The Vietnam war that after the loss and destruction of so many lives on both American and Vietnamese sides finally with the resistance of Vietnamese and the country wide protest of American people ended in 1975 left a great impact on American cinema in 70’s. This impact opposite to the casualties of the war was in fact positive and improved this nation’s cinema and elevated to another level. Such Hollywood films in 70’s surpassed any foreign films and for the first time several such anti-war films entered almost any greatest films of all time.
Francis Ford Coppola after sometime getting stuck in his Godfather part 1&2 and before concluding his trilogy, as a payback of his due to the wave against the Vietnam war, creates his masterpiece “Apocalypse Now”. Not just being politically and morally correct this time in paying back his artistic commitment, he shows his mature cinematic talent by the end of 1970 in this film. The film starts with a gripping cinematographic scene of the war, in contrast with the beautiful tropical natural environment that were all destroyed with no hesitation. After this opening scene, the film zooms on its main protagonist, captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) of the US special operation force in his room, already drunk and suffering from the depression, post-traumatic stress and madness of the war.
Then two army officers come in to his place, wash and clean him up and take him to a general of the American army. He is questioned if he knows colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an American military hero who has gone mad somewhere in the jungle of Cambodia and has taken things and the command of many fellow soldiers and the locals in his own hands, acting like a demi-God. Captain Willard who does not know anything about Kurtz, is ordered to find his hideout location and terminates him, keeping the mission as a secret and as it never existed. Willard in disbelief of how the US army and its general could send him on such a mission to kill one of his own high ranked, highly achieved and decorated hero officers.
On an army boat accompanied by a few soldiers as associates who do not know much about the mission, Willard arrives at a village where is still bombarding and wiping out the whole village and civilians by the air struck. In the mist of the killing field there’s a church service by a minister and at night the squadron under the command of their narcissistic lieutenant Colonel William (Bill) Kilgore (Robert Duval) having a beach party. The next day on their way to mission destination and while helicopters continue with their rampage bombardments and killing spree, two American private ex-surfers with the encouragement of Colonel Bill surf the tropical waves.
Deep inside the jungle when a cook soldier goes mango picking, escorted by captain Willard, the small human figures of the two in contrast with the tropical trees and leaves is fascinating. Both alerted by a move and minute sound in the bushes, are shocked and frightened when a huge tiger jumps out and runs away fast before being shot. Willard on his way to Kurtz’ hideout in Cambodia, familiarizes himself with his file and the more he reads about him, the more he wonders and questions of his mission. He wonders why Kurtz who could easily be promoted to the rank of a general for all his excellent services, and return home has been hidden in the jungle.
The boat arrives at army outpost, where there’s a concert has been organized for the soldiers. A playboy helicopter with a male singer and three girl dancers get and perform for the large aroused and excited crowd of soldiers, who some finally get close to the girls out of sexual provocation and they climb up the helicopter and flay away. Later on continuing with their ride up the river, when the boat reaches the playboy helicopter who has landed for lack of fuel. Two of the soldiers offer the helicopter fuel for having sex with the show girls that is shown in a very erotic scene inside their helicopter. The girls look also in a loss of mind and semiconscious state during this sexual act. Continuing on their ride up the river, the group suspicious of a local fishing boat, stop them for search and out of fright, in crazy state of mind kill all the few passengers.
The boat reaches a French outpost where a group of French soldiers still live there inside the jungle for 70 years long before the American invasion. The group have a dinner the head of the French squadran, who lives in luxury house with his family, served by Vietnamese servants. In a discussion at the dinner table, the French family claims that Vietnam belongs to them and they worked hard to build it while there was nothing when they started 70 years ago. After the dinner, Willard who is attracted by the French wife smoke opium together lying on her bed then having sex.
Arriving at Kurtz’ hideout, they are attacked by the locals with spears and arrows while the soldiers from up above the whole place looking like a huge jungle fortress shooting aimlessly, and finally the driver of the boat is killed. Surrounded by a mix of American soldiers and local troop of Kurtz, including a photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), Willard is welcome. The whole place, an old temple in the Cambodian jungle, like a ghost island of horror is filled with dead bodies, cut off heads and surrounded by fully armed men is a perfect depiction of Apocalypse.
Willard is finally able to meet Kurtz, a bald man lying in a bed, seen in a half shade, telling him about the atrocities of the American army and that considering their crimes, he could not be judged. Willard while part of the time is thrown in pit jail and other times conversing or listening to Kurtz monologue, comments that he has not seen such a broken man in his life. Talking about horror, Kurtz tells him when in special forces how his comrades were able to torture and kill an old man with no feelings and no judgment, while he could not stop crying. He continues telling Willard that still he envy such men who could commit such crimes with no hesitation, guilt and judgment.
Willard lost himself within his soul and confused slowly realizes that Kurtz wanted more than him to be killed to end his pains. Finally in a memorable scene, Willard gets out of his jail pit, jumps in the water then comes out with his face painted like the locals with a large knife in his hand. While all Kurtz’ troop are busy in a sacrifice ceremony party, Willard attacks Kurtz and in two parallel scenes, Kurtz and the bowl are both slashed and cut into pieces, while Kurtz repeating his last word “horror, horror” before his final fall. Willard walking out with the bloody knife in his hands faces Kurtz’ troop who all now kneel to him as their new leader and all put down their arms. But Willard confused and lost, he leaves the jungle on the boat still hearing the voice of Kurtz repeating the word “horror, horror”.
Originally inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novel, the film is totally different as the novel happens in Congo Africa in 19th century, while the film in Vietnam and in 1970’s. The film and the character of Kurtz in fact has been adapted from a real character in US Army in Vietnam and Laos, Tony Poe of CIA’s special activities division. Poe similarly a highly decorated officer has been reported to have used savage methods of waging war, dropping severed heads into the enemy-controlled villages as a psychological warfare, though this connection has been denied by Coppola. In any case the film that opened in US in August 1979, was premiered as a work in progress at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was awarded its most prestigious prize, Palm d’Or, twice for American films in three years (for Taxi Driver in 1976). More to its honor, this film has also been ranked by a critics poll in 2002 as the best film of the last 25 years, number 28 of the greatest American film in AFI’s first edition of 1998 and number 30 in its second edition of 2007. Surprisingly as often could be the case with Academy Awards, while nominated for 8 best awards, including best picture, best direction, it won only the awards for best sound and best cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
In closing remarks “Apocalypse Now” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: “Apocalypse Now” is original in depiction of another madness resulting from the outrageous war in Vietnam. Unlike “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” that shows two facets of the insanity caused by the war, this film shows the horror side of the war that in fact happened in reality in Vietnam, through the reports of many lost soldiers in the jungle of that country who were never found.
- Technicality: The technicality of “Apocalypse Now” is in its more mature direction of Francis Ford Coppola and its great cinematography unexpected at the time from an American film.
- Impact Factor: The influence of “Apocalypse Now” has been on the next generation of anti-war films so that some believe if America lost the war in Vietnam, American cinema with films such as “Apocalypse Now” has come out as the main winner.
- Survival: “Apocalypse Now” has survived well to this very day in its power of still showing and proving the horror of war unlike any other film.