Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

“You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”


There is so much that can be written about this film. I have chosen to analyse this film because I haven’t been ‘apocalypsed’ with the film. Though I can support its technical achievment – it hasn’t ‘connected’ to me like others. I don’t know how long I would spend reading the Peter Cowie book – or whether I would search out Hearts of Darkness – both Conrads novel and the documentary that went on to win god-knows how many Best Documentary prizes. My hope is to start off with this post and, in time, revive it as and when neccessary. Maybe I will be converted in time and I will look back on this post in shame. For one, Danny Boyle spoke to Empire magazine and claimed that he watched Apocalypse Now before he began any film project. I like to imagine it is shortly prior to prinicpal photography. The day before. To calm his mind. And make him see the parrallels with madness of … filmmaking?

The Madness of War

When we first meet Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) we do question his sanity. In a room, he seems to be on some sort of acid trip – craving another mission, not content with loneliness of a hotel room in Saigon: “shit; I’m still only in Saigon”. Already, War has destroyed him and he cannot rejoin civilian life. Approached by intelligence officers he is given a mission – to kill “with extreme prejudice” Col. Kurtz (Brando). Kurtz was an intelligent man – but has gone renegade. Apparently, Kurtz is controlling a small legion of troops himself, buried in the deepest forests of neutral Cambodia, and is a threat – thus the order for his death. This type of control and destroy is comparable to a motivation for war – capture and control or destroy. Kurtz is not controllable.

Upon his journey to and up the fictional Nung river he comes across a huge bombing of a small village – apparently for the war effort, but appears to be more for the ‘surf’, they come across a tiger, a huge ‘show; for the troops – that seems corrupt and animalistic in its nature and then, prior to finding Kurtz, the true madness of the mainly African-Americans on the front line. Obviously, upn finding Kurtz we find the true ‘horror’ of the situation and understand his madness but disagree with it – akin to understanding the horror of war and the reasons why – but disagree with it.

Iconic Images

Visually- and in a pure cinematic sense – the film looks incredible. Akin to The Godfather you could freeze-frame any section of this and put it up on canvas. Every establishing shot could be a poster for the film – with the splattered-font for the title. Each character is perfectly created – the madness of head-scratching Kurtz, his constant quotes from T.S. Eliot through to the madness of Hopper and even Willard. The boys on the boat – including a young Laurence Fishburne – so innocent and full of energy.

My problem is not the images – my concern would be the progression of the story in the Redux. I watched the ‘Redux’ many years ago and fell asleep. I had to start halfway through the following day. One beautiful thing about this film is how, as you watch it, the whole world changes from the hustling and busy streets of Saigon and the explosive village bombing and, bit by bit, it gets smaller … and more claustrophobic. So this half-one-day-half-the-next is not how to watch it. The recent watch stimulating this post was watched in one sitting (maybe a coffee break – but thats allowed!) and that assisted in the progression of the story. I recall watching it the first time and thinking come on! get to Kurtz. Luckily, the theatrical cut is more condensed and he does get there quicker. Upon his arrival we see a world that, although violent and dangerous (heads on sticks..) is controlled and calmer than the society we have witnessed – calmer than the near-rape of playboy models, calmer than the fear in the eyes of the soldiers on the front line. Calmer than the unneccessary death of the innocent civilian who happened to be on a boat at the wrong time. Even the flippant attitude to this death was completely at odds with the Western worlds arrogance of lifestyle. To some extent, it is even a joy in death. Wagners ‘Ride of the Valykyries’ playing as they bomb what appears as a quaint and peaceful village – with schools and women and children. This is the focus – not so much the journey. How there is complete madness in the pride of war in America.

“The Horror, the horror…”

So, that is the focus – if we ask the question ‘what is war’ we will eventually find that in the centre of it, war itself is mad. There is no real justification or ‘reality’ in destroying ‘countries’ and the inhabitants. From the senior officials explaining how to attack to the front-line young men and women who carry out these orders – think The Hurt Locker – war itself is a purely selfish act. I’ll finish with a little Roger Ebert: – “It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover”. The horror becomes real for Kurtz and Willard and – the followers on the island – praise them for this.


  1. This is an excellent war film that doesn't so much concentrate on the gore and brutality of the Vietnam Conflict. Coppola showed real genius in the art of film-making, using many visuals to help tell the story.


  2. @Jacctev – but, the question is, what about 'jack' and 'youth in revolt'. How can Coppola go from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now… to his recent efforts!

    @Fitz – yeah, I don't think i could last at 2.30am. as i said, as soon as you step on the gently moving boat, i would be asleep and indeed was- when I watched the redux.

    @Marcy – yeah, i doubt i'll ever go back and watch the redux again. Unless I watch the theatrical one enough that i become obsessed and then have to watch the redux one. I doubt that will happen in the near future at the very least.

  3. I also wasn't left amazed by this movie. But I generally don't like watching war movies. Probably because I survived one to many of them in real life. Movies usually portray wars in a very biased and subjective manner. And I hate when moviemakers make fun and entertainment out of war, It's just horrible.

  4. Apocalypse Now is not your typical war film, but has a fearless direction from Ford Coppola, who gives us these beautiful colors on-screen, a haunting setting, and brings out great performances from its young cast.

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