Apocalypse Now is one of those films that I’m disappointed in myself that I haven’t watched until now. Due to its seminal status, I have seen dozens of films and TV shows that have been inspired by Apocalypse Now but I’ve never seen the actual film until now. Having seen it, I can completely understand why Apocalypse Now has obtained its seminal nature.The plot follows Willard, a Captain during the Vietnam War, who is ordered by his superiors to assassinate the rogue Colonel, Kurtz, on the charge of murder. Whilst on the boat heading to the compound of Kurtz, Willard and the crew of the boat he’s on come across different aspects of the Vietnam War, including a napalm attack on a village blocking their route led by Colonel Kilgore and a USO show featuring the Playboy bunnies. When they arrive at Kurtz’ compound, Willard finds himself becoming drawn to Kurtz, raising questions over whether or not it is right to kill Kurtz. This central question is the heart of why Apocalypse Now is such a strong film. Throughout the film, we see numerous atrocities committed by the American soldiers, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians with the napalm attacks and soldiers firing on civilians, killing them, but it’s only Kurtz who is being punished by the higher ups. Even the characters in the film point out that the order to assassinate Kurtz for murder was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. The film highlights the hypocrisy present throughout the armed forces in the Vietnam War, along with the sense of tragedy faced by the soldiers. For many of the soldiers, they will never be able to recover from their experiences in the Vietnam War, be it due to the PTSD they develop due to what they were forced to do, or because their personalities cannot fathom life without war any more, particularly a war which is going badly for America. The film also highlights the whole surreal nature of the Vietnam War, how unreal a lot of elements surrounding it feel, creating a situation where the Vietnamese people are dehumanised into the ‘enemy’ that needs to be defeated so the ‘heroes’ can surf, or with the use of the Playboy bunnies to boost morale, creating a sense of artificiality within the American side of the war, which in many ways is no different to what we see of Kurtz’ camp. Throughout the film, we see how Kurtz’ mindset is not really any more or less deranged than the mindset of the other soldiers in the Vietnam war, the whole nature of the war making it completely understandable why Kurtz suffered his break, and this moral grey area gives Apocalypse Now its power.
The cast meanwhile is stellar all around. Martin Sheen as Willard does a great job at showing the stress felt by the character, how he feels so alienated from the rest of society that he willingly went back to Vietnam after being discharged and how he relishes the mission to kill Kurtz, at first, with Sheen showing the increased loss of humanity felt by Willard as the film goes on, which makes him susceptible to be indoctrinated by Kurtz. As Kurtz meanwhile, Marlon Brando gives one of his defining performances. Whilst it was not the Kurtz originally written in the script, mainly due to Brando not reading the script and thus having to improvise all his scenes, Brando brings a great deal of menace and power to Kurtz, letting you understand how he developed this cult of personality, with his monologues about war and the human condition being fascinating to listen to. Robert Duvall also gives an iconic performance as Kilgore, his character probably being the biggest monster in the film due to how much he relishes the violence he inflicts on the Vietnamese people and how their concerns are secondary to his concerns for surfing. There’s also an element of tragedy he brings to the part, showing how damaging this mindset is to him and how he will never adjust to civilian life once the war is over. Strong performances are also seen from Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist at Kurtz’ compound, showing how Kurtz is able to change people to adopt his worldview, there being a brilliant sense of insanity in Hopper’s eyes, alongside Laurence Fishburne as Clean, his character being a great show of the loss of innocence in the young that all wars create, with Fishburne’s age playing a strong role in this. Meanwhile, Frederic Forrest as Chef does a solid job showing how people can be driven mad by their experiences in war, Sam Bottoms does great work showing how soldiers used drugs to numb the pain of what they experienced during the Vietnam war, retreating into drug highs to escape from the horror, whilst Harrison Ford makes a strong impression as the Colonel who orders Willard to assassinate Kurtz, presenting a strong authoritarian nature.
The technical side of the film is incredible as well, which it needed to be considering how much suffering the crew was placed through during the production of the film, as highlighted in the documentary Hearts of Darkness (which I also need to get around to watching). Coppola and DP Vittorio Storaro’s use of greens and oranges creates a surreal undertone for the entire film, putting you ill at ease alongside the characters. The use of music meanwhile adds to the surreal quality, especially when mixed with the explosions, most notable with The End and Ride of the Valkyries, which puts you in the mindset of the soldiers, both those rendered numb by the war, and those who have embraced the war to a dangerous degree. The on location shooting meanwhile creates a real sense of heat and isolation throughout the film, which adds to the tension whenever we see the main characters on the boat, never knowing what they will come across next and whether or not that will kill them. The design of Kurtz’ compound meanwhile is incredible, creating an otherworldly feeling in every scene we see, especially when combined with the actions of the extras in that scene, notably the slaughtering of a water buffalo (which, no matter how many arguments you can make about the artistry and the symbolism of combining that scene with the final scene between Willard and Kurtz, is disgusting to actually show).
Overall, with the exception of one disgusting element of the film, Apocalypse Now is an absolute masterpiece, a powerful look at the psychology of war and the dehumanising elements of it, alongside the hypocrisy inherent within war. The performances and technical aspects of the film help to create this surreal undertone throughout the film which highlights its thematic depths and easily makes this not only the best film of Francis Ford Coppola’s career, but also one of the best war movies ever made.
My Rating: 5/5