“You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”
The mark of a philosophical film is that it poses tough questions about life without good or easy answers. In that sense, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall, is very much a philosophical film, as you’ll probably finish the film with more questions than answers. It’s complex and thought-provoking, dealing with the nature of war and what it does to a man, and it refuses to answer for us what’s truly right or wrong. It’s left entirely up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the movie—there’s a good case for (and against) both sides of the argument presented here. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking movie to cover the Vietnam War, and that’s saying a lot, as there have been some great movies to cover that era.
A note on versions of this film: there’s the original theatrical version, labeled Original Cut, and a director’s cut with some additional scenes, labeled Redux. I would actually recommend the Original Cut. The additional scenes don’t really add anything to the plot and seem wildly out of character—the movie is actually significantly better without them.
The plot follows Captain Benjamin Willard, who is given a rather unique mission: find and terminate a rogue soldier, Green Beret Colonel Walter Kurtz, who began to achieve his objectives through methods that were both extreme and unethical. Kurtz and a small group of soldiers that followed him are now conducting hit-and-run missions against the Viet Cong with no oversight or accountability for their actions. Willard and a small band of soldiers travel up the Nung River to Cambodia to stop him. Along the way, we see how the status-quo soldiers are fighting the war as well as how Kurtz and his followers are changing the rules, and neither is entirely right or wrong.
Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Apocalypse Now is actually a modern retelling of the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Set in the Vietnam War rather than Europe’s Scramble for Africa, some liberties had to be taken with the plot, but the core remains the same. Kurtz, a portrait of a madman, is presented as a force to be stopped; but along the way, we begin to question if the rest of humanity is really any more sane or moral than Kurtz himself. Heart of Darkness was a hotly-debated book and Apocalypse Now is a hotly-debated movie because it really makes us question whether Kurtz is a dark character, or if he’s just more honest about the inherent darkness in humanity. There are no easy answers, and if you watch this film with two friends, all three of you may have different opinions afterward.
The feelings this movie evokes are peculiar. I’d heard it was a dark film, but I was surprised by how light and comical the first half of it is. If you think napalm and surfboards would never appear in the same scene, you need to watch this movie. It’s made very clear that most of the American soldiers are in Vietnam not because they care but because they have to be there, and that lack of caring manifests in some very amusing ways. As Willard and his crew travel up the river, though, further from the lighthearted soldier antics and closer to Kurtz, the fun fades away and we’re eventually brought to a place that’s as serious as Kurtz himself—which is to say very serious and dark.
Apocalypse Now is truly a work of art, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a challenging film, although it’s also a very rewarding film. It will make you think, but it won’t tell you how to think, which is nearly the antithesis of the typical Hollywood formula. I actually had to wait two days between watching this film and writing the review because I was still thinking about it. As I said, though, this is a very thought-provoking film with plenty of questions about the nature of war and humanity. If that sounds interesting to you, you will not be disappointed.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Genres: drama, war