Top 100 Movie Review: No. 031 – Apocalypse Now (1979)

Ranked 031 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).  Watched movie during June 2020.

Cast:  Martin Sheen (Captain Benjamin L. Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks), Sam Bottoms (Lance B. Johnson), Laurence Fishburne (Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), G.D. Spradlin (General R. Corman)
Director:  Francis Coppola
My rating: 9.0 / 10

Note:  This Review is based on the 2001 Redux edition of the movie.

Seasoned veteran Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen); a deeply troubled seasoned veteran who has returned to Saigon from deployment. Willard stays in his apartment alone and drinks excessively and appears to be having difficulty adjusting to life outside a combat zone. Two intelligence officers, Lt. General Corman (G. D. Spradlin), Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) and a government man (Jerry Ziesmer), approach him with an assignment: journey up the legendary Nung River into the remote Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a member of the US Army Special Forces who they believe has gone insane.

Kurtz commanding a legion of his own Montagnard troops deep inside the forest in neutral Cambodia. Their claims are supported by very disturbing radio broadcasts and recordings made by Kurtz himself. Willard is ordered to undertake a mission to find Kurtz and terminate the Colonel’s command “with extreme prejudice.”  Willard is assigned to a Navy Patrol Boat, Riverine whose crew is composed of George Phillips (Albert Hall), the boat commander; Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Tyrone Miller (Laurence Fishburne), a.k.a. “Mr. Clean”, and Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest).

Willard and the boat rendezvous with an Air Cavalry unit, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) for transport to the Nung River. Kilgore, a surf fan, befriends Johnson, and later learns from one of his men that the beach down the coast which marks the opening to the river is perfect for surfing. Kilgore is intrigued and decides to capture the village. His men advise him that it’s “Charlie’s point” and heavily fortified. Dismissing this concern with the explanation that “CHARLIE DON’T SURF!!,” Kilgore orders his men to saddle up in the morning to capture the beach and allow Willard to travel up Nung River.

Riding high above the coast in a fleet of helicopters Kilgore launches his attack on the beach. The scene features the music “Ride of the Valkyries,” ends with the soldiers surfing the barely-secured beach amidst skirmishes between infantry and Veit Cong. After helicopters swoop over the village and demolish all visible signs of resistance, a giant napalm strike in the nearby jungle dramatically marks the climax of the battle. Kilgore exults to Willard, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…”.

The lighting and mood darken as the boat navigates upstream and Willard’s silent obsession with Kurtz deepens. Incidents on the journey include a run-in with a tiger while Willard and Chef search for mangoes. The boat continues up river and watches a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies and a centrefold that degenerates into chaos.

Shortly after attending a USO Playmate performance that descends into chaos the crew find the Playmates stranded with their helicopter out of fuel, they trade fuel for sex with the Playmates.  Later Phillips spots a sampan and orders an inspection over Willard’s objection. Initially reluctant to board the boat, Chef hostilely searches it and one of the civilians makes a sudden movement towards a barrel, prompting Clean to open fire, apparently killing all the crew but they later realise that one young woman, lies dying who Willard kills so they can continue their mission.

The boat moves up river to the American outpost at the Do Long bridge, the last U.S. Army outpost on the river. The boat arrives during a North Vietnamese Army attack on the bridge, which is under constant construction. Upon arrival, Willard receives the last piece of the dossier from a lieutenant named Carlson, along with mail for the boat crewmen. Willard and Lance, who has taken LSD, go ashore and they make their way through the trenches where they encounter many panicked, burned out, stoned and leaderless soldiers. Realising the situation has devolved into chaos, Willard and Lance return to the boat. The chief tries to convince Willard not to continue with his mission. In response, Willard snaps at Phillips to continue upriver. As the boat departs, an artillery strike destroys the bridge.

The next day, Willard learns from the information he received at Do Lung that an Army captain, Colby, was sent to find Kurtz a few months prior to Willard’s assignment and has joined Kurtz. While its crew is busy reading mail, the boat is ambushed by Viet Cong hiding in the trees by the river. Clean is killed as he listens to an audio tape from his mother. The chief, who had a close relationship with Clean, becomes increasingly hostile to Willard.  Montagnard villagers begin firing arrows at the boat as it approaches the camp. The crew opens fire until the chief is hit by a spear. Willard attempts to assist the mortally wounded Phillips who tries to kill Willard by pulling him onto the spear tip protruding from his chest. Willard grapples with Phillips until the man finally dies.

Later the boat comes across French family rubber plantation, a holdover from the colonization of French Indochina. Willard is invite to a dinner where the French family patriarchs argue about the positive side of colonialism in Indochina and denounce the betrayal of the military men in the First Indochina War. Hubert de Marais argues that French politicians sacrificed entire battalions at Điện Biên Phủ, and tells Willard that the US created the Viet Cong (as the Viet Minh), to fend off Japanese invaders.  Willard has sex with one of the French woman before leaving.

After arriving at Kurtz’ outpost, Willard leaves Chef behind with orders to call in an airstrike on the village if he does not return and takes Johnson with him to the village. They are met by a manic freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), who explains that Kurtz’s greatness and philosophical skills inspire his people to follow him. Willard also encounters the missing Colby who is in a nearly catatonic state.  Willard is bound and brought before Kurtz in a darkened temple. After questioning Willard about where he hails from, Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, humanity, and civilization. When Willard tells him about the parameters of his mission, Kurtz responds by saying Willard is “an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”

While locked in a bamboo cage, the photographer talks to Willard, asking him why he’d want to kill Kurtz: the photographer tries to explain that Kurtz is brilliant and there is some semblance of meaning in his method.  

The scene changes to Chef attempting to call in the airstrike on the village as ordered by Willard. Chef is attacked and the scene cuts to Willard bound to a post outside in the pouring rain. Kurtz walks up to him and stares at him, his head and face covered in camouflage grease paint. He stalks off for a moment and then casually drops Chef’s severed head into his lap. Willard screams and manages to get the head out of his lap. Willard has reached his breaking point.

Willard is freed some time later and allowed to join Kurtz in his private temple. Kurtz reads “The Hollow Men” by TS Eliot, drawing wild praise from the Freelance Photographer. While he babbles to Willard, Kurtz throws a piece of fruit at him, prompting the Photographer to say he’s leaving. Willard recounts that he doesn’t remember how much time he spent with Kurtz, thinking it was days. Kurtz recounts one of his humanitarian missions: he led a company to a Vietnamese village to inoculate the children for polio. Shortly after leaving the village, his unit was called back and found that the Cong had come and hacked off the inoculated arm of each child injected with the polio vaccine. Kurtz recalls the horror of the scene and then an epiphany: the Vietnamese forces fighting against the United States were possessed of a much stronger will. Kurtz also says that if he had an army composed of soldiers with the will to act so ruthlessly, he could end the war in a short amount of time.

Back on the boat Willard ponders what to do next. He comments that he’ll receive a promotion for completing his mission but he feels he’s no longer a soldier or part of the war effort. He sneaks back into Kurtz’ temple. Willard enters Kurtz’s chamber as Kurtz is making a recording, and attacks him with the machete. This entire sequence is set to “The End” by The Doors and juxtaposed with a ceremonial slaughtering of a water buffalo.

Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers “The horror… the horror.” Surrounded by the Montagnards, Willard descends the stairs from Kurtz’ temple and drops his weapon. The villagers do so as well. Willard walks through the now-silent crowd of natives and takes Johnson by the hand. He leads Johnson to the PBR, and they sail away as Kurtz’s final words echo as the scene fades to black.

What’s to Like
The music, the cinematography, the dark story.

What’s not to Like
Nothing significant.  

One of the darkest movies centred on the Vietnam War was actually loosing adapted from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and published in 1899 which is about going upstream in Congo, Africa as civilisation slips away.  The movie proved difficult to shoot with Marlo Brando arriving on the set overweight and completely unprepared which required significant changes to his character and careful shooting and editing, expensive sets being destroyed  and Martin Sheen having a breakdown while shooting in these extreme conditions.

This movie is very iconic especially for the music and several quotes from the characters (I love the smell of Napalm in the morning).  It’s a journey into madness with no empathy and no quarter given where a line is crossed and human life means next to nothing.  Murder, sex, depravity and lawlessness is the order of the day as civilisation is lost.  Willard couldn’t re-adapt to returning home after his first tour in Vietnam he has now chance now after these experiences to kill Kurtz.

A visual and sound masterpiece with a very story and disturbing story about the human condition and what happens when killing becomes an every hour event.   

Academy Awards

  • Best Cinematography – Winner
  • Best Sound – Winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Robert Duvall) – nominee
  • Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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