Apocalypse Now

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Francis Ford Coppola’s feverish anti-war epic Apocalypse Now actually began its journey to screen in the late sixties when Über-macho filmmaker John Milius attempted to meet the challenge presented to him when he was informed that no one had successfully adapted Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, although several had tried, including luminaries such as Orson Welles. His original screenplay was true to Milius’s conservative, pro-military outlook, containing a great deal of praise for the warrior lifestyle and nothing but contempt for the hippies he saw protesting against the Vietnam War.

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I can’t know for certain, but I suspect that Dennis Hopper’s spaced out photojournalist is one of the few survivors from Milius’s original vision. What finally emerged is a hypnotic, disorganized mess, especially after Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) reaches the compound of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). I’m not sure if it was by luck or design that the storytelling descends into complete chaos at the same time as the film’s characters, but for once, a filmmaker losing his grip actually helps the movie. This doesn’t make the final fifty minutes any less obtuse, but their obtuseness doesn’t make these minutes any less brilliant.

Apocalypse Now uses Captain Willard’s mission to head upriver and assassinate Kurtz to tell a story that manages to encompass the entire Vietnam War itself. Veterans of the conflict may point to the film and say, “It wasn’t like that,” but that’s not really relevant. Despite the focus on Willard’s journey, you could argue that the main character was Kurtz. By the end, we certainly know more about him than we do about Willard and it’s his descent into madness that speaks most clearly about America’s experience in Southeast Asia.


When Kurtz asks Willard what he was told about the colonel, Willard replies that the generals told him that Kurtz was insane and his methods were completely unsound. The film’s dark sense of absurdity is encapsulated by that one line, as if Kurtz’s insanity would have been okay if only his methods were “sound.” The character of Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) seems to be on hand to serve as a counterweight to Kurtz. There is little doubt as to Kilgore’s insanity but, because his madness fits within the accepted norms of the war, no one is sent off to assassinate him.

The source of Kurtz’s “madness” appears to be a moment of complete clarity when he realized that the only way the United States would ever defeat the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong was if we could be even more ruthless and brutal than the communists were. In Kurtz’s eyes, America’s need to occupy the moral high ground had robbed us of the will we needed to win the war.

Much is made of the fact that Kurtz’s assassination of four South Vietnamese double agents appeared to curtail VC activity in the area and the North Vietnamese genuinely feared Kurtz and his private army of Montagnard highlanders. In short, he appears to be the only one fighting the war effectively while Kilgore chases the VC all over Vietnam, winning every battle while never gaining us one inch toward an overall victory. Because Kurtz’s methods would be unpalatable back home, however, he has to go.

As I said, the film begins to fall apart once the story reach the Kurtz compound and this has as much to do with the failings of Marlon Brando as it does with Coppola. By all rights, the actor should have been fired just for showing up badly out of shape and refusing to learn his lines, but replacing the actor so late in the already troubled production probably would have sent the financial backers into a panic. Thus, we have a rotund, flabby Kurtz when the script (and logic) called for a thin, wiry, wasted man. This does undercut the later third of the movie but, by then, Apocalypse Now has long since parted ways with reality so the damage is not completely fatal.


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This film was re-released in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux, with almost 50 minutes of footage restored from the cut that debuted at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival but excised from the general release version. Having seen both versions, I have to say that the decision to cut this material in 1979 was correct. Redux is further proof that successful filmmakers should be prevented by any means possible from revisiting their previous work. The “new” footage adds nothing to the movie but time and the French Plantation sequence brings the film to a halt as if it had struck a brick wall. These new sequences are not missed if you go back and watch the original theatrical cut again, but if you do watch Redux, I defy to keep from checking your watch throughout the plantation scenes.

1 thought on “Apocalypse Now

  1. Nabeel

    this is an all time classic movie .. and I dunno why or how .. i mean i think it’s the atmosphere and the cinematography that does the trick .. its not the story over all .. it’s the swamps and the way soliders are living and all that.


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