The story of Apocalypse Now is one of almost inconceivable excess. Onscreen it is a behemoth of a film loaded with memorable sequence after memorable sequence, very nearly bursting at the seams with ideas. Off screen it was a staggering undertaking that nearly destroyed everyone involved. It’s too big a movie to be easily summed up, though director Francis Ford Coppola probably came closest when he famously stated, “My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam.”
The film is a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In both stories a man is sent on a long river journey to find a man named Kurtz, who is said to have gone mad, though the problem may actually be that he suddenly sees things all too clearly. In the film, the man sent on the journey is Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a loner whose life outside the army has been destroyed by his experiences in the war. That outside life will be swept further away once Willard arrives at the compound of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and is forced to see the things that Kurtz has seen, namely the horror of human nature.
Willard’s direction from his superiors is simple. Travel into Cambodia, find Kurtz and terminate his command “with extreme prejudice.” This mission is to be a secret and officially it does not exist. Willard sets off on a Navy Patrol Boat commanded by George Phillips (Albert Hall) and his crew: Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), “Mr. Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), and “Chef” (Frederic Forrest). Together the five men travel the river, which acts at the narrative’s connecting force.
Many sequences in the film are justly famous. Early on the boat crew joins up with the Air Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who agrees to transport their boat to the Nung River, but only because the area offers a good opportunity for surfing. The area is heavily fortified by Viet Cong but Kilgore is confident in his ability to take the beach and so begins the helicopter attack sequence set to “Ride of the Valkyries.” To say that this is one of the best battle scenes ever captured on film is an understatement. It is an exhilarating scene, beautifully choreographed and put together and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of excess that defines the film, and the bravado that defines Kilgore. The battle isn’t even completely over before Kilgore sends some of his soldiers out to surf while the final blow is dealt in the form of a napalm strike. What follows the film’s second most famous line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Other sequences involve Willard and Chef’s search for mangoes, which shows them dwarfed by the jungle around them and attacked by a tiger, a USO show featuring Playboy Playmates that degenerates into a near-riot, and an encounter with a Vietnamese family on a boat. This last sequence marks a turning point in the film, showing the extent of Willard’s own ruthlessness and setting up the surreality of the film’s final chapters.
Throughout the course of the journey Willard buries himself in the materials he’s been given regarding Kurtz. Part of him comes to admire the man but part of him is fearful of what has happened to him. As they get closer to Kurtz, they seem to also be going back in time, towards something more primitive. The boat is attacked by Kurtz’s followers, not with guns, but with arrows and spears. When they finally arrive at Kurtz’s compound, passing through rows of the followers on boats - a metaphorical opening of the gates of hell - they find a place filled with idols and teeming with the stench of death.
It takes a long time for Willard to finally come face-to-face with Kurtz, but it is well worth the wait. Brando’s performance – which Coppola very nearly had to drag out of him – is a thing of absolute perfection. When he speaks of “the horror,” the realization that victory for the other side is inevitable because they are willing to sacrifice more, it is a soliloquy that penetrates deeply, that gets itself into your psyche and puts down roots. Kurtz’s conclusion, that what is necessary to win the war is “men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us,” nearly breaks him just as Willard is broken as he comes to understand what Kurtz has gone through. “They were gonna make me a major for this,” he states at the end, “and I wasn’t even in their fuckin’ army anymore.” The Willard who went up the river is most certainly not the same Willard at the end of it.
The story on screen is big and bold and so well-made that you might never suspect the behind the scenes turmoil, were it not so well publicized. Production of the film was beset by problems including a typhoon that destroyed sets, a script that Coppola was constantly re-writing, a heart attacked suffered by Sheen, drug and alcohol problems amongst the cast, helicopters borrowed from the Philippine government that were occasionally recalled for the army’s use, and various problems with Brando. All of this is covered in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, quite possibly the best film ever made about making a film, and shows that the arduous process of getting this story to the screen is just as compelling as what ended up there. This is a film that every movie fan should see at some point, not only for what it ultimately achieves but for the sheer scale of its ambition. This is not just a great movie, but one that shows the possibilities of what film can be.