The main reason I chose this movie is that I am a big fan of the unreliable narrator story-telling device, and I think we get hints of it here. It isn’t quite as overt as many other movies – Big Fish is one of the few that we know throughout the narrator is unreliable at best, but it is more apparent than another movie we have watched, Taxi Driver. We hear this story through Captain Willard’s eyes, and it would be hard to suspect his motivations and mental stability didn’t influence the overall narrative. Was Kilgore really that brazen? Did Phillips actually try to take Willard with him to the great beyond? And how did we know Lance was on acid if he only told Chef and not Willard? That last question really bothers me, as it’s really the only interaction we see that does not involve Willard directly. Lance is the only survivor from the group, so maybe he told Willard after the fact. (More on Lance, and the crew in general, later.)
I also chose this movie due to the source material, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. There are some very overt references to Heart of Darkness in Apocalypse Now, specifically the name Kurtz for the “villain” of the story. Heart of Darkness is, in essence, a condemnation of 19th century imperialism in Africa. The story has been modernized in a couple instances to draw a parallel between imperialism and the American war machine. We can agree/disagree on whether or not this is a fair viewpoint of Cold War era America, but I don’t think that’s the point of this discussion. The main question to be answered here is whether or not you feel Coppola succeeds in defending this thesis while still displaying the horror of Vietnam. That’s asking a lot of any movie, and I don’t feel like the imperialism parallel was quite there. We would have needed more time with the Vietnamese people beyond the interaction with the boat people and Kurtz’s natives. I’m not entirely sure Coppola even meant to attempt an imperialism parallel and just chose to use the source material as a convenient plot to wrap around his image of the war.
Heart of Darkness is a novella clocking in at a mere 72 pages. Therefore, there’s only so much plot you could derive from there. So, Coppola had to fill quite a few gaps. I don’t know if I would classify Apocalypse Now as either plot-driven or a character piece. It seems to live somewhere between these two worlds. We do have an overarching story for sure, but it really feels like we’re watching a character piece, and the character in question is the Vietnam “conflict” itself. Throughout the course of the movie, we get an abbreviated timeline of the war and a better understanding of the attitude toward it as it progressed. We have the initial landfall, where Willard and company are told to “ignore the cameras.” CAMERAS! This wasn’t a war, it was a TV event! We get some pretty amazing shots during this early section as well, including a nice long shot of everything which is occurring in this initial battle. Then we move to the raid on the village, which brings in the full-on view of the American arrogance in war. This, by the way, was well-earned in the eyes of the leadership. We were less than a generation removed from crushing the Nazis and Hirohito. Kilgore has no taste for subtlety – cue the Valkyries! What seems like a crushing defeat turns out to be a deep wound that bends but does not break the Viet Cong in the village, as we then see the tenacity of the enemy in full force. Kilgore claims it safe enough to surf (again, who knows if this is true or Willard’s embellishment) despite the battle raging on. So that’s what Vietnam was early on. A war we thought we would come in, crush our outgunned foes, and spend a nice little vacation in the jungle.
The battle at the Du Long Bridge shows a stark contrast to this picture of the war. This far down the river, we see nothing but chaos. Build the bridge, blow it up, build it again, blow it up again, wash, rinse, repeat. Willard asks a couple soldiers who is in charge, and they think he is. They have no idea who is in charge and why they are fighting. They received some order, likely lost their commander at some point, and were now just fighting some stalemate until they were killed or told they could finally go home. The Du Long Bridge is the quagmire Vietnam had become. It was a war that could not be won. Willard returning to the boat to declare “there’s no one in charge here” says all we need to know.
Meanwhile, the river itself becomes an allegory for the timeline of the war itself and the psychological effects it has on a man – specifically Kurtz before and Willard now. From the self-assured bravado to the Du Long Bridge, we see the slow descent into madness from an organizational perspective. We go from discussions of surfing, TV cameras, and small religious ceremonies, to what can best be described as an utter shitstorm. The midpoint between these two events is the USO show, where the troops essentially become animals just at the sight of a few playmates. The breaking down of the barb-wired wall is the breaking down of that mental stability; the desire to return home still. Beyond the USO show, there seems to be no turning back – only death and madness await.
As Willard progresses beyond the army’s reach, we see the true horror of the war and the effects of a drawn out conflict. The potential that any passerby could be an enemy, as this was a war where the foe cared nothing for order or uniforms. We get the naiveté of those at home, where Clean’s mother just assumes he’ll be back and already have plans for “when” he returns. And, we eventually see what all of this paranoia and hopelessness does to a man, when we finally get to Kurtz’s lair at the end of the river.
We hear tidbits about Kurtz throughout the movie. We can see that this is a man that Willard both respects and fears. Since we’re hearing this story as a retrospective, we can only guess whether or not these feelings were developed before or after meeting Kurtz. Kurtz and his compound are the metaphorical result of the insanity we have witnessed for the past 105 minutes. Here’s a man who, in his eyes, is getting results leading to a U.S. victory. However, he is condemned for his actions, and is driven mad by a war that is equally mad. The final death scene for Kurtz is drawn in overt parallels with the sacrificial bull, himself the sacrificial bull of a war gone all wrong. It is really the only moment of lucidity we see from him, his world ending not in a bang, but in a whimper.
And, of all people, Lance makes it back. Who would have bet on that with the rest of the crew involved? Lance is the only one who truly descends into any sort of madness, and his descent ends up being his saving grace. It goes to show us that anyone who survived an ordeal like that had to be forever changed, to a level almost as unsalvageable as Kurtz. We don’t know what happens to Lance or Willard after their ordeal is done, but I can’t imagine it’s anything good. We know Lance and Willard had some sort of lucid interaction after the ordeal, given that Lance never tells Willard he dropped acid before the battle of the Do Long bridge.
Chef exists as a foil of sorts to Lance. Unlike Lance, Chef never truly loses his mind at any point. During the attack on the innocent boat, we see Chef as the only one who doesn’t suspect trouble. It makes me wonder if that sense of trust is what caused him to eventually lose his head. To survive at the end of the river, you had to embrace the madness, just like Lance. Chef still held on to some strand of sanity, and a person like that could not survive in this place.
We end on Kurtz’s final words, “The horror… The horror.” And that truly is the best way to describe this war and what everyone involved in this story went through. There is no good way to summarize it. Many of the actions taken by all involved were deplorable. It was not the bloodiest war in American history – some civil war battles saw more American casualties then the entire 14 years we were in Vietnam – but the overall damage to the American psyche, the end of our feeling of invincibility, and the distrust in authority that resulted is still apparent today, and it is no surprise that this war has been one of the most analyzed events through the medium of film we have ever had.
That being said, Apocalypse Now would be the defining analysis of the Vietnam War we had if a little film called Platoon didn’t exist. Other movies have tackled certain subjects of the war, like Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter or Hamburger Hill, but Platoon and Apocalypse Now feel like the two that really tackled the war itself more than any other movie. Now, I feel like choosing between the two is a classic “Beatles/Rolling Stones” argument. Both are amazing (to most), and there’s no reason you cannot like both. I still feel the need to compare them though. I felt like Platoon was the better movie, in that it had a stronger narrative. Platoon had a real plot; Apocalypse Now wrapped a plot around several smaller events that spoke to the war as a whole. (It’s been a while since I watched Platoon, so I could be way off on this. I did want to watch Platoon again before writing this, but it isn’t available to stream for free anywhere.) Truth be told, there are a couple scenes you can remove from Apocalypse Now and preserve the message – it may lose a little impact, but you could do it. We didn’t need the USO scene for example. We probably could have told the entire story without Clean and/or Chief Phillips. However, the movie would have been less without them.
I’ve already worn out my welcome, so I’ll quickly hit the technical stuff that I have a feeling most of you will hit. Coppola was at the top of his game directing. Some awesome shots, especially considering this was made 35 years ago. Also, it had to be a pain in the ass doing those Brando scenes with a body double. We got a lot of good performances, especially from Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and the aforementioned Marlon Brando. Martin Sheen was fine but a tad dry. I later read that was by design, him serving as an observer of sorts, so I won’t deduct points for his performance.
(Side note 1: I’ve heard the documentary based on the filming of this movie, Hearts of Darkness, is also amazing. We may need to pick that one sometime soon. Truth be told, we could do an entire round of just Vietnam movies and watch nothing but great stuff.)
(Side Note 2: Besides this movie, a video game I mentioned in Side Pieces called Spec Ops: The Line also bases several of its themes on Heart of Darkness. I would actually argue the storyline of Spec Ops is much darker and more sinister then Apocalypse Now – I would love to “assign” you all that game, but I know we don’t have a lot of gamers in the group, so I’ll leave it at that.)
+ Hits many of the major points of the Vietnam War
+ Well-done analysis of Vietnam
+ Enjoyed the story-telling devices
- Maybe a few extemporaneous scenes… How is there a 45 min longer version?!