I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy war movies. I’ve found that the genre provides reliably fertile ground for uniquely creative stories about the conflict between civilization and humanity. Two years ago Sam Mendes released the epic 1917, which was cut to feel like one long shot. A few years before that, Christoper Nolan helmed the heart pounding masterpiece Dunkirk, which is a nail-biting, survival, suspense, story. There are plenty of war films I’m not a huge fan of (see: Hacksaw Ridge) but there are many that manage to expose a primal truth of existence and survival in a way I’ll never understand first hand (hopefully?).
This is the fourth Francis Ford Coppola movie on this list, coming in behind The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now debuted four years after the end of America’s fruitless twenty year crusade against communism in Asia. Martin Sheen as Captain Willard is our shepherd through the jungle. Willard is tasked with routing out Colonel Kurtz (played by the always magnificent Marlon Brando) — who has been charged with murdering Vietnamese civilians before going AWOL. Willard is fascinated by his target, and it is through his voice that we learn of Kurtz’s history and wandering psychology. The film is famously based on the Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness, which has its own Kurtz character journeying into debasement, and there are references to other classic works of literature (specifically T.S. Elliot ) throughout the production.
Like those poems and Conrad’s novel, Coppola approaches the pacing and development of plot and character with slow, considered, methodology. We first meet Willard as he stares up at a swirling ceiling fan that hums to the same rhythm of the many helicopters that serve as the heartbeat of the Vietnamese jungle during the war. That droning thump is almost always present through the film, and it ebbs and flows with the escalation of action.
I think it’s safe to say that Apocalypse Now has quiet antiwar sentiments, but to me, the stronger message is the banality of combat, and the conflicting justifications we make to rationalize the depravity of it all. Willard is ordered to kill an American soldier, which already requires a leap of faith in morality, and the more we learn about the reasoning behind that order, the more difficult it is to justify. And yet, I think Coppola wants us to wonder, how is there any justification to any of these actions?
Coppola allows the temperature on the film rise steadily over the three hour runtime, and there are too many memorable moments of his genius to discuss them all. What can’t be denied is that Coppola plays with the full deck, as demonstrated by his willingness to blend absurdity and travesty. For instance, when the most famous line of the movie is delivered by the comically surf-obsessed squad leader (Robert Duvall) “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, the audience is forced to acknowledge the incongruity of witnessing the mass murder of the seemingly harmless farming village while surrounded by pristine beaches and natural serenity.
Aboard the boat trip where we’ll spend the majority of the film, napalm is a common sight, and the description of the smell hangs within the fog whenever it floats across the river. Coppola teases us by focusing on a sense he cannot manipulate on film - in a way that feels a little like #IYKYK and a tip of hat to those viewers who can conjure up the memories of a smell that the rest of us will likely (hopefully) never be forced to endure. As we travel up river, the dynamics of the characters aboard the boat slowly surface, and there’s a unique, but not overly sweet demeanor to each of them.
They are not guiltless, and they permit themselves to construct their own moral guardrails - which is most evident in the scene where the crew searches an innocent boat and all of the Vietnamese people end up dead for no reason. Each crew member plays their role, and they all find a way to sleep at night in spite of their crimes. This brazen disregard for human life is an act of survival in and of itself, and when the soldiers start to die, one by one, the tenderness they show to their fellow boatmates is like a beam through a crack in their calloused exteriors. This too is an act of survival, the men don’t necessarily want to love or reveal their inner pain, but it is necessary if they are to continue crawling through the woods when there is no obvious reason to keep pushing forward.
The atmosphere of the film is one of its crowning achievements. The descent into the darkness and rain of the jungle, leaving those curling waves and sandy beaches behind, is the perfect accompaniment into Williard’s psychic and emotional center. It is also kind of trippy, and there is a strong 70’s era sheen of an acid trip over the directorial choices — most apparently when we meet the “American civilian” Dennis Hopper who is bumming around in the Kurtz compound. Kurtz is representative of a person who “wakes up” to the reality that the government he is sworn to protect is not innocent, and that civilization, in many ways, is a choice we all opt in to for the sake of comfort and security. What he establishes is an alternative lifestyle of “hollow men” and Williard is forced to confront his own reasoning for being not only on the compound, but also in the Eastern hemisphere altogether.
Apocalypse Now is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, and tales about its production and development have persisted alongside its legacy. As we’ve seen with the other Coppola films on this list, he is uniquely skilled at showcasing individuals within sub-societal mechanisms. This micro and macro approach creates a different kind of depth and perspective that allows the audience to emphasize with strangers we’ll never know, feeling their internal struggles while we question their morality, and hopefully, better understanding how our own motivations and decisions may be underpinned by our invisible imprisonments as much as our supposed freedoms.