Good movies can be measured by how well they are assembled and how much they expand our consciousness. Using these two criteria, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a very good movie.
From the opening artistry of optical overlaps to the closing shot of a boat moving off in the distance down a river, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro keeps our eyes filled with fluid images of life, death, and destruction. The film contains one unforgettable scene and a trio of fine performances by Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Frederic Forrest. And the wraparound electronic rock soundtrack is especially effective.
The story's theme of good and evil, lying and deceit,violence and survivorship ethics not only illuminates the rigors of the Vietnam War, they provoke us to thought about these tensions within our own lives. Finally the movie's literary debt to Joseph Conrad's turn-of-the-century novella "The Heart of Darkness" gives Apocalypse Now a philosophical underpinning which sets it apart from other recent cinematic evaluations of the American involvement in Vietnam.
Francis Ford Coppola has created space in this film for the viewer to make connections, exercise values, and feel things deeply. There is time enough here to travel far away to Vietnam or deep down on a troubling journey inward. Let Apocalypse Now move you as it will. Our only advise, a tip once learned from Robert Bresson "Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing pole (the fish that arises from nowhere)."
Don't monkey with death. It will only make you dirty.
Captain B.L. Willard (Martin Sheen) lies in a grungy Saigon hotel room in a funk of depression. The soundtrack music, the late Jim Morrison singing "The End," sets the tone of the story as a whole: "All the children are insane; waiting for the summer rain." Some military high brass give Willard a new mission: "terminate" the command of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade army offier who's set up camp in Cambodia with American deserters and local Montagnard Indians.
Willard, the hired killer and cynic, is intrigued with his assignment. Why has Kurtz, a competent, high-ranking, decorated soldier, turned his back on the regular army? Is Kurtz truly mad, as these officers believe? What are the benefits of ruling his own little kingdom in Cambodia power, the thrill of killing without rules, the exuberance of anarchy? Willard undertakes this journey partly to unravel the mystery of Kurtz and partly to see, perhaps, a reflection of himself in this outsider.
Some people wanted to blow it all to hell, animal, vegetable, mineral. They wanted a Vietnam they could fix into their car ashtrays.
Michael Herr, Dispatches
On the first leg of his journey to locate Kurtz, Willard joins up with a unit led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who seems to envision himself as throwback to Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Mounted on helicopters instead of horses, he and his men attack a Viet Cong village. To frighten the enemy, the choppers blare out Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as they swoop down out of the sky and machine gun everything that moves on the ground below. Kilgore then orders a few B52s in for the kill: they drop a napalm blast which incarnates a lengthy strip along the shoreline. The Colonel muses: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like vitory." Willard wonders about the line between sanity and madness when he learns that the real reason Kilgore agreed to take the village was that the wanted to see Lance (Sam Bottoms), a California surfing champion, do his thing on the waters at the edge of the town.
In this unforgettable battle sequence, Coppola has managed to pull off what no other movie-maker concerned with Vietnam has been able to accomplish he conveys in a deeply visceral way how ordinary individuals can get high on wanton destruction. The scene with its mixture of music, movement, and slaughter conveys American energy gone wild a gale of amoral violence let loose. Any military objective is secondary to the thrill of the battle.
Willard is being taken up river by a heavily armored Navy patrol boat piloted by Chief (Albert Hall) and manned by Clean (Larry Fishburne), a ghetto black youth; Chef (Frederic Forrest), a gourmet cook from New Orleans; and Lance, the surfer. The patrol boat arrives at an American installation just as a USO show is beginning. Some Playboy Playmates do a suggestive dance number using guns as props. This sends the troops into pandemonium. As they storm the stage, the women are whisked away on a chopper. Again we see that the conditions of daily death and destruction have turned these soldiers into wildmen.
You don't' realize how good you were at killing until afterward when say with a four or five body-count to your credit, you thought about it because you had time to realize how simply it had been done, say in about ten to fifteen seconds.
Bryan Alec Floyd, The Long War Dead
All on edge, Willard's transport team continues up river. They come upon a boat carrying some Vietnamese. While Chef is aboard looking for weapons, a woman lunges at him. Within seconds all the Vietnamese are dead. There is only one survivor; Willard finishes the wounded woman off with a bullet. Before the gunfire, she had been going to Chef to retrieve her puppy dog. Here the determining factor between life and death is a matter of reflexes. The adrenalin pumps the muscles in the arm, the machine gun blurts out its response, and its all over. Restraint, a civilized virtue, seems to have no place in war.
Farther up river, there's a bridge. The army builds it during the day and the Viet Cong blow it up at night. Willard goes through the trenches in search of the commanding officer and finds there isn't one. In this last American outpost, order and protocol have vanished. Everyone's spooked. The journey continues. Clean and Chef are killed. Lance freaks out, paints his face like a warrior, and gets high on drugs.
They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether in times of quiet to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? … They did not know good from evil.
Tim O'Brien, Going after Cacciato
Willard, Chef, and Lance at last reach Kurtz's compound situated in an Angkor Wat-like temple. The area is a virtual killing ground, littered with old bones, skulls, and recently slain bodies hanging from trees. The pale, bald, and ailing Kurtz toys with Willard. He has his men behead Chef. Lance, stoned, wanders through the camp.
Kurtz's charismatic presence and the lucidity of his madness have made believers out of a photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) and the last soldier sent to assassinate him. But Willard peers into the man's eyes and finds there the very nihilism he fears within himself. The renegade Colonel tells his adversary the sources of his amoral view of violence. He quotes T. S. Elliot's "The Last Hollow Man" and talks of the beauty in his own personally evolved Darwinian ethic of the struggle of survival. At night when while the Indians slaughter a sacrificial buffalo outside, Willard ritualistically hacks Kurtz to death. The Colonel's dying words are "the horror, the horror."
There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen is a convex or a concave mirror is always a vain and floating experience.
Apocalypse Now must be appropriated on both an aesthetic and a philosophical level. To only take the movie as a morality play is to miss its vivid and varied felt sense which goes far beyond words. But to writ the film off, as many critics will, because of the philosophizing which fills the last half-hour is to miss the essential thrust of Coppola's vision of the drama: he sees it as an updated version of Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness."
Apocalypse Now succeeds as a contemporary interpretation of Conrad's work. The movie drives us deep into ourselves to probe the attractions of the unspeakable. Is our vanity all of one piece with Krutz's, Willard's, Kilgore's, and the army kingpins who orchestrate this trip into Cambodia? Could we exercise restraint in the face of visible and invisible enemies? Would we know where the horror would lead us? What we see on the screen is a mirror of the madness of the Vietnam War and a disturbing reflection of our own heart of darknes.