Filmmaker John Millius (“The Wind and the Lion”, “Conan the Barbarian”) is said to have written the first draft of “Apocalypse Now” as early as 1969—the year the film takes place. Milius adapted Joseph Conrad’s classic story “Heart of Darkness” (1899) so that it was set in the jungles of the Vietnam War. Production of the film (then called “The Psychedelic Soldier”) didn’t begin until it attached director Francis Ford Coppola, who hot off the massive success of “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974). Though the script went through numerous redrafts from Milius and Coppola, Coppola claims to have been immediately grabbed by the film’s mix of ‘black comedy and psychological horror’.
After about five years of delays, careful editing, and just slugging through jungles with too much money and equipment, “Apocalypse Now” was released in the summer of 1979. As Coppola infamously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”
Note the version I’m reflecting on here is the 2001 “Redux”, which bumps the runtime from 153 to 196 minutes.
We open on a treeline of a Vietnamese jungle. The sounds of choppers thump by as The Doors’ “The End” starts to play. Then the palm trees burst into flames, victims of another napalm strike. We’re immediately introduced to the film’s morally and mentally questionable protagonist, Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen). Willard lies in bed amidst booze, pills, old photos, and a loaded pistol, clearly haunted by memories of Vietnam. But then he looks out of his window: “Saigon… shit, I’m still in Saigon”. We immediately learn he’s conflicted between seeing his service in the war as both punishment and reward, and he’s ready for another mission to feed his strange addiction. If his instability wasn’t clear enough, he does tai chi in his underwear before punching his mirror and slicing his hand open.
Within the first ten minutes we see this side of Willard contrasting his more professional demeanor in front of his commanding officers. They play a tape for Willard: it’s here we’re first teased with the shrouded character of Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), an incredibly promising soldier who turned his back on America and has supposedly gone insane somewhere in Cambodia. Willard’s charged with terminating Kurtz with “extreme prejudice”. The tension is set—if Willard is so crazy behind closed doors, what kind of a man is Kurtz? The bulk of the movie is then Willard and a rag-tag team of mostly young, naïve soldiers making their way down a huge river basin. All the while, Willard reads from his target’s impressive dossier, so that although we don’t see Kurtz until the final third of the movie, by that point a legend has been built up around him in the audience’s mind.
An early chunk of the film has Willard and his fellow soldiers meeting Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall), a surfing fanatic who is either too confident in his own safety or too shellshocked to care. While other men duck for cover at the sound of artillery strikes, Kilgore insists the beach they’re storming is ideal for surfing. It’s from Kilgore and his chopper squadron that many iconic lines and Vietnam film tropes come from: “DEATH FROM ABOVE” painted on the nose of the chopper blasting Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”; “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”; and so forth. As Kilgore’s men rain fire down on quiet Vietnamese villages, all the while calling their victims “savages”, the ties to “Heart of Darkness” are clear… though perhaps it extends ‘unreliable narrator’ to ‘unreliable America’. That being said, Kilgore can’t be simply written off as a thick-skulled jarhead, as we see his compassion for the Vietnamese civilians, first when he lets a dying man drink from his canteen, and then when he saves a mother and her wounded child. The film is not just morally grey, it’s emotionally and psychologically disarrayed—‘the confusion of war’.
The journey down the river itself gets more and more surreal, as if Willard were travelling down the mythological river Styx that bridges Earth and the Underworld. There’s a constant theme of insanity / paranoia in the soldiers they encounter along the way, yet there are never a commanding officers to be found. Just a series of confused kids with the absurdist feeling of “why are we fighting?” There’s also many ideas of the duality of human nature, most obviously reflected on in a length scene added in the Redux, where Willard meets a plantation of Frenchmen who tell him he’s “fighting for nothing” and that there are two versions of himself: “one that kills, and one that loves.”
Willard and his surviving crew finally reach the idyllic, temple-like domain of Kurtz, who watches over a massive population of indigenous peoples who worship him like a god. “This was the end of the river alright”, Willard narrates, noting the smell of ‘slow death, malaria, and nightmares’. But if this truly is like a living Hell, is Willard being sent to kill the Devil, or just another victim? When we finally see Kurtz, though often veiled in shadows, we get the ‘poet-warrior’ impression that has been laid before him, as he quotes T.S. Eliot as often as he spouts political riddles. He immediately knows why Willard was sent to him, commanding his respect as much as he does his fear. We rarely see Kurtz move at more than a slow walk, yet as he appears in the night to brandish one of Willard’s fellow soldier’s decapitated head, we realize the great physical power that lurks within him. It not only becomes a question of ‘will Willard kill this man’, but also ‘can he?’
Kurtz also acts as an almost fourth-wall breaking medium for much of the film’s political messages to be more explicit stated. Kurtz is ‘crazy’ as if ‘the truth’ has been revealed to him, as if he’s been blinded by the light. It’s not the first time the film becomes self-reflexive: an early scene of the Americans storming a beach has Coppola himself cameoing as a wartime-news director, yelling at the soldiers to not look into the camera. Kurtz is such an interesting and unforgettable character because of how out of place he feels, in both the conflict in Vietnam and as the supposed antagonist of the film. So what does he do? He carves out his own place amidst the jungle.
The final act of the film is narratively and cinematographically hazy and often delusional, and it adds so well to the mixture of Willard’s worn down state and the legendary stature of Kurtz. Knowing of his incoming death, Kurtz frees Willard and imparts his wisdom and philosophy on him. Willard returns later that night, as the indigenous peoples are butchering a buffalo—his own murdering of Kurtz imposed with the extremely disturbing slaughter of the beast. Though the ending varies in each version, the Redux (and most ‘original versions’) end with Willard simply sailing away with the last surviving soldier in his party, with Kurtz’ dying words echoing in his mind: “…the horror…the horror…”. It’s all very poetic; like Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” it quotes so often, it ends ‘not with a bang, but with a whimper’.
Despite it’s great length, the film is engaging all the way through, backed by an impressive amount of practical effects and beautiful on-location shooting. In terms of what the Redux brings to the theatrical version, it’s a somewhat unnecessary, indulgent unbalancing of the pacing, but considering the two-plus decades the original film allowed itself to breathe, the film’s notoriety allows it to take a few artistic liberties without sacrificing the quality of the work.
Arguably the finest film about Vietnam ever made, “Apocalypse Now” is one of the most breathtakingly crafted and thoroughly haunting cinematic experiences, period.