"Someday this war's gonna end." -- Col. Kilgore
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Principal cast members:
It says something about a film when the process of making it becomes almost as legendary a saga as the story being told in the film itself. In adapting the Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness, to the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola created a screen legend and endured typhoons, terrorist insurrections, heart attacks, and Marlon Brando to create one of the most iconic movies about the Vietnam War ever produced.
The original Conrad novel is delivered by a narrator giving us the story of an agent for the East India Trading company who is tracking down another man whose name is Kurtz. This particular Kurtz has disappeared into the heart of darkest Africa and apparently gone a little mad. In the novel the farther our narrator goes up the river into Africa, the deeper he descends into a darkness that is utterly savage and brutal. The theme of Conrad is that this darkness is not so much a product of the place, but is something we carry within us.
Coppola's version of the story takes the point of view and narrative voice of a disaffected Special Forces soldier who is sent deep into Cambodia to assassinate a Green Berets colonel who has built a mixed army of US, ARVN, and native forces and is making his own kind of war, one not approved by high command.
Captain Willard, the assassin, is played by Martin Sheen in what might be the finest role of his career. You sense that Willard carries a great deal of darkness within himself and it only needs a bottle or whiskey or proximity to the depths of the jungle to get it out. Along the way, Willard must attach himself to the crew of a riverine patrol boat and rely on a troop of Air Cavalry to get him into the river itself.
The boat is run by a no-nonsense navy NCO, Chief Phillips, portrayed by Albert Hall. Hall's Chief is outstanding. This is a man who carries little of the darkness in him and resents being dragged into the darkness by Willard. He resists it as long as he can and tries to protect his crew, to no avail. The crew, three very young sailors totally unprepared for this type of mission, are Chef, Clean, and Lance. Chef is played by Frederic Forrest and his primal fear in the face of the darkness into which he is being dragged is totally believable. Clean is played by Laurence Fishburne in a small but important role that showed us this 14-year old young man had a future as an actor. Sam Bottoms plays the drugged out surfer, Lance, something of an innocent whose reaction to the darkness is to take enough drugs to make it disappear.
Ultimately, the boat crew is vital to the story because they humanize Captain Willard. We know Willard is no longer a normal human. The opening scene of the film, where Willard gets drunk in a hotel room in Saigon and demonstrates his madness, shown to the music of 'The End' by The Doors, tells us enough about Willard for us to know this is a man who is unlikely to find redemption by the story's end. It is the boat crew who ferry him into the heart of darkness who provide us with touchstones. They are much more sympathetic, much more the victims of the madness that is Vietnam and Cpt. Willard.
Certainly one character who neither wants nor needs redemption is Lt. Col. Kilgore, who is perfectly brought to life by Robert Duvall. Kilgore swaggers into the film with all the scene-stealing bluster and bravado a director could ask. He is heroic and reckless and utterly without fear. His troop assaults a Vietnamese village with ruthless death from the sky accompanied by Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries.' Coppola's depiction accurately captures the madness of Vietnam by showing peaceful scenes of schoolchildren in the village which give way to bristling anti-aircraft guns when the American choppers approach.
Kilgore's choppers pacify the village with help from some air strikes. He suppresses the enemy and also secures a nice stretch of beach on which to surf. Then he waxes poetic in one of the movie's most famous lines, announcing, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Most people stop their recollection of Kilgore's lines right there, but the most chilling part of his soliloquy is actually at the end when he wistfully observes, "Someday, this war's gonna end …"
From there, the movie's journey up the river becomes more episodic. The boat crew encounters a USO visit from Playboy bunnies, a desolate bridge being fought over eternally, tigers, peaceful natives, not-so-peaceful natives, and in the director's original cut, a French colonial plantation. It all serves to emphasize how far the crew has traveled from the civilization they knew. By the time we reach Kurtz's compound in a ruined temple in Cambodia, the insanity of Kilgore's war is starting to look civilized.
Willard's encounter with Kurtz is bizarre, disconnected, and difficult to follow. Legend has it that Brando weighed 300 pounds when he arrived on set and could not possibly pass for a Green Beret commander. Coppola responded by shooting Brando in darkness and furtive lighting which actually works very well for the nature of the character. We never quite understand Kurtz or why he is where he is. More of his personality is actually revealed by a jabbering photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper's photographer has succumbed to the darkness in his own way and now serves as Kurtz's welcoming voice to the strangers. He is a Shakesperean clown bringing together the antagonists with absurdity.
The ending of the movie is disjointed and not easy to discern. Coppola played with a variety of endings and none of them really seem to suit us as viewers or him as director. Ultimately, we are left with an ugly ending to an ugly story and one that is dissatisfying to us as viewers and to the characters. But in many ways, that is fitting. Vietnam was in some ways, an event that was a demoralizing meeting of disparate cultures. The best qualities of America and Asia were simply unable to mesh and it was only the darkest, lowest qualities of both cultures that finally were able to get along in Vietnam.
While the story and scenes of Apocalypse Now represent the extremes of the Vietnam War, in a lot of ways it is the extremes that capture the essence of what many soldiers experienced. It may not be the most realistic of movies, but at heart, it captures something very real that many of our soldiers brought home with them, festering in their own hearts. As such, it is a movie well worth seeing.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 8