The Vietnam War has been the inspiration for several fine films, but the best-known (and arguably the best) is probably Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Academy, Palme D’Or and Golden Globe-winning Apocalypse Now (the best version of which is 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux). The film’s status was recognized in 2000, when it was selected by the US Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Apocalypse is one of the great cinematic experiences for all who have ever doubted the cults of progress; or wondered about the durability of civilization.
The production of Apocalypse was notoriously difficult and protracted (leading one commentator to ask “Apocalypse When?”), running grossly over budget—which in retrospect seems curiously appropriate for a film of its theme and scope. Martin Sheen plays Benjamin L. Willard, a traumatized but proficient US Special Forces captain. We meet him first in a seedy Saigon hotel, where he has been spending his R&R time getting drunk (during the filming, Sheen was a self-described alcoholic, and also suffered a near-fatal heart attack), in a vain attempt to erase the horrific images that are playing on constant loop in his head—women screaming in perpetuity, men forever falling dead, forests and villages eternally erupting in napalm Technicolor. He is dragged forcibly back into the present for another unorthodox, unacknowledged mission.
Colonel Walter E Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a brilliant soldier who has gone permanently AWOL, not just from the US military but also from conventional morality, secreting himself in the remote jungle on the wrong side of the Cambodian border with a troop of fanatically loyal soldiers who apparently treat him as a demi-God. Like Conrad’s original (Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Heart of Darkness), Kurtz has set himself up as an absolutist arbiter, a man-who-would-be-king, earning a reputation for casual cruelty that has shocked even the Pentagon. The military establishment and the CIA have decided that Kurtz has become a liability and they want him “terminated with extreme prejudice.” A previously dispatched assassin has apparently thrown in his lot with Kurtz, so it is up to Willard to take a Navy boat up the Nung River into danger from more than just the Viet Cong. While Willard is receiving his orders, the camera dwells for a moment on a recent newspaper, with headlines about Charles Manson.
As they set off, the film's soundtrack is The Doors’ song The End, which is reprised at the climax. And it is the end—the end of seeming normalcy, as the little boat chugs gallantly upstream into a maelstrom of savagery, to the incongruous soundtrack of The Rolling Stones and the rich aroma of cannabis. The boat has a beautifully realized crew of highly charged men of different ages, backgrounds and temperaments. There are two black men, George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), the capable and conventional launch captain, and Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), an irritatingly hyperactive 17 year old from the Bronx whom Phillips seeks vainly to protect. There is also Engineman Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest), a chef from New Orleans, a fizzing bundle of nervous energy who seems to be always on the verge of breakdown, and Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), in peacetime a championship surfer, superficially more phlegmatic but like the rest of the crew concealing unsuspected depths and shallows of personality.
As they proceed, between alternately helicopter-strafed or tree-hung banks full of brooding malice (or, perhaps even worse, nothing but the indifferent emptiness of never disturbed forest), they bicker, remonstrate, jostle and joke inside and between themselves, ferreting out each other’s weak spots and plumbing each other’s depths, at times of danger finding a short-term solidarity, temporarily united against a uniformly dangerous country. The tiny boat is an ampoule of all America, in all its late Sixties existential confusion, alternately joining in with the wider military effort, or absorbedly pursuing its own murderous mission against a lush stage set of less focused murderousness.
The crew encounter others pursuing their own agendas, most notably Robert Duvall’s compelling Colonel Kilgore of the elite 101st Airborne, a charismatic, dynamic, effective officer adored by his men as much for his flamboyance (Stetson hat, surfboard always at the ready, The Ride of the Valkyries playing over loudspeakers as the choppers power in towards “Charlie” from out of the sun) as for his genuine concern with his soldiers’ welfare. (The Philippine Air Force helicopters used for filming were periodically taken off-set by President Marcos to deal with real-life rebels.) Kilgore is obviously off-base—“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he exults famously. “It smells like victory.”
Apart from Kilgore, there is also the nameless black soldier at an advanced US outpost, who alone amongst the pot-smoking GIs, the raucous, vacuous broadcast pop music, the pointless explosions and the blind machine-gunning into the vigilant darkness, has got control of himself—coolly placing his rifle grenades in just the right place, to silence satisfactorily taunting VC interlopers. There are the impresarios from States-side, who have shipped in American women to entertain the testosterone-laden troops and who use them essentially as prostitutes to obtain fuel and other favours from the military. And then there are the tough French colonialists, an islet of fine linen, imported wine and clean fingernails under the encroaching trees, grimly holding onto their ancestral plantations less for financial or even family reasons than as a means of forgetting the national and racial humiliation of Dien Bien Phu.
In times of total war, we are shown, all morals and all modes of life are thrown into permanent confusion. All the various combatants are at least slightly crazed—cauterized by circumstances none of them caused, trapped in a hellish here-and-now without point, and without any hope of “victory” (whatever that might mean). Their virtues—dutifulness, courage, self-reliance—are at odds with the new Soixante-huitard West. As he meets and marvels at these people, all focused but yet all also somehow adrift, Willard gradually realizes that he and they and even Kurtz have more in common than he would like to think. They are all susceptible to a Lord of the Flies-like reversion to the prehistoric, premoral mean, where only might can ever be indubitably right, and that only until something even mightier comes along. The launch’s journey towards the tree-concealed source of the Nung (the river’s monosyllabic name itself sounding like a primordial forest demon) is a journey into the tangled human past. Kurtz’s UDI is merely the logical conclusion of a process that is utterly without logic or meaning—a mere chapter in a war of all against all. It is in some ways a self-realization of everything’s senselessness.
The boat’s crew shoots up an innocent civilian boat in a fit of panic, and crewmembers are killed along the way. The crewmen find unsuspected strengths as well as weaknesses within themselves, as they are winnowed by war. If there is any comfort to be gleaned from the unrelieved bleakness, it is that the seemingly substandard may come good under fire, and that there can be a strange symmetrical beauty in simply following duty.
Eventually they get to their destination, only to find that in some respects they have been there all along. Kurtz may glory in displaying the heads of his enemies on pointed sticks, but is he much worse than the suited politicians back home who in what passes for their hearts care nothing for human collateral damage, and who have so coldly consigned a country to such a Day of Judgement in pursuit of an unattainable objective? Kurtz’s excesses are lovingly (and believably) chronicled by Dennis Hopper, as an awestruck American photojournalist, whose attitude towards Kurtz resembles Walter Duranty’s abasement before the Soviets, or the Guardian writers who queued up to pay homage to Robert Mugabe in the 1970s.
One of the surviving crew members throws in his lot with Kurtz’s “tribe,” while Willard is taken prisoner, and is compelled to listen to Kurtz’s memorable monologues in the darkness of his hut, the hairless Kurtz monstrous in the shadows like a bloated Nosferatu. Willard is totally powerless and without resource, as is horribly demonstrated when on another occasion he is tied to a stake in the unremitting rain, and a camouflaged Kurtz sneaks up to him out of the torrential night bearing the severed head of the only surviving trustworthy crew member.
Yet despite his omnipotence, for some unexplained reason Kurtz never orders Willard’s execution; instead, he seems to expect that Willard will kill him in due course, as if he wants to be killed. And so eventually Willard does; while Kurtz’s troops are ceremonially sacrificing a water buffalo (Coppola’s cameras captured a real ceremonial killing), the other once-powerful, now overpowered beast submits to the machete, saying at the end only
“The horror . . . the horror”
in one of the few literal borrowings from Conrad.
Even as he leaves Kurtz’s hideout openly, “proved” right because he has proved to be physically stronger, Kurtz’s acolytes are suddenly silent, seemingly already drifting back to real life, their eyes suddenly clearer, shaking their puzzled heads as if wondering where they have been all this time. Willard gets back to the river, taking with him the sole, abashed survivor of the crew—heading back down, the viewer hopes but does not expect, towards survival and maybe even some semblance of peace. But even if he finds peace, he and we know it will be at best an armed truce—a respite before the next installment of apocalypse.