A U.S. Army officer serving in Vietnam is tasked with assassinating a renegade Special Forces Colonel who sees himself as a god.
As per usual with films about Vietnam, there is a lot to unpack here. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now begins with footage of bombs going off, destroying the landscape while the lyrics “This is the end, beautiful friend” plays, and that’s just where the film starts.
We are introduced to Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) at a crucial time in his career. He’s burnt out. This is his second time in Vietnam, and it’s taking it’s toll on him, both mentally and physically. Coppola portrays the mental toll visually by overlaying Willard’s face, the ceiling fan and the destruction seen at the very beginning, all while turning the camera, disorienting the viewer. Add in the helicopter sounds while Willard stares at the fan, and we have a man fully in the depths of PTSD. And this is the person sent in to terminate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a man who has gone rogue, gone off the grid, gone insane and is waging a guerilla war against NVA and PLAF forces without permission, direction, or supplies from his commanders. The US Army can no longer control him, and they cannot take that risk.
Francis Ford Coppola’s filmmaking in this movie is top notch. He makes the film visually interesting with a near constant yellow haze, yellow sky, against the darkness of the trees and the landscape below. The yellow haze, thick at times, brings the viewer a sense of heat and humidity.
The way Coppola connects the viewer to these characters is clever. He uses a lot of “direct eye contact” between the person on screen and the person looking at the screen. From the very beginning, we see the pain in Willard’s eyes and connect with him on some level. Coppola makes the film feel very personal, constantly showing us the pain and sadness in the character’s eyes.
Duality of war is a very large theme in this film. Right from the beginning, we see Willard being tasked with “terminating” Colonel Kurtz all because Kurtz has gone rogue, no longer listening to those in command. He’s now fighting his own war. He’s killed several people, and now Willard is to kill Kurtz. There are instances in the film were mass destruction of towns and people happen that are swiftly followed by church services, all while “death cards” are being laid out on the dead bodies, so whoever finds them knows who did this destruction. The visual that stuck with me most, however, occurs during the Wagner/Helicopter scene. You know the one.
During this scene, there is mass destruction of a village happening. The US Army is shooting down from their helicopters while school children and other innocent people run. During this moment, while the shooting is occurring, we see a rainbow reflected in the water below.
Robert Duvall plays Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, the man leading the attack on the village to the soundtrack of Wagner. The entire time he is leading this brutal attack, he has one thing on his mind: surfing. He talks about it constantly, and points out the waves of the ocean over and over again. Kilgore really shows the nature of this war. Wiping out the village is just something that he was commanded to do.
There are two scenes in particular that stick with me the most from this film. The first is the scene where Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) stops their boat to investigate several Vietnamese people on, what seems to be a fishing boat of sorts. Phillips stops because, as he states, these boats are sometimes carrying supplies to the soldiers. Willard tells Phillips to not stop the boat, that they must keep going. Ultimately, the boat is stopped and, due to the language barrier and the high tensions, absolute tragedy occurs, and those on Phillip’s boat shoot the people on the fishing boat. And all because a woman ran toward a basket. Those on Phillips’s boat assumed she was running for a gun or some kind of weapon. The sad reality of the situation was that she was running to protect her puppy. And she died because of it, in a very brutal scene where Willard shoots the woman and then coldly says “I told you not to stop.”
The other scene that sticks with me is the segment at the bridge outpost. The desperation of the men stationed there and the utter chaos that is occurring is mindboggling. Nobody knows which way is up and they’re begging to go home. It’s this scene where the music in the film really stands out and helps to emphasize what the viewer sees on screen. Composed by Carmine Coppola, the score to Apocalypse Now is a perfect classical movie score with clear 1970s influence that adds to the film, rather than distracts from it.
There are plenty of deaths in this film. But, one hurt me more than the others: the death of Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller (played by a very young Laurence Fishbourne). Miller is the youngest there with the most promise. We are constantly shown the sadness Willard feels for this young man, knowing what could lie ahead of him in the thick Vietnamese jungle. Miller is protected by the others, while being an asset to their crew. When all the men finally receive their mail, Miller is overjoyed to have a tape to play from his mother. Of course, this is the moment that tragedy strikes. A member of the crew, Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) takes it upon himself to set off a smoke grenade while under the influence of LSD, which attracts the attention of the enemy. The boat is soon under attack and Miller is killed, all while the tape from his mother still plays. I think this death hurt me worse than the others simply because there were so many similar deaths to this one during the Vietnam War. And they all seem so senseless.
Coppola continues his masterful visuals through the film. With the introduction of Colonel Kurtz, Coppola makes sure to keep Kurtz’s face in darkness. When we see him again, his face is half in the light, half in the shadows, creating an incredibly eerie effect that’s indicative of who Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is. Coppola’s use of point of view shots in the final sequences is brilliant, as is the parallel editing between the cow being sacrificed by the tribe and Willard murdering Kurtz.
The final scene in this film is incredibly impactful. Kurtz’s last words as he dies is “the horror….the horror”, and those last lines are repeated over the final shot of the film, perfectly summing up the war in Vietnam and the mental destruction it did to everyone involved.