Apocalypse Now (1979)
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s final film of the 1970s was yet another brilliant piece of cinema. I first saw Apocalypse Now in college (the early 2000s) and was immediately blown away. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. It probably didn’t help that I was homeschooled, and there was pretty much a zero-tolerance policy on R-rated movies in my home. College opened my eyes to so many great films. While other movies have faded in their appeal in the time that’s passed, Apocalypse Now is still up there for me as one of the great pictures. With this recent rewatch, I was discovering connections I hadn’t made before, enriching my experience. I will note I went with the original theatrical cut as I am not a fan of the Redux. I don’t really think the additional material adds much to the spectacular experience of the original.
Captain Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) has lost himself in the malaise of the Vietnam War, finding nothing back home and choosing to take more tours in the war-torn country. His latest assignment is a highly classified one, to hunt down the AWOL Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and assassinate him. Throughout the film, Willard goes through the dossier on Kurtz and learns about the journey he took from a promising officer to now elusive cult-like warlord in the jungle. Willard is given passage down the Nung River on a patrol boat commanded by Chief Petty Officer Phillips (Albert Hall), and he feels very uneasy about this mission which he has been kept in the dark about. The journey is filled with encounters, including passage through a dangerous spot by the mobile air command led by Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), an encounter with Playboy Bunnies, and a brief stop at a hellish outpost stuck defending a constantly destroyed bridge. When the moment comes that Willard and Kurtz finally meet, it will change them both forever.
My big takeaway when I first saw Apocalypse Now, and I still hold fast to this idea, is that it is a horror film first and foremost. While almost all Vietnam War films are horrific to some degree, few are as aesthetically horror as this one. The music, cinematography, performances, lighting, and various scenarios create the tone of a haunted journey. From the start, we quickly realize this is the realm of the surreal, with characters like Kilgore functioning on such a bizarre wavelength. The scariest thing is none of this is too far off from how weird and horrifying the actual Vietnam War was. There were cocktails of drugs being fed into soldiers to keep them alert, which, combined with sitting around waiting for something to happen, created volatile situations where innocent people were often murdered. We see this play out near the end of the second act when the patrol boat stops a civilian boat to inspect it. The trigger fingers are very slippery, and tempers completely explode. That moment occurs just before the boat passes into the realm where Kurtz’s people live.
The entire journey serves as a metaphor for the overall war. The further the characters go into the madness of the conflict, the more their connection with themselves and reality crumbles away. This comes in the form of literal death or a psychological shift. It starts with the horrific slaughter of a Vietnamese village from the air, and empathy continues to degrade as the story goes on. Coppola highlights the hypocrisy of Western foreign policy, proclaiming the spread of democracy and freedom while literally incinerating the people they have brought all this liberty to. I don’t think Apocalypse Now was intended to be an anti-war picture as some of the ideas expressed by Kurtz, who is meant to be a sympathetic figure to a certain degree, speak to some noble fire behind war. Kurtz sees the fury of the Viet Cong as a sign of how “pure” they are in their intent, and this is contrasted with the confused, blind rage of the American soldiers fighting for nothing.
The entire mission Willard has embarked on is a glaring hypocrisy. The people in charge tell young men to kill the Vietnamese while they can’t handle Kurtz killing any and everyone who crosses his path. Murder is not a crime in the eyes of these leaders; murdering the wrong people is the travesty. Willard even acknowledges that this mission doesn’t make any sense given the brutal context of what soldiers are asked to do on the ground. But his mind has already had the zap put on it by the war, so he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. He’s very much like Kurtz in that they have lost who they were somewhere along the way. Because of the surreality, it can be argued that whatever these men imagine as home simply doesn’t exist in this world. They are trapped in a purgatory of war, forever cursed to live through a never-ending nightmare. American values of the time like surfing, Playboy, and rock music are artifacts of a place these soldiers can never go to, and through Coppola’s lens, we see how hollow they are when juxtaposed against the war. Like the Godfather series, Apocalypse Now is a movie with so much to explore and analyze. The testament to its power is that you could change the war while keeping an American engagement, and very little of the themes and ideas would have to be altered.