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Americans love their war movies!
Apocalypse Now isn’t your typical American war movie, because it’s about the atypical Vietnam War, which grew in 1968 to be “unpopular” as the journalists of the time often described it. Across the country anti-war demonstrators were chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” And, rather than enter the military draft and possibly be sent to fight in Vietnam, numerous young American men immigrated to Canada.
John Wayne tried to make an old-fashioned American war movie about the conflict in Vietnam. The Green Berets was banal and uninspiring and decidedly pro-war, just what President Lyndon Johnson wanted, as he tried to garner support for the Vietnam War. But the Duke played better in World War Two, or any other war in which the cause was clearly defined and the enemy obvious.
Then in 1969 the American public learned about the so-called My Lai Massacre, in which a company of U.S. soldiers murdered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese farmers. About this time it was also reported that many American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were heavy drug users, many of them heroin addicts, in fact. From this point on, support for the war plummeted.
Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, had to be different kind of war movie, and it certainly was!
Heart of Darkness
Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the film, chose the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as the basis for the story and hired John Milius to write the screenplay. Conrad’s book is about a man named Charles Marlow who journeys into the Belgian Congo around 1900, where he finds a man known only as Kurtz, who rules a small tribe of natives. When Marlow discovers that Kurtz is in bad health, he tries to take him back to civilization, but Kurtz dies along the way, at which point Marlow muses about the human psyche being a “heart of immense darkness.”
In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin Willard, who ventures into neutral Cambodia, hoping to find Colonel Walter Kurtz, a former Green Beret, who has become as a kind of god to the local natives. While in the military, Kurtz seemed to be on track to become a general, until he turned rogue. Now ruling a band of paramilitary aboriginals, the U.S. Army wants Willard to assassinate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.”
Unfortunately, Willard has inner demons to deal with, as he appears to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Willard has recurring nightmares about whirring attack helicopters and engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. As explained in the film’s exposition, Willard tries to go back home and live a normal life, but he soon returns to ‘Nam, where he feels more comfortable working as a special operations commando.
The Smell of Napalm in the Morning
In order for Willard to pursue Kurtz, he and his crew must pick up their patrol boat at the Nung River. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, commanding a squadron of heavily armed helicopters takes Willard to the river. Kilgore, as gung-ho as commanders come, flies his choppers just above the jungle canopy as “Ride of the Valkyries” plays over the loudspeakers. Then they attack a village, air-to-surface missiles whizzing into palm-thatched huts. If there’s a part in the movie that echoes the ass-kicker war flicks of the past, this thrilling sequence provides it.
When Kilgore lands the choppers and deploys Willard’s patrol boat, the enemy attacks, and Kilgore orders a napalm strike, which turns much of the surrounding jungle into a raging inferno. Nevertheless, Kilgore, an avid surfer, orders some of the soldiers to surf in the ocean, while he regales everyone with his heroic exploits, mortar shells exploding around him as he steps about. This is an obvious parody of such vainglorious characters in literature and the movies. Enjoying the evocative moment, Kilgore kneels on the ground and says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . it smells like . . . victory.” (Keep in mind, this is a paraphrase of Duvall’s lines.)
A key man in Captain Willard’s crew, gunner’s mate Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) is a mellow guy who befriends everyone. Perhaps he’s the movie’s flower child, one who always seems to be tripping on acid (LSD), even as he experiences the terrors of war.
After more harrowing adventures, including causing their own kind of My Lai Massacre, Willard and company float into Kurtz’s camp. A freelance photographer played by Dennis Hopper explains to Willard why Kurtz is such a great philosophical and spiritual leader. When ashore, Willard sees severed human heads and mutilated bodies scattered about a Buddhist temple. Soon enough, Willard discovers that Kurtz appears to be a murderous madman, though he may be suffering from the same battle-related condition as Willard. So who’s the crazier of the two? It could be said the worst enemy of both these men is their inner selves.
Colonel Kurtz is played by Marlon Brando, who was growing rather eccentric himself in those days – and quite overweight as well, nearly weighing too much to play the part. A self-styled political activist, Brando, who had won the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather in 1972, refused the award and had an American Indian speak in protest at the ceremony!
Kurtz takes Willard and his men captive (only two of Willard’s crew survives). In the Buddhist temple, Kurtz derides Willard for being a soldier, calling him “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” Then Kurtz has Willard tied to a post, where Kurtz later dumps the severed head of Chef, one of Willard’s surviving crew members. But Kurtz soon cuts Willard free and lets him explore the camp, setting up the bizarre denouement.
It appears Kurtz knows his life will soon end, because he tells Willard that when he dies, he wants Willard to return to Vietnam and tell Kurtz's son about his father. This behavior begs the question: Does Kurtz want Willard to kill him?
This is the End
Sensing the time is right, Willard, machete in hand, comes after Kurtz, while the soundtrack plays “The End,” the Doors’ 11-minute dirge, which seems to elegize Kurtz as if he were a character in Greek tragedy. The music slowly building to a crescendo, the natives sacrifice a water buffalo, while Willard creeps toward Kurtz, who makes a recording in the temple, and there Willard hacks Kurtz to death with the machete. While dying, Kurtz utters the immortal words: “The horror! The horror!” These words are taken directly from Conrad’s novel, and have since been etched into pop culture like few others.
As Willard leaves the camp with gunner's mate Johnson, the natives bow in unison, apparently accepting Willard as their new leader; but Willard declines and returns to Saigon.
American war films haven’t been the same since Apocalypse Now was released. Gone are the days when movies showed war as a glorious undertaking in which gallant men march from battle to battle, eager to save the country from a terrible enemy. Using allegory, literary and pop culture references, Apocalypse Now showed war as it really is – a dirty, smelly, terrifying experience, in which people get maimed or killed, and some people simply go berserk, murdering innocents. Of course, there’s BS and stylization in the movie – directors must have their say - but just about every flicker is made to prove a point, isn't it?
There have been many great American war movies – Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape and Battleground, just to name a few, but Apocalypse Now has attained the lofty height of cinematic literature - that’s why it’s the greatest American war movie.
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