory.” For his purposes conquering the beach provides Kilgore an opportunity to demand that Lance “either (surfs) or (fights).” Contextualized by his prior comment that “Charlie don’t surf,” one could argue that surfing justifies the bombing of the village for Kilgore.
The racial parallel between Birth of a Nation and Apocalypse Now! is crucial to Coppola’s choice to pair Kilgore’s invasion with Ride of the Valkyries. Connoting the glorification of bigotry and unjustified murder, Coppola’s Ride of the Valkyries sequence makes a powerful anti-war statement. While it could be argued that Coppola’s sequence is designed to glorify war for its heroic nature, it could just as easily be argued that the glorification Coppola intends is purely satirical. Treating the sequence as a glorification of war neglects the allusions to Birth of a Nation, and the choice to film women and children, dressed in white, as the victims. Furthermore, the notion that Kilgore is motivated to bomb a village, while his primary concern is to go surfing, illustrates the absurdity of his actions. While Kilgore can be interpreted as the manifestation of war bravado, it may have been Coppola’s intent that the viewer see him as emblematic of reckless killing. While Apocalypse Now! confronts many issues associated with war, no sequence is a more powerful testament to senseless death than the Ride of the Valkyries.