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Weekly Classics: Apocalypse Now

August 05, 2012



Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s book (published in 1902) was set in colonial days when European trading companies were setting their foothold in to various parts of the world. In it, Conrad tells the story of an English officer named Charles Marlow who is on assignment as a river-boat captain on the Congo. Marlow is supposed to trace a rogue ivory trader named Kurtz who has retreated into the heart of the Congo and whose behavior has become dark and mysterious.

Conrad brings us face to face with a complex and unpleasant truth about the white colonisers who wished to bring their ‘civilised’ ways in to the unenlightened world. Heart of Darkness explores not only the dark heart of the jungle, but also its effect on the unaccustomed Europeans who have come far from their safe, structured cities. The book attempts to symbolically trace the root of evil itself, and to discover what happens when you strip away the binds of society and reveal the nature of the bare human spirit in all its primal drives.

Coppola’s film adaptation (which he co-wrote with John Milius) changes the setting of the story to war-time Vietnam. The protagonist is an intelligence officer named Benjamin L. Willard, and the infamous 'Kurtz' is a rogue Colonel who has gone beyond the control of the US Army. The film also adds a voice-over narration written by Micheal Herr.

Kurtz was played in this film by the great Marlon Brando, an actor who was then aging and well in his physical decline. Brando was a notoriously difficult actor to direct and Coppola went to great pains in order to work with him once he finally showed up on set. Brando was grossly overweight and underprepared for the role (he appears mostly at the end) but in spite of all this, his portrayal of Kurtz is a powerful and memorable performance that breathes life into the conclusion of the film.

Apocalypse Now begins with a montage of explosions and tropical scenery, the sound of helicopters merges with “The End” by the Doors, and images of war-torn jungle blend with shots of a weary face staring at the ceiling in a hotel room. The room is lit by afternoon daylight, which filters through the blinds as Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) observes the street below. He is in “Saigon”, (what is now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Disheveled and groggy, languishing in a half-stupor induced by alcohol and a post-traumatic state of mind, Willard reflects on his torn psyche. His suffering is rooted as much in his past horrors as it is in his desire to return to the battleground, “Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle” we hear him narrating “when I was here I wanted to be there, and when I was there all I could think of was getting back.”

This powerful opening sequence is a masterpiece of sound and video editing, and like most parts of this film, loaded with interesting back-story; The drunken and delusional Martin Sheen is in fact barely acting at all – Coppola had Sheen do this early sequence by actually getting extremely intoxicated, to the point that he was really experiencing a break-down on camera. The idea was to help get Sheen into the character of Willard by getting in touch with his own inner turmoil. This realism includes a scene where the actor punches a mirror and begins to bleed from his hand onto his bed-sheets and floor. Later on that year Sheen also suffered a heart-attack which kept him out of shooting for four weeks.

The character of Captain Willard is waiting for another mission, and just as he disintegrates almost completely into alcohol induced madness, his mission finally comes. By the time the GI’s enter his room, they have to force him into the shower and carry him out. “It was a real choice mission,” he narrates “and when it was over, I’d never want another.”

The soldiers are intelligence officers, and we soon learn that Willard usually works regularly on such “special missions”, often as an assassin. This assignment however, is very different: Willard must go up the Nung River into Cambodia, in order to track down US Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is a decorated American Colonel. He needs to find him and kill him. This is shocking even to Willard, who has of course never had to carry out a mission against an American, let alone one of such high rank.

During the secret briefing, we learn that Kurtz has apparently lost his mind and started a cult army of his own, which he has made with a group of natives who treat him like a god. He is leading this army outside the Vietnam warzone into the neutral zone of Cambodia, and is leaving a horrible trail of bloodshed behind him. Kutz has become increasingly elusive, has shown a growing disconnect from the chain of command, and generally seems to have gone mad. Thus the army has decided to stop him, and they have chosen Captain Willard to find him and carry out this secret mission.


In a screenshot from the climax of the movie, Martin Sheen (as Captain Willard) emerges from a swamp covered in mud as lightning strikes in the jungle.

Willard begins to make his way up the winding river with a navy boat run by a crew of young sailors. George "Chief" Phillips (Albert Hall) is the commanding officer along with crewmen Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Jay "Chef" Hicks (Frederic Forrest) and Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller (Laurence Fishburne).

The first group they meet are going to be their escorts into the enemy territory; Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), is the commander of a squadron men from the cavalry division. They have a fleet of attack helicopters which they can use to fly them into the next part of the river past the Viet-Cong stronghold. Kilgore is one of the most fascinating characters in the movie; he is a fearless but eccentric man, who seems to care more about surfing and catching big waves than anything else. His greatest motivation to help Willard and his crew past the dangerous Viet-Cong post is that there are good surfing waves near the area.

The next morning, in the most memorable cinematic scenes of the film – and one of the most celebrated sequences of film history – the cavalry division fires up their helicopters and airlifts Willard and his men to the mouth of the river, preparing for battle against the communist outpost where they must land. The helicopters blast the “Ride of the Valkyries” from their loudspeakers while flying in formation and ruthlessly take the enemy from above. This sequence alone was edited down from 130,000 feet of film, which is more footage than is often shot for entire movies. Over-all it is estimated that and inexplicable 1.5 million feet of film was used up in this whole film.

All this time the Colonel’s only priority is to surf in the large waves off the beach – to the extent that he orders his men to surf there while the battle is still going on and the bombs are still falling. To provide more favourable conditions, he orders a napalm airstrike which levels the whole village, civilians and all, as they take to the river with their surfboards. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” declares Kilgore. If this is how a ‘normal’ colonel behaves, then the rogue Kurtz must be really far gone indeed.

Once they have crossed the mouth of the river, the crew head further into the jungle. As they go along they will encounter various US forces that have been deployed, as well as locals and tribesmen. All the while they are dreading what will come next. They can feel the jungle swallowing them up into its darkness - the deeper they go the more ominous their environment gets and things begin to feel stranger and more confusing. When they finally reach the Colonel’s remote location, they are entering in to an ominous world that fills them with shock, dread and awe.

Apocalypse Now (for the director’s cut watch the 2001 Redux version) is not just a war movie, it is a holistic work of art that seeks to explore humanity, and how it behaves when it is taken to its limits. The mastery of Coppola’s direction is matched by the cinematography, editing, acting and sound in this movie, which is what makes it one of the most memorable classics ever made.

View’s weekly classics archive here.



Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at You can view some of his photography here.


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