Final Paper: “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now - Horrific to Humorous Allusion
Updated: Jun 4
FS354 for Dr. Katherine Spring at Wilfrid Laurier University
“Ride of the Valkyries” is a piece of music that is recognizable by many North American people across generations, yet the whole of society does not interpret the use of this song in the same way across produced films. This song connotes fear, bravery and heroism, however, in contrast, it can be used as comic relief in comedy and family films. It was originally composed by Richard Wagner for the second of his four operas and contains a nationalistic meaning. It was a leitmotif that signified a battle cry and therefore indicated action and drama. The music holds a different function in the various films in which it is referenced. It is extracted from its notable use and context within Apocalypse Now and inserted into films belonging to a variety of genres, including the completely contrasting genre of comedy, and also family. Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a dark war film that monumentally changed the future use of “Ride of the Valkyries” for those who have watched the movie as the “helicopter scene” is captured in The Blues Brothers, Casper and Rango as a form of intertextuality, and therefore functions differently over time through the concept of musical allusionism. These self-conscious quotations to the iconic scene from Apocalypse Now, are often used for the sake of comedy and understood as such by audience members who were familiar with the piece and serves the traditional dramatic function of increasing tension to those who are unfamiliar.
As a starting point, it is important to note that the films being analysed were all produced after the rise of the compilation score of the 1960’s, with music drawn from multiple sources to complete the soundtrack. “Filmmakers frequently use songs as a way of establishing mood and setting, and as commentary on the film’s character and action.” However, the mood is inferred from the viewers themselves. Whether current popular songs or those from the past, the music is read by the audience through the lens of that person’s past experience. Assuming many people did not attend German operas in the late 1970’s, “Ride of the Valkyries” is significantly more iconic for its use in Apocalypse Now than it might have been to those who were familiar with the piece prior to this film. Smith notes the “built-in obsolescence” of popular music. He also states that, “classical music…is often regarded as having a kind of universality”. The song itself is well-known instrumental music and would not have been considered “popular” in 1979, but this specific use of “The Ride of the Valkyries” in popular media is what is used as a reference point and essentially quoted in future films. This is what Noel Carroll identified as allusionism, in that a film alludes to a past work. Allusion works in a two-tiered system; there are those who are familiar with the reference and those who are not familiar and view the film at a base level. The familiarity is primarily time-based and those who would have been movie-going age at the original reference point in history would have a stronger sense of what the intended meaning from the director is for the new scene within a more recent film.
One of the benefits of using well-known music is the fact that it can attract different generations for different reasons. Once familiarized with a song or specific context of a song, a viewer will be able to appreciate a film it is used within in a different way. In a family film like Rango, a parent may understand a deeper meaning of a scene because of their outside knowledge. Smith also argues in his book, The Sounds of Commerce, that “much of the compilation score’s expressiveness derived less from its purely musical qualities than from the system of extramusical allusions and associations activated by the score’s referentiality.” The song itself does not have the same strength of its connotations without Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now is a film about a U.S. Army unofficial mission lead by Captain Willard to kill a Colonel Kurtz, who is being accused of inappropriate behaviour including hit-and-run interactions during the Vietnam War. The film is full of death and violence and is classified as a drama and war-genre film. As part of the journey to find the colonel, Willard and his squad collaborate with Lieutenant-Colonel Kilgore, as he is the head of a helicopter cavalry. During the flight towards their destination they are informed by Kilgore that the cavalry group plays music during attacks, Wagner to be exact. It is used as a scare tactic and causes excitement in the troops according to Kilgore. At 37:33, “Ride of the Valkyries” starts playing from their helicopter sound system. This scene is what will be referred to as the “helicopter scene” throughout this essay. The song is used to convey bravery, heroism, action and drama and the audience’s bias is in favour of the main characters who are approaching their attack zone. In contrast, the sound cuts from “Ride of the Valkyries” to silence with visuals of a school yard where children and teachers run out to see what is coming in the sky before yelling and fleeing like other villagers. The audience hears the sound of both the rotating helicopter blades and opera music as the helicopters fly over the village shooting their machine guns and dropping bombs on the innocent children. The blades make a low frequency sound with a low rumble and yet quick tempo. The scene is quite graphic with people dying, losing limbs and plenty of fire and smoke. The feeling of heroism quickly changes into fear and concern with the realization that the attack harmed children, which contrasts North American values. The army men are feeling powerful and heroic but are killing primarily unarmed civilians.
The scene is powerful because of the great tragedy and loss mixed with the embodiment of pride coming from most of the troops; they were increasing their excitement for battle and killing by playing “Ride of the Valkyries”. It is a scene which is dark, pessimistic, horrific and embodies the movement of New Hollywood Cinema, presenting “a more critical view of America, past and present.” The rumble of the helicopter blades in this scene also connects to the opening of the film; the rhythm of the helicopter revolutions follows the heartbeat of Willard as his head is displayed upside down, “signaling a reversed perspective on Vietnam, war stories, and war movies.” The use of the song specifically has an “ideological use to promote nationalistic fervor”, stemming from Wagner’s original composition, which “gives Kilgore’s use of the music in Coppola’s film several layers of political relevance.” This political relevance is learned knowledge by those who have lived during the 1970’s and those who have studied the decade or Vietnam War. In contrast, the actual content of a film will change the focus of the political framework in which “Ride of the Valkyries” operates. The following three films, The Blues Brothers, Casper and Rango, will be analysed in chronological order in terms of release. The function of the “helicopter scene” and the use of “Ride of the Valkyries” is not always the same across genres and by audiences of various ages.
The Blues Brothers was released one year after Apocalypse Now and therefore many adults would have likely been familiar with the helicopter scene from viewing the film directly or through trailers and community gossip. Despite the frightening political context of the scene in Apocalypse Now, “Ride of the Valkyries” is used as the background of a hilarious car chase in The Blues Brothers. The lead characters, Jake and Elwood, are completing their “mission from God” to save the orphanage they were raised in and encountering ridiculous obstacles along the way, one of them being a car chase by Neo-Nazis. It is interesting how the music is from a German composer and alludes to nationalistic themes while dealing with Neo-Nazis. The rated-R film uses this piece of music in exaggerated over-the-top comedy. From cars flying through the air to high pitched tire screeching around Chicago, this wild chase still definitely promotes action, but is used without audiences becoming fearful or getting upset. For those who are familiar with Apocalypse Now, the music enhances the heroism promoted by the song. Dissimilar to the Apocalypse Now scene, the audience sympathy always remains with Jake and Elwood. There are also sound effects of gun shots and destruction. In fact, there is the overlap of the music and the high pitched squeaking sound of Jake rubbing the soot off of the windshield from the car engine breaking down. Similar to the helicopter flare issue in Apocalypse Now, the car cab filled with smoke. The squeaking as Jake leans out the passenger window in the car combined with “Ride of the Valkyries” is humorous and differs in pitch from the low frequency helicopter rotation sounds, therefore emphasizing the comedic action.
Casper was released in 1995, more than 15 years after the release of Apocalypse Now and is a loveable and funny family film. The “helicopter scene” occurs at 37:40 during the morning after Kat and her father, Dr. James Harvey, move into the haunted mansion. The father/daughter duo eat a breakfast prepared in the kitchen by Casper, the friendly ghost. Then, the trio of uncles, who are mischievous ghosts named Fatso, Stinkie and Stretch, float down to enter the scene through the kitchen ceiling with their ghost “tails” and “hair” rotating in a helicopter motion. This use of the helicopter scene produces feelings of fear and also mockery. Kat and James duck behind the kitchen table and look up with confused and frightened faces while a wind visual effect is emphasized with the blowing sound of wind from a helicopter landing. A viewer can hear the sharp jangling of the chandeliers and the da da da das coming from the voices of the ghosts. The ghosts are directly mimicking the beats of the music with their voices and appear to be making fun of the Apocalypse Now reference itself. James Horner, as the soundtrack composer, and director Brad Silberling made the explicit choice to reference Apocalypse Now. This film is family oriented, but also rated PG and comedic. In 1994 and 1995, there was not a crucial war for the U.S. that would have affected the perspective of the population in their association with helicopters to violence nor would they have an overall war-based mindset, therefore this scene could be understood as humorous. The mockery from the ghosts singing along with the song’s rhythm would not have been seen as rude or insulting, even though they are making a joke out of a tragic film scene from the past that does represent war. Since this film was released so far after Apocalypse Now, many younger people would not have yet seen the past film to understand the reference. Even the parents of the children born in the mid-early nineties might not have seen it depending on the regulation of their own parents in their screening practices since Apocalypse Now is an R-rated movie. As someone who loved watching Casper growing up, but did not see Apocalypse Now, the music was simply a heroic track that commented on the superhero-type flying capabilities of the ghosts and their apparent self-confidence as they entered. The helicopter sounds did not have any connections to war and simply just appeared to be a cool and creative way for a flying being to enter a room. The fear in the young audience watching the scene only resonated from the lack of understanding about the intentions of the ghost trio. For those who know the reference, it contributes to the character development of the ghost uncles and would be more ironically humorous than anything else.
The same lack of knowledge of Apocalypse Now in the younger generation is experienced by those who have watched Rango. Rango is an animated film from 2011, targeted at a children-based audience. Rango is a lizard who fell out of a human’s vehicle in the desert during a car accident and dreams of being a hero. He stumbled into becoming the sheriff of a desert town experiencing a serious water shortage and led some of the towns creatures on a quest to find water. The little of bit of water that the town had left was stolen by hillbilly moles and other creepy creatures. They find the moles and then the “helicopter scene” begins at 1:07:25. Rango’s group starts running away from the moles, who significantly outnumber them. The moles use small birds and bats as transportation to chase after Rango. In the scene, the “Ride of the Valkyries” dominates the soundscape but there are also sound effects of galloping, running, the wagon rolling, the reins being whipped, guns, wind and finally the speech of the characters. The song itself indicates violence, action and suspenseful fear for anyone who has not seen Apocalypse Now, but the animated ridiculousness of these creatures seeming to be heroic as they charge away from the enemy is comedic. The additional sound effects of the dynamite being dropped from the creatures riding the birds and the clicking of the machine gun mimic the bombs dropped in Apocalypse Now and a similar rhythm to rotation sounds of the helicopter blades, respectfully. The music direction credit is given to Hans Zimmer, and he would have had an understanding of the connotations of “Ride of the Valkyries”. The song is used in comedic contrast to the original “helicopter scene” for those who saw Apocalypse Now, yet retains its purpose as a battle scene used to signify action with suspense and potential fear, especially for the young ones watching.
In conclusion, Apocalypse Now changed the way “Ride of the Valkyries” could be utilised in films post-1979 as an allusion. It increased the potential for various interpretations in the future as film content could be juxtaposed with its original use, functioning differently for those are in the know versus those who are less knowledgeable in the field of film history. Further research can be done on other films that use “Ride of the Valkyries”, other well-known pieces of music such as “Ave Maria” or pop songs such as “Born to be Wild”, which all have appeared in multiple films across a variety of genres. People who have not searched for intertextuality might be surprised about how common it is across film, music, television shows and gaming and how interconnected the world is through the texts we consume. This is valuable information because it may encourage viewers to think about the music selection and sound effects in the films they watched and why one might be interpreting those meanings in specific ways based on their own past experiences and knowledge. Being critical of the media one consumes is crucial to navigating the extreme mediation in the world today. If we only listened a little more carefully, how our society functions might just make a little more sense.
Carroll, Noel. “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and beyond).” October 20 (Spring 1982): 51-81. https://doi.org/10.2307/778606.
Hitchman, S. and A. McNett. “A History of American New Wave Cinema.” Accessed April 7, 2019. http://www.newwavefilm.com/international/new-hollywood.shtml.
Norris, Margot. "Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (1998).
Smith, Jeff. “Sixties Pop Songs and the Compilation Score.” In The Sounds of Commerce, 154-185. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.