In the 1970s, every film Hollywood produced was about the Vietnam War. Even those movies which didn’t address the conflict directly were allegories or metaphors for it: Vietnam coloured everything. Apocalypse Now has a foot in both camps: it’s a war movie rich with symbolism yet brimming with action. An art-house war movie, if you will.
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness was a huge inspiration for the film. It tells the story of a steamboat journey up the Congo and into the dark reaches of the human psyche. Transplanting the action to Vietnam, Apocalypse Now follows the journey of army assassin Willard (Martin Sheen) as seeks to terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a rogue Colonel who has gone native and established himself as a despotic warlord.
The production was dogged by problems: a near-fatal heart attack for Sheen; a burgeoning budget which almost tripled from £12m to £31m; a shoot scheduled to last 17 weeks that lasted 34; affairs; suicide threats; extreme weather and widespread drug use. That such a masterpiece emerged is almost miraculous, although it could be argued that many of the problems contributed positively to the hypnotic, hallucinogenic intensity of the film.
Although the narrative is straightforward, Willard’s quest is anything but. The journey upriver serves largely as a metaphor, allowing Coppola to "to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War." In this regard, the director succeeds completely – even the film’s flaws contribute to the achievement of his ideal.
And it is a flawed film. At times it’s overblown and absurd, chaotic and confusing. The end is inconclusive and puzzling, Brando’s dialogue is often incomprehensible and a scene featuring choppered-in Playboy Bunnies is just bizarre. But these problems are far outweighed by the majesty of Coppola’s enormous ambition.
To the sound of The Doors’ ‘The End’, Apocalypse Now opens with a wonderfully evocative sequence of whirring helicopter blades and napalm–flamed forests as Jim Morrison’s mournful vocal convinces the audience of the futility of war. In an oppressively hot and sweaty hotel room, Willard drunkenly awaits his next mission, punching a mirror and cutting himself before smearing the blood over his face: an image which will be mirrored later in the film.
Luckily, before Willard can completely self-destruct, he’s offered a mission: to take down the crazed Colonel Kurtz. He’s a decorated commander who’s gone rogue in Cambodia, setting up his own jungle militia to slaughter Vietnamese officers. Ordered to terminate Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’, Willard accepts the covert mission and is dispatched upriver.
Key to the success of the film is Willard’s narration. Hinting heavily at the realities of war and the confusion of the troops on the ground, he talks of killing on behalf of the US military: "There were those six that I knew about for sure, close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. It wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did." Delivered in Sheen’s distant, detached monotone, the commentary provided by Willard offers an often ambivalent, sometimes confused and occasionally immoral insight into the thinking of a soldier on the ground – and in this seems to perfectly reflect the futility of the Vietnam conflict.
Willard’s journey is punctuated by several iconic and recognizable scenes, including Coppola himself on screen as part of a camera crew capturing mock footage for a TV broadcast, shouting at the soldiers, “Don't look at the camera! Just go by like you're fighting”. The irony of the first televised war being staged in such a way is difficult to avoid.
The most famous scene of all concerns Robert Duvall’s Oscar-nominated performance as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, a lunatic commander with a violent love of surfing. Willard needs Kilgore to secure a Vietcong beachhead so he can sail his boat upriver, a mission which even the fearless Kilgore sees as too risky - until he realises the surfing in the area is magnificent. With that, a beautifully filmed flock of choppers take to the silent sky, only for Kilgore to order his troops to ‘scare the hell’ out of the Vietnamese with music: Wagner’s bombastic Ride Of The Valkyries destroys the peace as the helicopters spew rockets and bullets into innocent villagers and schoolchildren. Kilgore’s callous words of encouragement are compounded by his decision to order an additional airstrike to secure the tree line - to make the beach safe for surfing.
The claustrophobic final scenes were heavily influenced by the condition of Marlon Brando. The Hollywood heavyweight arrived on set overweight, unfit and underprepared. Retrospectively, this turned out to be exactly the right conditions to play the deranged Kurtz.
Kurtz’s horrific compound is managed with manic intensity by his chief acolyte, Dennis Hopper’s LSD-addled war photographer, who keeps Willard separate from the Colonel as long as possible. When they do finally meet, the incoherent Kurtz has clearly passed beyond rational thought: the madness of war has forced him to embrace insanity. In his vicious savagery he is the most clear minded character in the most multi-layered of films: the living embodiment of ‘the horror’ of war.