By John H. Foote


 “The horror, the horror …” – Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now

The lights went down, the curtains opened, and we found ourselves staring at a lush, thick jungle, filled with green palm trees and foliage. Far off, it seemed in the distance, music began as the trees swayed gently back and forth. With the music came sounds of helicopters, and then Jim Morrison and the Doors began their mournful song “The End”. With those first words, “this is the end” the jungle explodes into an inferno as the choppers drop tons of napalm, turning it into a blazing inferno. The camera pans over the blaze, showing the raw, heated beauty of the flames and slowly another image comes into the frame, the upside down image of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) remembering the jungle, remembering where he feels safe, at home.

Francis Ford Coppola had worked for three years on his epic vision of the war in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, based on a screenplay by George Lucas and John Milius, reshaped by Milius basing the film on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, turning the story into a quest. What Coppola did was turn the film into a surrealistic nightmare of the war in Vietnam and the horrors the men fighting the conflict dealt with.

Armed with five Academy Awards, three for writing, one as Best Director for The Godfather Part II (1974), the fifth for producing that same film, and several other nominations, two awards from the Directors Guild of America as Best Director, Coppola pushed hard to make this film, believing he had something to say about the war.

Filming began in 1976 in the Philippines and seemed to go on forever. Besieged by constant production nightmares, Coppola watched the sets of the Kurtz compound destroyed by a typhoon, he dealt with the government routinely calling back the choppers they had loaned to him for the film, the weather never seemed to co-operate, the heat was insufferable, but worst of all he had to fire lead actor Harvey Keitel just five days into shooting. He replaced the New York actor with Martin Sheen, who was doing very well in the role when he suffered a massive, near fatal heart attack. Somehow he got the film made, and considering all the issues he had, that he created a genuine masterpiece was rather extraordinary.

Willard (Sheen) is an army assassin awaiting his next mission, slowly going mad in his hotel room in Saigon. Drinking heavily, he imagines he is back in the jungles on a mission as his mind becomes unhinged. The next day when the MP’s arrives to take him to the general, his room is a mess, the Captain is hung over, and in need of a good shower. The MP’s throw the naked Willard into an icy cold shower to wake him up and take him to his destination.

His orders are to find and kill a famous Marine Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a legendary marine who has gone mad in the jungles of Cambodia and is now waging his own war. Going through his dossier, Willard cannot believe the military wants this man dead, but they most certainly do, and he understands how much they fear him. A nameless, obviously CIA operative says to Willard, “terminate with extreme prejudice”.

Snaking through the jungles is a river that will take him, he hopes, to Kurtz. He will be escorted by a group of young men fighting the war, “rock and rollers with a foot in the grave” he calls them. The boat is under the command of Chief (Albert Hall), an army lifer; a saucier from New Orleans, Chef (Fredric Forrest); a famous surfer from LA, Lance (Sam Bottoms); and Clean (Lawrence Fishburne) a young black kid from the projects in the Bronx. Their journey will claim the lives of all but one of the men on the boat, and Willard, and it takes them into the very heart of darkness that was Vietnam.

Among the hellish things they encounter are Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), self-described as a “goofy fuck”, a brilliant soldier who loves his men, will do anything for him, and as luck would have it is a surfing fan and knows who Lance (Bottoms) is. Told a Viet Cong village not far from them has incredible waves for surfing they make the decision to bomb the village at dawn. They pick the boat up board helicopters and take off in the morning to attack and destroy this village that has stood for a thousand years. Looking like prehistoric mosquitoes in the sky, just outside the village Kilgore orders the music put on at full blast. Playing Wagner’s extraordinary “Ride of the Valkyries”, the villagers arm themselves but prove no match for Kilgore’s men. Bomb after bomb is dropped, bullets tear through the terrified villagers, until finally Kilgore puts down his chopper in the madness around him. Walking to the beach he is thrilled by what he sees on the sea, perfect surfing waves, breaking at the right moment. He orders his men to strip, get Lance a board and surf. Bullets are still whizzing the men on the beach, grenades are being tossed at them, yet Kilgore never flinches, never blinks. Seeing the men are afraid, he orders a napalm drop to eradicate the villagers in the forest. The explosion is massive, and does the trick, leaving Kilgore to muse on the beach.

“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son, nothing else in the world smells like that … I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like victory.”

Down on one knee, looking wistful, Kilgore then says to the Captain, “You know, one day this war’s gonna end” and he struts away, almost sad the war will one day end. Kilgore is madness incarnate, a hawk who knows without the shadow of a doubt he will not get a scratch in this war.

Their journey continues, taking them to a Playboy bunny show, shut down because the overzealous men storm the stage, and the Do Lung Bridge, a sight of madness, built each day by the Americans, torn down and bombed each night by the Viet Cong. Willard gets off the boat and walks around looking for an officer but finds no one but young men losing their grip on reality. Further down the river, Chef has it in his head to go make some mango pudding, but first needs to find some fresh mangoes in the jungle. He grabs a bucket, his rifle and with Willard in tow heads into the thick jungle. As Chef talks, Willard listens and suddenly the birds stop their noise in the jungle, alerting Willard to advancing danger. Thinking it is VC, he waits for whatever it is to reveal itself when suddenly a huge tiger leaps out of the foliage, terrifying Chef who runs top speed for the boat. Though Willard has remained calm, Chef is near hysterics describing the tiger and the fact he will never get off the boat.

As they near Kurtz, they are suddenly attacked by the natives in the dark jungle, and fire back. Clean is hit, and is on the river, cradled by the Chief as he lays dead. One second he had been alive listening to a tape his mother sent him, the next he is dead forever. Still they forge on, and another group of natives from Kurtz attack, this time with sticks, or so they think. Chief is hit with a spear, through his chest, and dies on the boat, leaving Willard with the wrapped too tight Chef and Lance, the acid dropping surfer who believes Vietnam is better than Disneyland. Moving closer they come to the Kurtz compound where they encounter an American photographer portrayed by Dennis Hopper as a hyperactive, always in motion, jittery, high as a kite nutcase.

All around is death, bodies hanging from trees, heads chopped off and left in the dirt, yet the natives clearly love their leader, the brilliant Kurtz. To Willard, the great man is nothing like he expected. Looking like a huge living Buddha, Kurtz is entirely bald, reads poetry, and most important, is always sizing Willard up. He knows this young man has been sent to assassinate him, just as he understands the confusion within Willard as he has come to understand Kurtz and why he broke from the war. But Kurtz is not finished with Willard, he wants him to understand it all, he needs him to know why he did what he did. After releasing Willard from the cage he was keeping him in, after depositing the head of Chef in Willards lap, breaking him down in every way, Kurtz has him brought to him, where he rests and is cleaned up. Then Kurtz tells him what he has seen and why he broke from America. He came to understand the Viet Cong were not monsters, they were family men with children who fought for something they believed in, a way of life. And they possessed a greater strength than the Americans because of what they were prepared to do, committed to do. In that moment, Kurtz is giving Willard permission to kill him.

Willard prepares on the boat and then rises ghost like out of the water to go take the life of Kurtz. He finds him ranting into a tape recorder, “They train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t let them write fuck on their airplanes…because it’s obscene.” Willard to kill him, the sequence is intercut with the slaughter of a cow for a feast, as Willard hacks at Kurtz with, yes, a machete. Covered in blood, Willard listens as Kurtz gasps out his dying words, “the horror … the horror … ” He understands Kurtz, in every way, and in understanding in every way knew Kurtz wanted Willard to take his life. He was ready. He was defeated.

When the film had its first screening at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, it came to the festival as a work in progress because some key scenes had not been colour corrected, and the sound was not ready. Incredibly the film earned a long-standing ovation, won Best Film, and Coppola entertained the press at his press conference, declaring, “My film is not about Vietnam, my film is Vietnam. Like the American military, we were stuck in the jungle, fighting an enemy we could not see, with access to much equipment and too much money, and little by little we went insane.” Given the problems the director encountered with his film, it is rather extraordinary a masterpiece was created at all. Yet Apocalypse Now is indeed a masterpiece, a war film unlike any other.

Coppola captured the madness, the chaos, the insanity of the war to great beauty. Set deep in the jungles of Cambodia, this insanity sweeps through the film.

As brilliant as Apocalypse Now might be, does it really ever recover from the Kilgore sequences? When Robert Duvall stalks off screen, are we missing his energy for the rest of the film, or could we not stand his energy for the rest pf the film. Kurtz has gone mad fighting the war, and the more he learns about Kurtz, the more he admires him, leaving Willard dangerously close to madness himself.

Martin Sheen gives one of the most underrated great performances ever given, and to the shame of the Academy, he was not a nominee for Best Actor and certainly should have been. His haunted eyes tell us about the things he has done, give away the horror of having to kill a man so close he could blow his last breath in his face. Robert Duvall was nominated for his stunning work as Kilgore, and deserved to win Best Supporting Actor, but sadly it became a sentimental award for aging Melvyn Douglas in Being There. Duvall has become a legend in the film, iconic and unforgettable. Though some critics struggled with Brando as Kurtz, I defy anyone to find another American actor who could have brought the heft of character, the depth of Kurtz to the screen, Brando was brilliant, and should have been nominated alongside Duvall.

Of the crew, Fredric Forrest was a standout as the wrapped way too tight for Vietnam Chef, and Albert Hall was outstanding as Chief. Sam Bottoms and a very young Laurence Fishburne delivered terrific performances, creating a surrogate family aboard the little boat.

In all the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing, winning for cinematography and sound. How did this film lose Best Picture and Best Director to Kramer vs Kramer? A fine film, no question, beautifully acted and directed, but seriously? One train of thought was that the inferior The Deer Hunter (1978) had won the year previous and the Academy was loath to honour two consecutive films about the war, silly, but potentially fact.

Apocalypse Now was a film for the ages, and you could feel that at once, you knew in 50 years audiences and critics would still be discussing the film, and that is exactly what has happened. It seemed to me upon its release, there was Apocalypse Now, and then everything else. Coppola has returned to the film to add and snip, most famously in 2001 when he brought the film back to Cannes with nearly an hour of footage he had not included in the original release, including the famous French plantation sequence, which is like entering another realm deep in the jungle, where the characters are ghostly creatures, left behind from another time. Critics were mixed on the edits, though many were happy to see a bit more of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore, and a more fun-loving Willard, who engineers stealing Kilgore’s surfboard. If you are seeing the film for the first time, it is more than worthy of a look, but I feel the original release is the stronger film.

Coppola fills the picture with a visionary feast. That startling inferno that opens the film, Willard melting down in his room, those haunting shots of the choppers at dawn looking prehistoric in the morning sky, the madness of Kilgore on the beach, the napalm drop, Kilgore’s infamous line, the Playboy bunny sequence like a mirage in the desert this time on the river, the Do Lung bridge a hellish limbo, the shooting of the people on the sampan, edging closer to Kurtz, the tiger, Clean’s death, the Chief dies with a spear thrown through him, arriving at the horrific Kurtz compound, Dennis Hoppers’ mad as a hatter photographer, Kurtz, the slaughter, and his final words. The director plunged his audience into the hell of Vietnam and never let us out, but was wise enough to show that the men made the best of it, dropping acid, doing what they could to stay alive.

An astounding piece of filmmaking, a towering dark achievement that remains the finest film made about Vietnam from the exceptional Francis Ford Coppola, who would dominate the seventies like a director had never before dominated a decade.

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