In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is in Saigon, impatiently awaiting his next mission. Alone in his hotel room, he’s drunk and violent enough to punch a mirror, cutting his hand and bleeding on things. He seems on the verge of madness. His mission finally comes, brought up to him like room service. Willard is to travel to Cambodia, seek out and “terminate with extreme prejudice” Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated special forces soldier with a nearly spotless record, who has set himself up in the jungle as a god-like ruler of a tribe. It’s a dangerous journey, partially by helicopter and then by boat, tangled in battles and bloodshed. Along the way, Willard studies all the files he has been given about Kurtz and not only begins to understand the man more, but to respect him.
The stunning cinematography builds up both the natural beauty of the jungle and the realistic horrors of the Vietnam war. We are shown aerial shots of mountains, swaying palm trees and lush jungles with tree roots as tall as hurdles that just nourish your eyes. Then there’s the helicopters flying in like giant wasps to Ride of the Valkyries, fires blazing, hazy smoke of all colors, flares and explosives whizzing by like fireworks. These are all captured so beautifully it can be maddening and frightening. I can’t even begin to imagine what Lance (Sam Bottoms) was feeling on that acid trip.
My only gripe is that once Willard got to Kurtz, everything afterwards was a bit of a let down. As a character, Kurtz was build up so much on paper and in Willard’s mind, that I had formed my own expectations. Not that Brando didn’t put on a great performance, he always does. It’s just I had been waiting in anticipation for two hours to see just how crazy Kurtz was, only to have him obscured in shadow and quote T.S. Eliot. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it.
While it was perfectly understood that Willard was in a dire situation and Kurtz was mad with power and his own ideas, I was becoming more and more emotionally detached from the film. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why. Perhaps it was the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper)who seems to just be worshiping Kurtz in between bong hits. Man, it was like everything he would say started with man and I just could not take him seriously. He really did become a distraction to me and I started wondering what he ate around there when he got the munchies. Would mangoes satisfy?
The film is loosely based off Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and borrows lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, which he wrote inspired by Conrad and thrown is into the Vietnam war setting. It seems like an odd mixture, but it works. The journey takes us further and further from civilization, the conventional war and brings us into something much darker and primordial. The realizations about how fragile civilized life is can throw a man into utter despair and madness. When he’s fully realized that, as Kurtz has, what else is there to do except declare yourself a god and wait for the rest of the world to fall: Apocalypse Now.
“This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”