By Marc S. Sanders
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece, Apocalypse Now from 1979, focuses on a madman assigned to find another madman and assassinate him. I look at the film as a spiral into a dark, demented psychosis. Each section of Coppola’s film appears like some variation of insanity within an environment and period of time where there was no end in sight for a war that was going out of control.
Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is first shown in a hotel room that he has ransacked during a drunken rage, going so far as to smash his fist into a mirror. His voiceover explains the horrifying experiences he has already endured. Now he is at a point where killing is all he is capable of performing. He is summoned to a General’s lunch where he is assigned to seek out a highly decorated Special Forces soldier named Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has taken his squad over to Cambodia without authorization. It is believed that he has gone insane with his will to harbor people over there into a cult that he controls while engaging in his own actions against the Vietcong. The army needs this problem contained and Willard has been selected to terminate Kurtz.
Apocalypse Now is primarily about the journey, rather than its destination. Willard is to be escorted by patrol boat up the Nang River to find Kurtz and complete his mission. Along the way he will encounter a variety of scenarios and characters.
The standout character is Lt Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) the commander of a helicopter calvary battalion. Willard meets up with Kilgore early on as he will provide an opening on the river for the long journey to begin. This is the most memorable section of Coppola’s film. Robert Duvall is truly maddening as he relishes in the destruction he commands. Kilgore is amused to blare Wagner’s The Ride Of The Valkyries as his choppers blast the shore line where Vietnamese villagers and farmers reside. Duvall almost seems god like during this sequence because he does not even flinch as explosions and armory are set off mere inches away from him. He’s crazed enough to even send his troops out into the ocean to surf while the mayhem is still occurring. When he takes off his shirt while proudly wearing his calvary hat, sunglasses and yellow scarf around his neck, he utters the famous line “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.” There is no hint of sarcasm in that line. Kilgore truly means it. The commands of war are his absolute pleasure. The only human feeling that Kilgore shows is when his personalized surfboard turns up missing. Otherwise, the carnage he leaves behind is a job well done.
Why do I focus on this sequence so much? First, it is a perfect construction of filmmaking and acting combined. Coppola’s clear daylight shots of the choppers advancing on the surf are an amazing sight to behold. To have that much control of so many vehicles in the air so that a select number of cameras can take in the sequence amazes me. It is feats like these that show why I love movies so much. The moment is more enhanced with Wagner’s piece accompanying it. This could all be appreciated as simple documentary style filmmaking. However, when you combine the mayhem Coppola stages with the proud march of The Ride Of The Valkyries, and Duvall’s crazed glee of commanding this episode of mass destruction, you start to see a pretense. The hypocrisy of all the elements contained in this sequence tells the story. This country and its people are being obliterated by a crazed individual arriving from the heavens above. As the scene progresses, my mind returned to the overall plot of the film; the mission of the protagonist which is to kill a lunatic. At this point in the picture, I have yet to meet Colonel Kurtz. So, how much of a madman must Kurtz be when compared to a maniac like Kilgore?
Later sequences carry on the insanity theme. A trio of Playboy playmates are brought in to entertain the troops during one of Willard’s stop overs. Yet, the crowd of soldiers gets out of control and the entertainers are forced to flee by helicopter with some of the men grasping on to the chopper as it takes flight. My thoughts were you must be insane to continue hanging on while it gets higher into the air. Let go for heaven’s sake before you plummet to your death. Nevertheless, these half naked women are the purest, most angelic thing that these boys have ever seen since being recruited into this hellish nightmare.
Willard’s crewmen on the patrol boat seem too green with the impacts of war. They are not as battle weary as Willard. There’s a guy named Lance (Sam Bottoms) who seems happy go lucky to play the Rolling Stones. There’s a chef by trade (Frederic Forrest) and a young kid who goes by the name of “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne). Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) drives the boat. Willard must keep his mission classified. These men are only supposed to get him to his destination no matter how far up the river it takes them. These soldiers are riding into the unknown, escorting a crazed fellow who knows that a positive outcome is not likely. Coppola provides moments where the men lose control of their senses. These boys don’t come as informed about what is right and wrong within the parameters of war. Innocent lives are taken as the patrol boat continues its horrifying tour. Their lives might be taken as well. The question is what is the worse cost? Death, or the horrors they encounter, act upon, and live with thereafter?
It’s notable to watch Frederic Forrest’s performance as he transitions into a mindset with no other option but to slaughter as he dons camouflage makeup later in the film. Albert Hall’s performance lends some sensibility to the picture. However, how does Chief Phillips’ receptivity measure up to the crazed obsession that Willard has for completing his assignment? It’s all quite tragic as the film moves from one moment to the next.
As expected, the third act of the film focuses on Willard’s encounter with Kurtz. Before all of this, we follow along as Willard reads through the extensive files of Kurtz’ history and career. This man seems like a giant among giants and in 1979 it seems only befitting that a giant of an actor portrays the mysterious Colonel. So, that actor had to be none other than Marlon Brando. Oddly enough, this portion of the film is where the film starts to wear out for me. Kurtz is insane in a quiet and dark way. Coppola shoots much of Brando’s performance in darkness. I’m aware of the purpose with that kind of filmmaking, but it is a long section of film to watch an actor move in and out of the light. Brando comes off mysterious with lines of dialogue that make little sense at times. Some allegories work as he describes Willard’s purpose as that of a clerk delivering groceries. Yet, Kurtz seems the least crazed of all the crazies provided within Coppola’s film.
A babbling, hippie photographic journalist (Dennis Hopper) greets Willard upon his arrival. He’s talking in circles with envy for Kurtz, his leader, who resides within the tomb like structure along the banks of the river. The natives also seem to heed towards Kurtz’ influence. Willard is taken captive and tormented. Still, when Kurtz speaks he doesn’t come off so kamikaze like the others we’ve seen before. I can only presume there are levels to insanity. Madness is not a well-defined ailment. I find it ironic that Kurtz, the great soldier and decorated war hero, is deemed the greatest threat to the armed forces’ image within this conflict. Kilgore, on the other hand, has free reign to slaughter helpless women, children, and farming communities all in the name of victory while commanding his underlings to surf along the coastline.
What is so mystifying about Apocalypse Now is how thematic the movie seems to be. It follows this common pattern demonstrating how crazed the effects of war can have on people. The killing and bloodshed are the most apparent of course. However, the military declares early on that there is a loose cannon within their ranks that must be contained. The only option is to kill this man, who has done his bidding for the progress of its army for so long. This man, Colonel Kurtz, has sacrificed promotions in ranking and a return to a quiet life with his wife and children, so that he can continue with carrying out the agendas administered by his government. Yet somehow, he crosses a border, and he no longer kills the way his superiors want him to, and now he must be terminated. The hypocrisy is to send a madman to do a madman’s bidding, as if that will preserve some sort of sanity within this out-of-control conflict.
I could not get away from that impression during the whole three-hour running time of the film. Practically every caption, scene, expression, or scenario is rooted in madness. Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script with John Milius and it’s been said that much of the filmmaking was done on the fly. Still, with Coppola’s direction along with a strong cast, particularly from the quietly, reserved Martin Sheen, the message comes through clearly. War begins with a difference in politics and a need for further control. Pawns are the collateral damage used at will to settle the argument. Rules of engagement may appear formally on paper. However, is anyone with a gun in his hand or facing the end of a loaded barrel going to pause and consider what’s just and appropriate before taking action?
Apocalypse Now speaks to an end of days where the soldiers sent to do the bidding of others respond by doing what they ask of themselves. Therefore, I’ll end this piece on a vague note.
There is no organized effort when it comes to war.
NOTE: This article is based on my viewing of Coppola’s third iteration of his film, entitled Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut.