1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

by Trey Hock on March 28, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

We’ve encountered a lot of films about war on our journey through AFI’s list. War is fertile ground for placing characters in conflict. The mortal danger that surrounds our main characters pares them down to their core values and desires. Most of the films so far have focused on the sacrifice made by young soldiers, or their inability to return home once they’ve seen the battlefield. Not until film #30 on the list do we get a true sense of the madness of war.

Francis Ford Coppola’s second film on AFI’s list, “Apocalypse Now,” is perhaps the most poetic and cohesive vision of the insanity of war. Set during the Vietnam conflict, “Apocalypse Now” through its varied characters shows us the fear, the absurdity, the craziness of this particular war and how it seeps into the psyche of a soldier. It is a cinematic form of epic poetry and was created with many of the same ambitions that drove the American modernist poets of the early 20th century.

As our film begins, Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) has already been through one tour in Vietnam, but life back home felt so meaningless that he rushed back to Saigon.

The juxtaposition of the overlapping images and the monotone voice over illustrate the poetry of the entire film. Its mix of controlled narration with challenging visuals makes the insanity of what we’re seeing all the more powerful. The narration normalizes Willard’s emotional and psychological breakdown that takes place in this scene. For an American soldier in Vietnam in the mid-60s, moments like this one are presented as the norm.

The Army gives Willard the mission of finding and killing Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz, a Green Beret, has built an army of AWOL soldiers, as well as indigenous Vietnamese and Cambodians. Willard must go up river to Cambodia on a Navy patrol boat. The boat is to be escorted a ways up river by an Air Cavalry Unit led by the charismatic Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall).

When Willard suggests a destination for the escort, Kilgore claims it’s too dangerous until he hears that the spot may be perfect for surfing. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

The helicopter attack of the village, accompanied by Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” is probably the more famous scene, but that’s just the action sequence. This campfire scene, which comes just before, shows us the motivation for the attack scene. Why does Kilgore sacrifice some of his own men, and call in a napalm air strike? Because Charlie don’t surf.

Though Kilgore is brash and arrogant, he toes the military line. He may destroy an entire village of Viet Cong and civilians, but he’ll do so in the name of a stated military mission. Kilgore stays just inside of the accepted boundaries, and thus gives the viewer a frightening look at what the acceptable use of power during war looks like.

Willard sees Kilgore also, and as he studies Col. Kurtz’s file, Willard grows skeptical of those who strictly follow military protocol, and more intrigued by his intended quarry. As the boat moves up river, Willard reads a letter Kurtz sent to his son.

Protocol brings with it both an embedded hypocrisy, and a lack of willingness to do what is necessary in war. The hypocrisy of protocol stems from an officer’s ability to destroy human life en masse and then hide behind mission objectives and strategy. This hypocrisy also limits action necessitated by war. If there is a structured right and wrong way to do things, which allow soldiers to commit atrocities with absolution, then some acts, which are deemed wrong, may be exactly what the conflict calls for. In these situations our protocol binds our hands.

Kurtz may be a monster, but it seems that he is an honest monster, one who does not hide behind a false morality or a farcical protocol.

The patrol boat continues up river and makes it to the last Army outpost at the Do Long Bridge. If Kilgore was an example of a company man, then the men we see at the Do Long Bridge represent protocol without command. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

There is a reverence and austerity for the communion between soldier and weapon in this scene that is evident through its use of sound. As Roach (Herb Rice) turns off the radio and focuses his thoughts on the VC soldier near the wire, the ambient sounds fade and leave only the sounds within our immediate proximity. Roach’s voice and Willard’s voice seem to come out of silence.

In addition to the eerie silence, both Roach and the other gunner address the camera, when talking to Willard. This places the viewer in Willard’s point of view. We are just as confused as he is while searching for the person in charge. Both the viewer and Willard slowly become aware that there is no commanding officer.

The journey up river takes its toll on the crew of the patrol boat. Finally there are just two crewmembers and Willard, and Willard’s anticipation for his conflict with Kurtz continues to grow. (Sound starts at 11 seconds.)

With the long dissolves, and the men superimposed over the slowly moving landscape time has become meaningless. The journey is that of a nightmare, at once taking forever and no time at all.

Willard must resolve his own internal conflict and choose between carrying out his mission, or denying it. Willard has grown increasingly disillusioned with the military apparatus. His own motivation for taking the mission is suspect, but Willard pushes on, and when he makes it to Kurtz’s camp, he is imprisoned. A photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), who has taken up with Kurtz, gives us a clue about the role that Willard will play.

The photojournalist expresses the ambivalence and desperation that Kurtz feels towards his own society, constructed in the jungle. In an earlier conversation, the journalist commented, as he gestured at the people and grass huts that surrounded them, that this is how it all ends. Kurtz’s civilization is a final outcome, a hell on Earth. It is an apocalypse now, and it appears that Willard has been called to tell the story of Kurtz and his village of followers.

Willard is released and allowed to move freely in the camp. He spends a good deal of time listening to Kurtz. Here in the latter portion of the film we see clearly the motivation for Kurtz’s actions.

Kurtz embodies military aggression without remorse. He sees the men who hacked off children’s arms as “full of love” even moral, but they have the will and the strength to carry out horrible acts in defense of their cause. “It’s judgment that defeats us.” Kurtz has handed Willard the ability to carry out his own mission.

Much is made of the production of “Apocalypse Now.” The part of Willard was recast after three weeks of filming, the principal photography went on for over a year, Marlon Brando showed up unprepared and hugely overweight, and Martin Sheen had a heart attack before the production wrapped. All of these aspects have increased the legend of “Apocalypse Now,” but in some ways the obsession with the plagues that beset production and the trivia that surrounds this film distract from the film itself.

Though the acting is great, at the heart of this film is Coppola, a single visionary director. “Apocalypse Now” is film poetry, and I contend that it was always intended to be a modernist cinematic work of poetic visual language. Yes, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” inspired the film, but more importantly there are at least three distinct references to three of T.S. Eliot’s poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men,” and “The Wasteland.”

I believe that these three poems were not just passing references, but fundamental to Coppola’s vision. Coppola was trying to craft a long form epic poem, an ambition similar to that of the American modernist poets of the early 20th century. Like Ezra Pound and Eliot, Coppola was highly educated. Coppola was one of the new guard of film school filmmakers that came out of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he wanted to create film art, not simply a mass-produced and mass-consumed medium.

Any endeavor of such lofty ambitions will create huge levels of anxiety and problems will arise surrounding the artwork’s creation. Both Eliot and Coppola suffered nervous breakdowns during the creation of their individual works. Coppola is said to have lost over 100 pounds while filming “Apocalypse Now.”

The ending of “Apocalypse Now” gives us the most compelling parallel with “Hollow Men” and “The Wasteland.” “Hollow Men” opens with a reference to Conrad’s novella and ends with the lines, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” “The Wasteland” in it’s final lines gives us the ambiguous “Shantih/Shantih/Shantih,” which loosely means the peace which passeth all understanding, but in Eliot’s poem this can be taken ironically. When we look at “Apocalypse Now,” which ends with a dying Kurtz whispering “The horror” over and over again as Willard returns to Saigon, we can see the striking similarities.

These are all works that refuse to answer questions or give us any sense of relief. We as the viewers must come to terms with “Apocalypse Now,” and in doing so we might get a little closer to understanding the more primal and terrible aspects of humanity.

Up Next #29 “Double Indemnity” (1944)

1 Year, 100 Movies #31 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

1 Year, 100 Movies #32 The Godfather Part II (1974)

1 Year, 100 Movies #33 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

1 Year, 100 Movies #34 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

1 Year, 100 Movies #35 Annie Hall (1977)

1 Year, 100 Movies #36 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

1 Year, 100 Movies #37 The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

1 Year, 100 Movies #38 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

1 Year, 100 Movies #39 Dr. Strangelove (1964)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier March 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Do you have any ideas on where I can find the non Redux version of apocalypse now because I can only find the redux versions locally?


2 Trey Hock March 29, 2011 at 5:59 am

I have a non-redux copy, but I think as long as it doesn’t say redux, you’re okay. Unlike Lucas’ Special Editions, Coppola saw the redux version of the film as a different piece. So you should be able to find it. I know Netflix has a copy of both.


3 Chris March 29, 2011 at 11:28 am

Trey – couldn’t help but think of this film today when I read the Rolling Stone article about the “kill team” in Afghanistan.


great thoughts on what may be in my top ten of all time films by the way.


4 Trey Hock March 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Chris – Some of the quotes and comments in that article are chillingly reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now.” Thanks for posting the link.


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