Speaking in retrospect about his 1979 film, director Francis Ford Coppola once said, “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”
Coppola was referring to the immense difficulty and hardship he experienced in making the film, but his words are true in another sense as well. 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 – it 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 two-thirds of Conrad’s tale to Southeast Asia and gives us the story of Captain Benjamin L Willard (Martin Sheen), United States Army assassin (pictured at right), 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 Nung River into Cambodia, and there find and kill Colonel Walter E Kurtz, a renegade Green Beret officer who has organised a force of Montagnard tribesmen into his own private army, which Kurtz has been using to wage war in his own way, on his own terms.
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 patrol boat and its crew: Chief Phillips (Albert Hall); Clean (Larry Fishburne); Chef (Frederic Forrest); and Lance (Joseph Bottoms). Along the way, Willard and the sailors 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 Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who commands the Airmobile unit that is supposed to escort Willard’s boat to the mouth of the Nung River.
Kilgore (pictured at left) 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.
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 whom Willard encounters can be considered clowns.
They commit massive, mindless violence, which is inefficient as well as counterproductive to the stated goal of “winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”
A warrior, on the other hand, uses violence only when it is necessary, and then does so surgically. His response is precise, controlled, and lethal.
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.
And then there is Kurtz himself (Marlon Brando). His ragtag troops clearly consider him a mystic warrior.
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 frightened of Kurtz, too. But his fear does not stop him, several nights later, from sneaking into Kurtz’s quarters and hacking him to death with a machete. Willard is able to do this because, he says, Kurtz wished to die: “He wanted someone to take the pain away.”
The filming of Apocalypse Now was in itself a remarkable undertaking: Endless problems – including a typhoon 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 had a near-fatal heart attack. Coppola himself at the end was almost physically, financially and psychologically devastated.
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 the making of the film) is a vital companion piece to the original film.
Captain Benjamin L Willard
Colonel Walter E Kurtz
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore
Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks
Lance B. Johnson
Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller
General R Corman
G D Spradlin
Lieutenant Richard M. Colby
Playmate of the Year
Playmate, Miss May
Francis Ford Coppola