SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing major plot points of this movie, so I encourage you to watch it before reading this review. I will mainly be discussing the original version of Apocalypse Now and not the later "Redux" version. However, I will quickly mention the later version during the content section at the end of this post.
We have become so used to the idea of war that we don't often stop to consider it. At least I haven't. I had a grandfather who fought in World War II, but none of my immediate family has ever been in the military. I've never been all that close to war. It's always been something happening across the globe. My only interaction with it came through a screen.
The power of Apocalypse Now is that, through a screen, it forces us to confront the realities of war. Not just the gore and death - as many other movies have done - but what war does to those who live through it. This movie shows how war twists and mars our very humanity.
In Roger Ebert's list of the 10 Greatest Films of All-Time, he includes Apocalypse Now over The Godfather from Francis Ford Coppola's filmography. I'm inclined to agree with him. It's simply astounding that Coppola made The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now in succession (with The Conversation in there as well). That must surely be the greatest stretch for any filmmaker. And while The Godfather is both one of my favorite films and surely one of the best films ever made, I think Apocalypse Now truly is Coppola's peak. It is certainly his most audacious undertaking.
The making of this film is almost as legendary as the film itself. It has been immortalized in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The title is an homage to the movie's source material - Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Coppola famously used much of his own fortune to finance this film. There were many delays that came from shooting on location in the Philippines. The film went massively over budget, and members of the cast and crew dealt with sickness and injury. The chaos of the production makes it all the more astounding that this film emerged as it did.
The opening scene of Apocalypse Now may just be my favorite opening scene of any movie. As any great opening scene must do (much like Coppola's other famous opener in The Godfather), this scene brings us into the movie's aesthetic. Unlike The Godfather, this scene is not tasked with introducing us to a large cast. Instead, music and images help us understand what we are about to see. We are about to see hell on earth.
The song "The End" by The Doors almost feels as if it was written for this scene. It wasn't, but it fits so perfectly with what we are seeing.
That song plays while we see napalm explode on an exotic beach. The palm trees are engulfed in vicious flames. We hear the helicopters whir. This scene becomes even more fascinating due to the fact that it was pulled together from leftover footage. Coppola shot an astounding 1.5 million feet of film for this movie. In the editing process, he happened to come across this sequence. Coppola asked editor Richard Marks to put this sequence to the sound of The Doors' song because he thought it would be funny to begin a movie with a song titled "The End."
This brings us to a fantastic visual cut on par with the famous bone-to-spaceship sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sounds of the helicopter blades are timed perfectly with the spinning of a ceiling fan in a room occupied by one man. He is the man that we will follow for the remainder of the film. He is Captain Benjamin J. Willard (Martin Sheen).
This initial scene is a haunting display of PTSD. We watch as Willard breaks down in alcohol-induced wailing while the song continues in the background. This scene is also famous partly for its production. In one part, Willard punches a mirror while he breaks down. Sheen injured his hand while shooting that sequence. Sheen was nominated for a BAFTA for his performance, but I'll never understand how an Oscar nomination eluded him. He is magnificent in this role. Even in a career that includes a legendary turn as President Bartlet in The West Wing (my favorite TV show of all-time), I might have to say this is Sheen's best work. Willard is a broken man looking for something. This brings one of the film's many great lines - "I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one."
Willard's mission is to travel up the Nung river into Cambodia to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz - a Special Forces commander who is assumed to have gone insane. Willard is told that, when he finds Kurtz, he is to terminate him with extreme prejudice. As an aside, this scene also contains a cameo appearance from Harrison Ford. Though Apocalypse Now came out after Star Wars, this scene was actually shot in 1976 - before the first Star Wars film was released and Ford achieved worldwide fame.
And so, the mission begins. Like any great work of art, Apocalypse Now has shades of influences that came before it. Certainly Heart of Darkness is a major influence. But there are also many echoes of The Odyssey. We are embarking with Willard on an epic journey.
Willard meets his crew - Chief (Albert Hall), Lance (Sam Bottoms), Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne). Chief is the commander of the Navy PBR vessel. He will be escorting Willard down the river with his crew. But the river is overrun with Vietnamese soliders - known as "Charlie." So, they must first rendezvous with Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who is known for being reckless and for his love of surfing. Kilgore is the commander of a helicopter attack squadron. After initially scoffing at Willard and his crew, he agrees to help them after seeing their order papers and especially after realizing that Lance - a famous surfer from California - is a member of their crew.
This brings us to the helicopter attack scene set to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries" by Wagner. Kilgore has his helicopters play the music as they attack the Vietnamese villages. You'll notice a specific phenomenon on first watching of this scene. When the music begins, it is epic. It is exciting. You move to the edge of your seat as the camera moves with the helicopters while Wagner's notes play. It is an utterly thrilling sequence.
And then the helicopters begin to launch their missiles and drop their bombs.
You realize that this is not an epic, thrilling sequence, but rather a sequence of death and horror. Before the attack occurs, we see Vietnamese children at school. Life is quietly continuing for them in this village. Then we hear the music that just moments before sounded epic to our ears. Now, it presages impending doom.
After the initial attack, the river is still to dangerous to travel. So the helicopters land on a beachhead and call in an airstrike. While they wait, we are given one of cinema's most famous lines of dialogue when Kilgore is recounting his experiences in Vietnam.
The airstrike commences, and Willard's crew continues their journey up the Nung. Throughout this trip, Willard is reviewing the files on Colonel Kurtz. Willard is amazed to find a man who had an impeccable record of service. In fact, Willard realizes that Kurtz doesn't seem much different than himself. But it's only after meeting Kilgore that Willard begins to struggle with his mission.
Earlier in the movie, Willard says that that charging Kurtz with murder in the midst of this war was akin to "handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500." He just can't figure out what has gone wrong in the mind of this lifelong military man. But now, he must find answers because he sees so much of himself in Kurtz. He needs to know what happend to Kurtz because he needs to process what the war has done to his own psyche.
As the movie continues, this group faces various other obstacles. While I'm not going to go through and discuss them all, a few do merit discussion before we reach the film's legendary ending.
The "don't get out of the boat" sequence is an example of beautiful cinematography and building tension in a scene. Chef wants to get mangoes, but Willard advises him not to enter the jungle alone. From that point on, tension is building because we've been alerted to the fact that the jungle is dangerous. Add in the beautiful cinematography here as the camera moves among gigantic tree roots and beautiful jungle vistas. Then, Willard tells Chef to be quiet. The two creep ahead until, from out of nowhere amid the jungle overgrowth, a tiger jumps out at them. Willard shoots it before it harms them, but the sequence is startling due to the masterful setup. This scene shows us that it isn't only the bullets and the explosions that can kill a man in this hellscape. Nature itself is seems against them.
Near the end of the film, there is another harrowing scene. Here, the group comes upon a Vietnamese family in a boat. Orders are to search all boats, and Willard and his crew begin searching the boat. But then, one of the Vietnamese makes a quick movement. Mr. Clean panics and sprays the boat with gunfire, leaving only one alive. They quickly realize that the woman had only been reaching for a puppy. Rather than stay and postpone the mission, Willard shoots the barely-living woman. It is a shocking and heartbreaking sequence. Not only is Willard nearing the end of his physical journey down the river to find Kurtz, but he is also slowly becoming more and more like Kurtz.
Now we come to the film's ending - a sequence that is both legendary and shrouded in rumor and controversy. It is said that Marlon Brando came to the set heavily overweight and unprepared for the part. He had demanded an exorbitant paycheck to even accept the role. Finally, when he arrived on set, he decided to actually read Heart of Darkness. He then realized what Coppola was looking for in the role of Kurtz and he became slightly easier to work with. However, that didn't change the fact that he was completely overweight for the role. So, Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro decided to completely shroud Brando in darkness to downplay his weight. The result is a haunting vibe surrounding this crazed man. Brando shows why he alone could play this role. His voice and persona instantly bring gravitas to the situation.
Kurtz tells Willard of the horror of war. He recounts an experience he had where they had come through to innoculate Vietnamese children for polio. After they administered the shots, the Vietnamese military hacked off all the innoculated arms. Kurtz recalls seeing "a pile of little arms." He tells Willard of how he wept, then how he realized that this is exactly what war calls for. This brings about what, in my opinion, is possibly the most important quote in analyzing this film.
You see, in our society, there is a place for judgment. We have courts of law where we appoint judges to decide who has committed crimes and how they must be punished. Even in our own lives, we make judgments about people we come into contact with and whether or not we should associate with them based upon their actions or beliefs.
At the same time, when you really think about it, we do ask our soldiers to suspend judgment. We tell them to go into another country and kill because we have made the judgment that it is warranted. Yes, we have court marshals and international court systems, but as Willard rightly points out earlier in the film, murder is an accusation that could be widely handed down on a field of war.
Willard then realizes that, to complete his mission, he must do exactly what Kurtz is describing. He must tap into his primordial instincts and kill Kurtz without feeling. He must do this even though he sees so much of himself in Kurtz.
The buffalo sacrifice scene is one of the most affecting scenes I've ever experienced while watching a movie. "The End" makes a reprise, and the song's climax times perfectly with a tribal sacrifice of a water buffalo. At the same time, Willard is stealthily moving towards Kurtz's compound to complete his mission. Coppola faced a great deal of controversy over the fact that a real water buffalo was used for this scene. Much like the famous horse's head scene from The Godfather, I wonder if there would have been a different way to handle the sequence. But in both cases, setting that aside for a moment, what we see on screen is undeniably jarring. We realize that war has forced Willard to view Kurtz in the same way as Kurtz's native followers view this bull - an animal ready to be sacrificed.
The movie ends with Kurtz's famous words - "The horror. The horror." We see that the horrors of war have been presented right before our very eyes in stark fashion. Coppola famously said that this movie is not about Vietnam, rather "it is Vietnam."
In his review of the film, the great Roger Ebert discusses some of the controversy and confusion surrounding the film's ending, much of which emanates from comments Coppola himself made about the film. Unfortunately, that may have had something to do with the fact that Apocalypse Now was not well-received initially and was only awarded two Oscars (for Best Sound and Best Cinematography).
After multiple viewings, it is clear to me that this is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Despite its difficult subject matter and its long runtime, Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies as well. I think it holds up masterfully to repeat viewings. Specifically because of the fact that I have not had much close interaction with war or with the way it affects people who live through it, I appreciate Apocalypse Now for the realism with which it depicts that harsh truth.
If war is a reality of our fallen world, it is a preeminently sad reality. War forces us to twist our humanity to the point where we can ask young men and women to kill without judgment. Back home, we sit in our comfy chairs and make judgments about why we do so. Maybe that's just the way it has to be. Maybe war is something we are just forced to live with.
But that doesn't change the fact that it is horror. Absolute horror.
Note on content: This is a war film and, as you might expect, that means it is brutally violent. The power of this film is in its unflinching desire to show realities of war. Part of that is showing blood, death and gore. There is certainly much of that in this film. There is also profanity, and there is one scene that showcases a Playboy Playmate show at a base along the river. I think that scene is meant to be an echo of the sirens in Homer's Odyssey, but I find it to be an easily-skippable scene. There are other moments of sexual content in the film due to posters that the soldiers have pinned to the boat. Now, as I said earlier, my review focuses on the original version and not the Redux version of Apocalypse Now. The Redux version has another scene with the Playboy bunnies that is a graphic sex scene. Because of that, I prefer the movie's original version that has far less sexual content. Not to say that the original version is devoid of sexual content, but violence and profanity are certainly far more prevalent. But, again, all of it is necessary to tell the horrifying truth of the story of Vietnam. To sanitize it would be to present a false reality.