Directors Spotlight: Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is the classic 1979 Vietnam War movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The movie follows a Special Forces officer named Willard (Martin Sheen) as he is sent up the Nung River through Vietnam and into Cambodia to hunt down the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard is told that Kurtz has gone mad and taken an army of natives deep into the jungles of Cambodia to wage his own personal war against the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. As the story unfolds, we see that not only are Kurtz and Willard very much alike in terms of who they are and how they got to be who they are, Willard might be just as crazy as Kurtz’ supposed to be.
To fulfill the mission Willard joins the crew of a Navy patrol boat that takes him up river. The crew is made up of four very different people: Mr. Clean (Laurence “Larry” Fishburne), Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Captain Phillips (Albert Hall). Clean is 17 and already a cold-blooded killer. Chef is the “I-don’t-want-to-be-here” soldier that every war movie needs. Lance is a famous surfer who is under the influence of some type of drug throughout the entire time he is on the boat. Captain Phillips is the authority figure on the boat and frequently butts heads with Willard, who technically outranks him on his own boat.
Willard and the crew meet up with the Army 1st Air Cavalry to request a ride to the mouth of the Nung River so they can be on their way. Here we encounter Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who stops dealing out death-cards to dead Vietcong long enough to reprimand some soldiers for refusing to give water to an enemy that’s holding his guts in with a pot-lid. At first, Kilgore refuses to help Willard go anywhere. He quickly changes his tune when one of his men tells him that Lance is among Willards crew. Kilgore’s a surfer and wants to impress Lance by taking him to the best surf spot in Vietnam. A surf spot that not only happens to be at the mouth of the Nung River, but is also an enemy seaside village. When his men tell him, “That’s Charlie’s point.” Kilgore famously responds with, ” Charlie don’t surf.” and orders his men to saddle up and take the beach and the village. Which they do the next morning. They attack the village in a fleet of Huey helicopters blasting Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” from loudspeakers. The scene ends with Kilgore lamenting “Someday this war’s going to end.” as he walks away from Willard mid-thought.
They haven’t even gotten on the frigging boat yet.
From here Willard and the crew make their way deeper into the jungle and deeper into a true life hell on earth. They encounter everything from tigers to Playboy Bunnies. Ultimately, Willard finds and confronts Kurtz. Which, honestly is a bit anti-climactic after everything we see Willard and his crew encounter and endure. (Brando was so fat when he showed up for filming they couldn’t really show more than his face in shadow.)
I love this movie. I think it’s one of the best anti-war movies ever made. Every single character in the film is either deeply flawed or completely insane. There is no moral center in any of these characters. And, when these types of people are put in charge of anything you’re asking for trouble. Which is what we see when Kilgore arbitrarily decides to destroy a village so he can surf with a “legend” and with what Kurtz accomplishes off-camera to build his army.
The film looks gorgeous. You can almost feel the humidity and smell the sweat off of Sheen. The jungle looks beautiful even when it opens up and kills people. It’s a very surreal movie at times. Especially, the scene where Willard finally arrives at Kurtz’ jungle base. Dead bodies are hanging everywhere in a lagoon that’s overshadowed by a beautiful temple.
It’s a great movie and one of Francis Ford Coppola’s best films. I think it was overlooked when it was released becasue of the subject matter but it is one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s era of movie making. I give it 5 out of 5 pitchforks.