Speaking retrospectively about his 1979 film, director Francis Ford Coppola once said, “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”
Coppola referred to the immense difficulty and hardship he experienced in making the film, but his words are also true in another sense. Apocalypse Now is not an accurate film – it does not depict any actual events that took place during the long history of American involvement in the Vietnam War. It is, however, a true film that clearly conveys the surreal, absurd, and brutal aspects of the war that were experienced by many who took part in it.
The broad outline of the script is adapted from Joseph Conrad’s bleak 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which concerns nineteenth-century European imperialism in Africa.
Screenwriter John Milius transplants the latter part of Conrad’s tale to Southeast Asia and gives us the story of Captain Benjamin L Willard (Martin Sheen), United States Army assassin (pictured), and his final assignment in Vietnam.
“I wanted a mission,” Willard says in voice-over narration, “and, for my sins, they gave me one. When it was over, I’d never want another.”
Willard’s mission is to journey up the Nùng River into Cambodia and there find Colonel Walter E Kurtz – a renegade Green Beret officer who has organised a force of Montagnard tribesmen into his own private army – and terminate him “with extreme prejudice”.
Kurtz’s methods of fighting the Viet Cong are unremittingly savage – according to the General who briefs Willard on his mission: “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.”
And so Willard begins his own journey into the heart of darkness, courtesy of a Navy river patrol boat and its crew: Chief Phillips (Albert Hall); Mr Clean (Larry Fishburne); Chef (Frederic Forrest); and Lance (Joseph Bottoms). Along the way, Willard and the patrol boat crew encounter people and situations that highlight the absurdity of the American approach to the war.
This idea is brought in early when Willard remarks after accepting the mission to find and kill Kurtz: “Charging people with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”
The absurdity escalates when Willard meets Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a macho 1st Cavalry commander and surfing enthusiast who leads the Airmobile unit that is supposed to escort Willard’s boat to the mouth of the Nùng River.
Kilgore (pictured) is bored at the prospect until he learns that the section of coast where he is supposed to deliver Willard offers excellent currents for surfing.
At dawn the next day, Kilgore’s helicopters assault the Viet Cong village that overlooks their objective, wiping out the inhabitants so that Kilgore and his troops can surf – and, incidentally, allowing Willard to continue his mission.
The famous sequence where the helicopters attack the village while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers is perhaps the best fifteen or twenty minutes ever committed to film.
And the aftermath of the airstrike that Kilgore calls in to finish off the village allows Duvall to deliver one of the film’s more famous lines: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning! It smells like . . . victory!”
Later, in a remote American outpost where the boat stops for supplies, Willard and the crew arrive just in time to see a gaudy United Service Organisations (USO) show, replete with a band and go-go dancing Playboy Playmates that
quickly dissolves into chaos as lustful soldiers try to get to the showgirls.
This highlights another theme in the film – the Americans do not like the jungle, so they attempt to turn the jungle into America. In Willard’s words: “They tried to make it just like home.”
And that, the film seems to say, is why they would lose – you cannot win a jungle war by trying to make the jungle into America.
As the boat departs the outpost and its go-go dancers, Willard’s thoughts turn to the enemy: “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was either dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of good R&R [rest and relaxation] was a handful of cold rice, or a little rat meat.”
Willard’s parting thought on the spectacle he has just witnessed is: “The war was being run by clowns, who were going to end up giving the whole circus away.”
That quotation evokes another of the film’s themes: the distinction between “clowns” and “warriors.” Most of the United States military people Willard encounters can be considered clowns.
They commit massive, mindless violence, which is inefficient and counterproductive to the stated goal of “winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”
On the other hand, a warrior uses violence only when it is necessary and then does so surgically. His response is precise, controlled, and lethal.
Lance sets off a smoke grenade that inadvertently alerts enemy soldiers on shore, and Mr Clean is killed in the ensuing firefight. Chief is hit by a spear released by native tribesmen and tries to kill Willard.
Willard finishes him off, and Lance disposes of Chief’s body in the river. Willard shares his plan with Chef and the two continue on together.
The scene greeting Willard when he arrives at Kurtz’s stronghold is like something out of a nightmare. The bodies of dead Viet Cong are everywhere. A crashed plane hangs half out of a tree. A pile of human skulls leers from the shore. The Montagnard warriors, their faces painted white, stand silent and ominous as ghosts as they watch Willard’s boat pull in.
Willard encounters a manic freelance photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who praises Kurtz extravagantly. Returning to the PBR, Willard and Lance soon depart, telling Chef to initiate an airstrike on Kurtz if the pair fails to return – a futile safeguard because Chef is soon decapitated by Kurtz’s men.
Willard thinks Kurtz may be insane – but, if so, it is a form of insanity perfectly suited to the kind of war he is fighting. As Willard notes while reading Kurtz’s dossier on the trip upriver, “The Viet Cong knew his name now, and they were scared of him.”
Willard is caged and brought before Kurtz in a darkened temple where he is lectured by Kurtz on war, life, and the fanaticism of the Viet Cong who cut off the arms of children newly inoculated by the Americans.
That night, Willard enters Kurtz’s chamber and attacks him with a machete. Quoting directly from Heart of Darkness, Kurtz whispers “The horror, the horror” and dies.
When Willard leaves the compound, Kurtz’s minions bow down to him but Willard refuses to supplant Kurtz as their new demi-god; he leads Lance to the boat and they depart downriver as the screen fades to black.
The filming of Apocalypse Now was in itself a remarkable undertaking: Endless problems – including a typhoon (Typhoon Olga) that destroyed most of the sets, difficulties with the authorities of the Philippines (where the film was shot) and personal problems with the actors and the crew – brought the costs sky high and the shooting process from the scheduled six weeks up to 16 months.
Initially, Harvey Keitel played Captain Willard. They filmed for six weeks before Coppola instituted the cast change.
Eight months into production Martin Sheen – then in the throes of severe alcoholism – had a near-fatal heart attack which delayed production for another six weeks while he recuperated.
Marlon Brando took on the role of Kurtz for the exorbitant fee of $3.5 million for 20 days work ($175,000 a day).
He also presented problems when he arrived on set weighing some 300 pounds and clueless about the role he was supposed to play.
Valuable time was wasted as Brando and Coppola improvised Kurtz’s lines and Brando’s corpulence forced Coppola to dress him in black and shoot him mostly in close-up and deep shadow to obscure his bulk.
By the end of filming, Coppola – who had to subsidise the production with millions of dollars of his own money – was almost physically, financially and psychologically devastated.
Post-production complications with editing, sound mixing, and voice-over narration delayed the movie’s release until the Cannes Film Festival on 10 May 1979, more than three years after the start of principal photography and a full decade after Coppola commissioned John Milius to write the script.
Apocalypse Now shared the Palme d’Or for Best Film with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and earned eight Oscar nominations, winning two (for Best Sound and Best Cinematography).
It also did well at the box office, earning $81.2 million and receiving almost universal accolades from film critics.
When Coppola approached the Pentagon for US military assistance in the production of Apocalypse Now he received a reply stating “The Army does not lend officers to the CIA to execute or murder other Army officers, and even if we did, we wouldn’t help you make a picture about it”.
The documentary Hearts of Darkness (made by Coppola’s wife about making the film) is a vital companion piece to the original film.
Captain Benjamin L Willard
Colonel Walter E Kurtz
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore
Gunners Mate Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks
Gunners Mate Lance B. Johnson
Gunners Mate Tyrone ‘Mr Clean’ Miller
Chief Petty Officer George Phillips
General R Corman
G D Spradlin
Lieutenant Richard M. Colby
Playmate of the Year
Playmate, Miss May
Francis Ford Coppola