Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies of all time … actually, it is the favorite movie of mine. And I recently watched it again for the first time. How is that? In 2001 Frances Ford Coppola released a new version entitled “Apocalypse Now Redux” with extra scenes thrown in, and other scenes in different chronological order. I fell in love with Apocalypse Now by watching that version, but I had never watched (until recently) the original theatrical version from 1979. This review is a review of the original release.
Mind vs. Self
Have you ever read about any psychological studies where people are exposed to prolonged viewings of violent images? Much of the research is still uncertain, and there is difficulty with the methodology of creating a control group in such a study. But most research shows that, especially for young children, exposure to violence in media leads to “short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour.” (Brown & Hamilton-Giachritsis, The Influence of Violent Media on Children and Adolescents: A Public-Health Approach, 2005)
Even when I watch something like the UFC, I feel a little strange inside after I see someone knocked out. It changes something temporarily. A feeling of anxiety comes across me as if I am the one about to fight. Temporarily, I am no longer my normal self. Has this happened to you? I find it is especially true when viewing real violence, not movie or television violence.
The reason I bring all of this up is because this makes up a lot of what you see in war movies, and Apocalypse Now does the best job at it. This is what happens when the human psyche is forced to watch real violence happen to real people for prolonged periods of time. Some could refer to it as perhaps the Hunter S. Thompson version of reality (i.e. hyperbolic), but I don’t think it is that far-fetched. Some find more truth in that anyway, rather than buying into the facade. Especially during that time frame, as shown in this movie, when there is a mixture of everyday viewing of human depravity mixed with and the use of drugs and alcohol.
Each character we meet in this movie has a decline in mental state as the movie progresses. I can’t even imagine how they would feel. If brief real violence makes me feel like less than myself, I would imagine that prolonged, grisly violence (some directed at you and your friends, some you direct toward others and their friends) could make one feel sub-human, or at least para-human. Each character copes in their own ways. Some suffer within the grid, but in the case of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), he decides to, in the words of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), ‘get out of the boat and go all the way’ (paraphrased). He leaves the grid completely.
This movie is framed around a rogue soldier, Col. Kurtz, who was a decorated and highly-intelligent (some say genius) soldier who began to crack after a tour in Vietnam. He begins to do things his own way, but he is getting results. He kills soldiers who he believes are double agents, but doesn’t get clearance to do so from the military. What he did was effective and attacks on his group cease, but the military is not pleased. Kurtz withdraws more and more from the military. Eventually, Kurtz develops a large following of people and has a settlement in Cambodia. This is backstory we are given on him.
The main point of the movie is explained early on. Capt. Willard is in Saigon drinking heavily in his hotel room, obviously spent from the war. Military officials summon him, and he is brought to a lunch and given this top-secret mission: to track down Kurtz and terminate his command “with extreme prejudice.”
Willard will be escorted upriver through some “hairy” areas by a group of men on a PBR patrol boat. As they move up the Nung River toward Kurtz’s location in Cambodia, it gets more and more dangerous. The last U.S. post along this river is a complete mad house with no commanding officer.
The boat crew:
- The boat’s pilot, Chief (Albert Hall) He deals with the violence first by loving (he has a father-son relationship with Clean) and then, for valid reasons, focuses negative energy toward Capt. Willard, whom he no longer trusts.
- Clean (a very young Laurence Fishburne) is a charismatic Bronx native more concerned with rock ‘n’ roll than fighting. In the tense and paranoid atmosphere of war, he has a tendency to react quickly, but not efficiently (as seen in one particularly tragic scene when the crew inspects a boat of people transporting food, live animals, and a puppy).
- Chef (Frederick Forrest) is a former saucier (a chef specializing in creating sauces) from New Orleans. He is particularly troubled with his surroundings. With each violent event it seems like he yearns more and more for home. He attempts to feel normal by getting mangoes out of the jungle, but is nearly mauled to death by a tiger. He responds in the boat, “I only wanted to learn to cook! I only wanted to f#&%in’ cook, man!”
- Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms) plays a former world-class surfer. To cope with the violence, he turns to drugs and is more and more unhelpful as the movie progresses. To his infested mind, the war-torn land becomes whimsical. About it he says, “F*#%, man, this is better than Disneyland.”
Willard referred to this crew as “rock ‘n’ rollers with one foot in their graves.”
Along the way, they meet Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall), of the Air Cavalry, who is supposed to help transport the crew up the river. When they first meet him, they are taking control of an area. Interestingly, they have an outside church service going on for the troops, while in the background is a Christian church that they destroyed in the raid. Kilgore is a times caring, and at other times careless. He is enraged when troops won’t give some water to a dying Vietnamese man. So, in response, he pours fresh water in the man’s mouth from a canteen. But then he finds out that surfing champion Lance Johnson is a part of the crew (Kilgore loves surfing) and he immediately leaves the thirsty man (who is still reaching out for water) to meet the surfer. I think this episode sums up Kilgore. Later he will attack a village just to clear some area to do some surfing with Lance. After slaughtering men, women, and children to create surfing area, he calls one Vietnamese woman a savage because she tossed a grenade into one of the helicopters. The scene highlights the irony. Kilgore is famous for the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Willard and the remaining crew do finally make it to Kurtz. Let me just say that Marlon Brando is one of my favorite actors of all time. He is easily top 2. His performance in this movie is amazing. He has been applauded for a type of acting that leaves nothing to waste – every word is phrased with intent, and there is meaning behind every movement he makes. Acting students should just watch him in this movie and learn how to control the camera. His eyes and hands do so much of his acting as well, which must be seen to be believed. In this theatrical version, we see much more of the tortured soul of Kurtz, whereas in the Redux version we saw a little bit more of his retained humanity. Kurtz now wants for his creation to die, to end immediately (apocalypse now). Kurtz is famous for several lines in this movie, but the most famous is probably, “The horror! The horror!” Although one of my favorite lines is after he asks Willard if he thinks he is an assassin. Willard responds and says “I’m a soldier.” Kurtz replies with “You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”
I’m not wanting to reveal too much of the movie because I really hope that you will see it. But before you do, beware of this: drug use, alcohol, violence, brief male nudity, and bad language. This is in the theatrical version. If you watch the Redux (which I also highly recommend), there is female nudity as well.
I give this movie a perfect 5 out of 5! It creates an environment that feels authentic, and the reality or illusion of this atmosphere is secondary. It creates the atmosphere that the characters feel. The music instills dread. The movie starts off with a scene of napalm engulfing a row of trees to the tune of The Doors “The End”. The ending isn’t any happier. This is your mind on drugs? No, this is your mind on war, a very strange war for many people who still live with the horrors they themselves encountered. The dialogue is some of the best you will hear. Martin Sheen does voiceover narration for the film too, like a film noir detective. Everyone turns in an excellent acting performance. And I can bet you’ve never seen Martin Sheen like this – especially in that strange underwear karate scene!
In this blog, we attempt to find attributes that can appeal to a Christian ethic, something to be applauded and copied. However, this movie doesn’t lend itself well to that. There are no heroics, only dulled senses. This movie is more about what happens in removing God. A vacuum is created in the soul, and if enough people buy into the vacuum, then the vacuum exists on a larger scale. Some, like Lance Johnson, fill their hopeless situations with substances that falsely promise to take the pain away. Some, like Chef, grow nostalgic. Some, like Willard, fill it with alcohol, remorse, confusion, and pessimism. But some, like Kurtz, fill the void with themselves and make themselves a god of imperatives, declarations, and supreme truth. Some fill the void with Kurtz, and he becomes their god. The results are devastating: apocalypse now.
Dennis Hopper’s character paraphrases a T. S. Eliot poem which says “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” This movie is (loosely) based off of the book Hearts of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I found this neat quote on Wikipedia to end this blog entry with. It is a quote from the book that ends with the last lines that Kurtz speaks in the film. It sums up the whole point, that shows the perceived reality (more of a half truth in my estimation) in the hopeless and depraved void:
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –“The horror! The horror!”