Apocalypse Now is an epic war film about the Vietnam War, directed, produced and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. It stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. It was loosely based on the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad however the setting was changed from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War. The film follows a river journey from South Vietnam into Cambodia undertaken by Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Sheen), who is on a secret mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a renegade Army Special Forces officer accused of murder and who is presumed insane.
The Story/The Direction:
While the plot may seem simple, the execution of this film is amazing. It is known for its iconic lines of dialogue and it’s Ride of the Valkyries helicopter assault. However, this film is much more than memorable scenes. Coppola has created a brilliant film that not only looks amazing but also it’s messages still hold up today, 40 years later. The film looks at the horror, the absurdity, and the futility of war but also its damaging psychological effects. The film takes these characters into literal and metaphorical darkness and the film suggests that war indulges the darkest, foggiest parts of human nature. The film starts off with a simple plot in mind of killing a bad guy. However, the film slowly morphs into a descent into hell, both metaphorically and visually. Coppola has created an amazing looking film that shows his characters' impending madness. He emphasizes the fear of the unknown by cloaking scenes in fog and mist. He uses masks to symbolize a new identity that his characters take on in order to deal with the war such as Willard’s smashing of his reflection in the first scene. The river itself represents the metaphorical literal journey that these characters are going on. The film and the characters progressively get darker as they venture further and further into the jungle. The cinematography goes from a sunny helicopter attack to an arrow attack in the fog to a bridge only lit by flares and a searchlight. The lighting contrast is even shown with Kurtz as his face is sometimes in shadow and sometimes it's not. While this may have originally been done to ignore Brando’s weight gain, it does show the duality to Kurtz’s ideals.
The film is not directly anti-war and Coppola has said that it is not one, however, it does show the pains and the atrocities of a war fought by the United States in the name of democracy and freedom. The film further shows the absurdity of what the Americans are fighting for: to go home. To them, this is surfing, Playboy, and rock & roll music which honestly, if the war was over, they could go home to those things. The difference is that the Vietnamese are fighting to live. This film is not trying to make its audience sympathetic to the Vietnamese cause but rather it only shows the absurdity of the American side of things. The film has Kilgore (Duvall) telling his men “to surf or to fight” and him paying more attention to the waves of the waters than the lives on the beach below him. The film also shows a team of American journalists ridiculously filming the soldiers and telling them not to look at the camera so that the war would be looked at as entertainment. This is honestly a fairly meta point showing that this film is not showing a story of entertainment with big explosions and comedy. It’s showing the true aspects of it through its messages. Coppola shows the American troops killing innocent civilians instead of helping them. The military acts as if they own they own this land, staking out territory and firing without question even if someone wants to grab their puppy. This hypocrisy is further emphasized by Wiliard’s mission, itself. The US government has made killing him a priority even if it means killing off their own men and resources. Why is this? Because they don’t have control over the situation. This film questions what lives matter? Even though it is pretty evident that Kurtz has gone insane by the end of the film, the government making killing him a priority after him killing two Vietnamese who were working against the United States seems hypocritical when many U.S. troops AND Vietnamese civilians are dying in the overall war. Willard even says “we’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid.” When he shoots an injured woman, the others’ perception of him changes, yet Clean is not looked any differently after preemptively killing an entire family as he was following protocol. Coppola used specific songs in the film to set the mood and adds another layer of authenticity. The music in this film moves the audience with the characters of the film to feel for them when they get mail at the bridge site, and they read their letters out loud. Then minutes later, the audience will hate them for what they are willing to get themselves home. Coppola uses the music to emphasize the fictional aspect of the story but each moment that may feel unreal feels real at the same time. The film establishes that even though the story is fictional, it is still one that demonstrates the true psychological effects war has on a person. The film starts off with “The End,” by the Doors showing Willard’s downward spiral that continues throughout the film.
The Acting/The Characters:
As mentioned, the film shows Willard as possibly insane at the beginning of the film played wonderfully by Sheen. He drunkenly punches a mirror to feel some sort of pain as he did on his first tour of Vietnam. The scene feels even more authentic given that Sheen was actually drunk and the blood dripping on his hand is his. He is a man whose mind has been changed by war. He wants to go back and not go home. The soldiers around him are fighting to go home but he’s fighting to stay around. He takes this new mission because he is bored otherwise. He has to complete his mission and stays out of anything that does not further it along. He goes along with Kilgore’s mass mayhem because he is supposed to escort them to the river. He only involves himself in killing when he shoots a Vietnamese peasant but only to preserve his mission’s priority. As Williard joins the PBR crew, he notices their inexperience. They are young and naive about the journey that they are about to go on. Lance (Buttons) is more focused on his tan, Clean (Fishbourne) jams out to the radio, chef (Forrest) wants to go find mangoes at night in the middle of the jungle, and Chief (Hall) is calm and optimistic of the overall war. As the movie progresses, the crew’s sanity and innocence start to lesson. This is shown through many visual cues, some more obvious than others. Chef realizes the danger of the jungle when a tiger attacks him on a mango hunt and Lance changes his face with camouflage. Willard slowly becomes obsessed with Kurtz and as he thinks to himself, the audience wonders if he will join Kurtz when they meet or will he fulfill his mission? This film is amazing with building up this antagonist without even showing him on screen but even so, making the audience wonder if he actually is an antagonist. Willard has this admiration for Kurtz but questions his methods even though he has never met the man before. Yet, he is still willing to kill him as the American soldiers were willing to kill innocent Vietnamese civilians. His journey is a slow path into madness that is more complicated than initially anticipated. Similarly, the US troops came into this country wanting to kill “Charlie” but when they see the damage that they do, things can change. Do you follow orders or do you follow your morals? In the end, Willard represents a hybrid of the two and Kurtz represents the extreme version of following orders.
Kurtz is obviously insane as he killing at random and leaving dead bodies and severed heads around as evidence of his ideals. He answers to no one and claims morality is a liability in wartime. Brando plays this character amazingly as this larger-than-life human who completely understands war. He knows what he is doing is horrific but still sees the hypocrisy of what the US is doing to the Vietnamese. However, he takes morality out of the equation and one could argue that Kurtz is sane in the context of an insane war. He is basically Frankenstein’s monster to the US government. He did what he was told but his career was ruined when he Vietnamese intelligence agents. He then turned his back on the US government and kept the war moving forward even though the US did not agree with his methods. The film even touches on a little bit of an anti-government message with its treatment of Kurtz. When Kurtz killed the two men, he went outside of the government’s control, so they cut him off. Then when he was fully out of their control, they ordered him to be assassinated, twice. However, Kurtz converted the first assassin but the film has the audience wondering if he will again with Willard and in a way with the audience themselves. He has essentially become a monk of war further shown by his baldness. Even though his methods are dark, there is something spiritual and mystical about him. He is shown in shadows or a mask for all of the scenes which adds a surrealness to his character. Coppola’s use of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” and “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Kurtz’s dialogue together create this being that is mentally, spiritually, and physically insane. He has succumbed to the darkness and it shows the insanity that comes from full freedom with no regulation or order which contrasts the message of the US fighting for freedom in Vietnam. This horror that Kurtz has succumbed is the darkest points of the human mind. Willard is his escape from this place. Willard understands Kurtz’s journey however ultimately decides against following in his footsteps when he completes his mission of killing Kurtz. Interestingly, he is still following orders and not acting of free will. He follows Kurtz’s and the US government’s orders to kill him. Will he return to society as a changed man or will he still ache for more missions? The film doesn’t really give a definite answer but his viewpoint on the war has definitely changed, for better or for worse. One could imply that war will separate one from their morality but it also suggests can rejecting the horror that comes from the separation
As stated earlier, this film has had multiple releases, the theatrical, Redux in 2001, and the Final Cut this year. The Redux cut had an extra Playboy bunny scene that did give some of the characters beats development and spoke for the barbaric and radical aspects of war as apart of the moral grey area of the film. The Redux cut also added a ghost aspect and a scene with Kurtz reading Time Magazine. The latter was not in the Final Cut which is unfortunate as it gave him a humanistic quality. The biggest addition into the Redux version is the scene on the French Plantation which continues on in the Final Cut. It can take away from the overall passage of the film however it still has some interesting and provoking points to make. The entire scene feels off as in a land that is filled with darkness, there is still some light where Parisian attitudes are found. It is hard to tell if this scene was put there to be representative of the pastor to give a duality to Willard that seemingly wasn’t there before. Either way, it is a little vague on why this scene needs to be here. However, the children reciting the poem are Roman and Gian-Carlo Coppola, the latter of which died seven years after the original film was released. Simply knowing that adds more to the ghostly feeling of this part of the and makes me wonder how much of it was real in the story. It could have been a drug-induced hallucination. This is the overall issue with the editions of the films that have been released. The original film was amazing as it was and then they added items later on, some of which were removed in the final cut. Certain things could be kept and some of them, not so much. The extra Playboy bunny scene is not needed but the Time Magazine scene adds a good amount to Kurtz's character. However, this is something that depends on the viewer as the film is fantastic no matter what version you see.
Overall, this film was a great time and it definitely holds up 40 years later. Knowing how much stress went into making this film shows the dedication and the effort that was put into it. The weather was not great in the Philippines, people had heart attacks and epileptic seizures. Each viewing, no matter the cut, is an experience to watch. The film is brilliantly made and Coppola and his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, use lighting to create some of cinema’s most iconic shots that are still being replicated today. The film is a spectacle and it takes a dive into the idea of war that a lot of war films do not do. It can be debated on if this is the best war movie of all time but one cannot deny that it is an absolute cinematic masterpiece that is worth watching again and again.
Rating: 5.0/5.0 bowties
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