Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Tag line: "The Horror. . . The Horror. . ."
Trivia: Francis Ford Coppola spent days reading Joseph Conrad's source novel "Heart of Darkness" out loud to Marlon Brando on the set.
By exploring the duality of war, the physical terror it brings about and the mental anguish that results from it, Apocalypse Now sets its sights on the fine line between warfare and madness, a line that, at times, is almost too thin to measure.
A highly decorated American Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has disappeared into the jungles of Cambodia, and High Command assigns Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) of Special Forces to track him down. According to reports, Kurtz has raised an army in Cambodia, consisting mostly of primitive indigenous tribesmen, and is engaging in a unique brand of warfare. During the long voyage up-river, Willard reviews Kurtz’s dossier, searching for the reasons why this career military man suddenly took leave of his senses. Meanwhile, the swift boat Willard’s traveling on encounters its own share of danger, from a run-in with a crazy Colonel named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) to a USO show that ends in chaos. Yet the closer he gets to his destination, the more Willard reflects on his own traumatic wartime experiences, which have him questioning his sanity. If a soldier as honored as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz can lose his mind in a place like this, what’s to prevent him from doing the same?
Apocalypse Now takes us inside Willard’s head by way of some crisp, thought-provoking narration, delivered wonderfully by Martin Sheen. Having served for years as a trained assassin, Willard is none too happy with his new assignment, which brings him up against a fellow American, and a war hero to boot. “I took the mission”, Willard says, “but I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him”. During his initial briefing, General Corman (G.D. Spradlin), an old friend of Kurtz’s, tells Willard that the Colonel’s methods have become “unsound”. Yet Willard questions the military’s definition of unsound following his encounter with Colonel Kilgore, a gung-ho commander whose flamboyance leads to a particularly bizarre skirmish. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Kilgore’s Air Command storms a Vietnamese village situated well behind enemy lines. And what was his reason for launching such a dangerous attack? To gain the only section of beach within miles that boasts six-foot swells, so he and his men could do a little surfing. Willard has been ordered to take out a man who’s supposedly lost his mind, but what about the obviously insane Kilgore? The only difference between the two is that Kurtz’s “war” has gone beyond acceptable military parameters, while Kilgore still operates within the “rules”, yet in a life or death situation, Willard would much rather align himself with the renegade Colonel he’s being sent to kill than the flashy Kilgore.
I remember when my father, a Vietnam veteran, first saw Apocalypse Now back in 1979. I asked him what he thought of it, and he categorized the movie as realistic in some parts, and flat-out weird in others. I suppose it’s an understandable reaction; the film does spend a great deal of time building its war story, only to abruptly undercut it with a descent into the dark recesses of a madman’s psyche, a military leader who’s set himself up as a jungle God. But Apocalypse Now is more than the tale of one man, one journey, or even one war. It’s an exposé of the very nature of warfare, and how a steady diet of violence can lead even the bravest, most intelligent among us to fall victim to our personal demons.
But above all, Apocalypse Now leaves us questioning where ‘weird’ begins and sanity ends.