Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now makes for a compelling piece of study. This film is legendary for its stories of troubled production, so much so that entire books have been written about it and there was even a critically-acclaimed documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse that chronicled the experience of filming Apocalypse Now. Even before running over budget there were casting problems. First Coppola struggled to get stars like Gene Hackman and Steve McQueen to even consider the project, before going on to cast Harvey Keitel as Willard only to fire him a week after shooting began and hire Martin Sheen to take his place. That is not even getting into the problems faced when Marlon Brando arrived on set. Even when shooting began, a massive typhoon destroyed the sets, Coppola had to check himself into a hospital for malnutrition and dehydration, and Martin Sheen almost died from a seizure.
Interestingly, Apocalypse Now was not the first attempt to adapt Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. Orson Welles had previously attempted to adapt the same material in 1939. Welles' interpretation would have stuck more closely to the original book by preserving its 19th-century setting but he had an unusual concept for how it would be structured. Welles envisioned a project in which the central character of Marlowe would be played by the camera; allowing the audience to literally experience the narrative through his eyes. Unfortunately, much like Coppola roughly four decades later, Welles's film went over budget and he had to stop when he was unable to comply with a need for the expenses to be cut by $50,000.
Looking past the difficult production and more closely at the film itself, Apocalypse Now provides a terrifying look at the true face of war. This three-hour epic uses Conrad's novella as a base to examine the insanity and chaos of the Vietnam War and how it shapes and changes those who fight. There is no true good or evil, nor is there any true cause. There is only chaos with some small objective just out of reach. All this is seen through the eyes of an army captain named Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) who serves as a reflection of the audience's experiences.
From the beginning of Apocalypse Now, it is clear that Willard is messed up in the head. His opening narration makes that much abundantly clear. The opening depicts an extended shot of military destruction juxtaposed with shots of Willard's confused facial expressions. Willard is likely dealing with a psychological condition commonly faced among soldiers called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The precise symptoms may vary but generally veterans afflicted with this condition find it hard to adjust to civilian life. They often have difficulty relating to relatives and are haunted by memories of things they endured in wartime. There are recorded cases of PSTD affecting soldiers as early as World War I (known then as "shellshock" and generally dismissed as a sign of cowardice) but it is only a more recent development that any effort has been taken to address it.
From Willard's description, he is a man who has ended up in his current position due to PTSD. He could not handle being at home (as he himself states, "hardly said anything to my wife until I said yes to a divorce") and presumably re-enlisted in the army as a result. For now he is stuck in a hotel room in Saigon, but it is hardly comforting for him. From his opening narration, Willard is still experiencing nightmares and flashbacks to prior experiences. He feels trapped, and all he wants is some mission to keep him occupied.
All this is displayed visually in the film's extended three-minute intro which plays to The Doors' song The End. This intro consists of a single shot of the jungle. It is initially quiet until a helicopter flies by, with the sound of its rotors greatly slowed down. As the music begins to play the area becomes covered by an ominous green mist, presumably napalm (a chemical weapon used by the Americans in Vietnam). Then suddenly the trees go up in flame. It becomes harder to see anything through the mix of fire and mist, and within this confusion is juxtaposed the face of Captain Willard.
It is worth noting that no obvious objective seems to be present here. There are no soldiers of either side anywhere to be seen. It is nothing more than chaos at its simplest form. It appears to be the Americans who are responsible for bombing the environment seemingly for no reason. However, the images of Willard's face reveal a new interpretation. What is being shown in this opening is not the actual war, but a glimpse into Willard's mind and how he perceives the war.
That mission comes in the form of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a rogue Green Beret officer who has been conducting unauthorized operations in Cambodia. Here is where the madness truly starts to show itself. The officers who recruit Willard basically ask him to kill an officer for doing his job. Kurtz's rogue tactics are actually winning the war, and yet instead of giving him medals his superiors are ordering his death. This becomes even more ironic when considers the fact that in real life, the United States failed Vietnam.
Willard is assigned to a Navy Patrol boat that is supposed to get him to his destination without knowing where they are going. The crew of this boat consists of what Willard identifies as "kids". None of them seem to have any real patriotic feelings about the war. Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) is just a guy who does what he is told and the others are ordinary men presumably drafted into a war they don't understand. This is most obvious with Chef, who is established to be from New Orleans and seems a fairly nice guy. He is even in a respectable profession, being an actual chef (more specifically a saucier) who was drafted into the war and ended up working in mechanics because he did not like army cooking.
Lance on the other hand is described by Willard as someone who looking at "you'd never think he fired a weapon in his life". Lance is an innocent seeming man at first, and yet out of all the patrol boat crew he is probably hit the hardest by his experiences in the war. Unlike the other men, Lance goes on to embrace the war, not out of any sense of duty but simply because he becomes one with the chaos. Lance almost seems to get an adrenaline fixation during his experiences.
Eventually, Willard is on a patrol boat and encounters "air cavalry" who take the insanity of war to whole new levels. After briefly passing a television crew (one of whom is played by director Francis Ford Coppola in a cameo appearance) Willard encounters Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who takes the insanity to whole new levels. Kilgore and his boys seem to be extremely inconsistent in their motives and goals. A name like Kilgore proves to be quite fitting for a man who never seems to take the Vietnam War seriously. This aspect of his character becomes even clearer by the fact that he never seems to dress appropriately for combat, wearing a bright yellow scarf and a blue Civil War officer's cap instead of the helmets worn by everyone else.
When he is first seen he proceeds to throw around playing cards onto dead VC (he claims they are calling cards meant to let "the Charlie" know who was responsible for this massacre). When Willard manages to find Kilgore, he completely ignores him and continues his... shenanigans. Kilgore completely ignores his orders in favor of partying and only displays the slightest bit of interest when he discovers that Lance Johnson happens to be among Willard's crew. Even then, he ignores Willard until late at night when he turns a massacre into a beach party, and only agrees to do his job when he learns that the dangerous village at the mouth of the Nung River has great waves for surfing.
This leads to the film's most famous sequence, where Kilgore leads his team of helicopters on what seems to be an unauthorized attack on the village. This already starts to bring out a double standard: Willard's superiors want Kurtz dead, but seem to have no objection to Kilgore who is also conducting unauthorized attacks on the VC and winning. Once again, Kilgore never seems to take the situation seriously, casually talking with Lance about surfing before hand and later even stopping to drink coffee in the middle of the fighting.
Kilgore then reveals his favorite tactic for attacking Vietnamese villages: "We come in low over the rising sun, and about a mile out we put on the music". That music turns out to be a piece called Ride of the Valkyries, originally composed by Richard Wagner for a series of operas titled Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is meant as a psychological technique to scare the Viet Cong soldiers below, but there is another side: playing music this loud alerts them to their presence and gives them time to prepare.
During the same scene, Chef also gets to observe that Kilgore's own boys aren't all there in the head either. Some of them sit on their helmets, which technically makes them more vulnerable targets. When asked why, one of them simply responds "So we don't get our balls blown off". These guys seem to be more concerned about an extreme chance of losing what they see as defining their "masculinity" than they are about the more likely scenario of getting shot in the head and dying. These men seem to see what they are doing less as an actual military campaign and more like a game.
When the choppers come in, they cause immediate chaos. As the music plays, a large village is reduced to rubble. Houses are destroyed and people are gunned down in the street. The villagers never stand a chance against the might of the American military, and the one thing that comes anywhere near being a challenge (a single anti-aircraft gun) is quickly dispatched. By the time the helicopters finally land, the village is in ruins and, like the forest in the opening, filled with that same ominous green mist.
The chaos is further emphasized once the choppers begin to make their landing. Kilgore's men manage to destroy the village, massacre its citizens, and promptly begin kidnapping the survivors. As all this is happening, two men stand with megaphones yelling over the destruction about how they are there to "help" the Vietnamese people. In actuality, it seems apparent that the opposite is the case, and this one scene helps call to mind just how much good America actually did for Vietnam during the war. The strange part is that all this was done so that a few people could go surfing.
Kilgore barely seems to register the chaos around him as he sends people surfing. As he tells Lance, "you're either going to surf or fight" and when called out on making such an insane decision he proceeds to state plainly "if I say it's safe to surf this beach, it's safe to surf this beach." In reality it hardly seems safe to surf the beach, considering the shooting that is still going on. Kilgore goes on to deliver the movie's famous line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" and describes the damage the stuff can do before casually saying "someday this war's going to end." The way he says it has a strange tone, in that he doesn't want the war to end, he wants it to keep going so he can keep partying. In the redux version, Kilgore makes one final appearance when he leads an entire squadron of helicopters in search of the patrol boat to reclaim his stolen surfboard.
After leaving Kilgore, Willard continues his journey upriver. From here things start to get bleaker. Chef, despite being one of the more rational members of the group, convinces Willard to go with him on a brief expedition to find a mango. Willard agrees to this, but they fail to accomplish this end. Instead, both men find themselves scared when a tiger lunges toward them and charge back to the boat. Willard's narration offers a very simple piece of advice: "Never get off the boat, unless you're going all the way."
The next stop is a small supply depot where Willard tries to get fuel and also receives passes to "the show", which turns out to be a group of playboy models posing for the entertainment of the male soldiers. The men are driven into a frenzy by this encounter, calling attention the era's all-male military. There were no female soldiers in those days, it was all men trapped together, and it was also not unusual for them to subsequently be aroused in the presence of a woman. These three women are basically being treated as objects by the men, who have not seen women for some time, which also proves to be dangerous to the point where they literally have to be evacuated.
Even as the three models are loaded into a helicopter the men scramble for their attention, one going as far as the hang on the skids and another trying to hang from his legs (pulling his pants down in the process). This aspect of the characters is thoroughly deconstructed in the redux version, where a later scene involves the same models being confronted by Willard and his crew in an old medical camp. Once again, Chef and Clean both seem to treat the women as objects for their pleasure, but neither is cast as being in the right for doing so, and this more personal encounter allows the women to show that they are in fact human beings.
Act One ends on a dark note when Chief follows protocol and decides to investigate a Sampan that happens to be passing by. Willard tells Chief not to stop, but the latter ignores him claiming that the VC have used these boats to smuggle weapons. Once again, this attempt at a simple "police action" draws attention to how inefficient America was in dealing with the crisis in Vietnam. The search is extremely disorganized and consists mainly of Chief and Chef yelling at each other while Clean handles a large machine gun. Chef constantly points out the reasons why this search is unwarranted but Chief forces him onward anyway.
Eventually, in all the confusion one panicked woman makes a sudden move and Clean immediately opens fire on everyone in the boat. Even worse is that given how disorganized the search has proven Clean comes dangerously close to killing Chef, who was right in the line of fire. It turns out what the woman was concerned about was a dog, prompting Chef to call everyone out on their negligence and poor management of the situation. However, the chaos is emphasized further when Lance fights with Chef over the dog, and Willard has to shoot a surviving woman to emphasize that his mission takes priority.
Willard himself notes that "those boys were never going to look at me the same way". Willard has a mission: to kill Colonel Kurtz, and while he can't reveal it to the other men just yet he has to emphasize the priority of his mission. He does this by shooting the one survivor of the river boat massacre when Chief tries to take her to a hospital. He is showing that he is simply not just of the crew but someone else entirely.
At this point, the title of "Apocalypse Now" starts to become more meaningful. While the story does not literally depict the apocalypse, the general tone begins to have an apocalyptic feeling. This is evident from the numerous crashed helicopters (and at one point a crashed airplane) that the boat passes. It sometimes seems like Willard and the crew are the only living things left in the world. The world might not actually be ending, but as far as the characters are concerned, it might as well be with the destruction around them.
A crucial part of defining any post-apocalyptic scenario is the breaking down of social order, and that comes when Willard encounters the final checkpoint, Do Lung Bridge. This place is pure chaos. Two sides are shooting at each other in the dark, the only light coming from the occasional fireworks. If there was ever at some point any belief in a cause for holding this place it is gone now. When the boat first arrives men are scrambling into the water with briefcases pleading to be taken away from this nightmare. The entire battle seems like a pointless cycle as well: the Americans blow up the bridge, the VC destroy it, repeat.
Willard goes ashore with Lance, who in perhaps not the smartest move keeps the dog under his jacket, and attempts to find the commanding officer. The problem is there seems to be no organization or structure. He eventually manages to find a trench occupied by a few other soldiers. One seems to be firing blindly and when asked who is in command simply asks "ain't you?" It seems these soldiers have no more of an understanding of what is going on than Willard does. He then encounters another soldier named Roach and asks him the same question. Roach simply says "yeah" and walks away.
This attitude seems a little bit strange. Roach does not seem to be interested in telling a superior officer where to find his commander. Willard sums it up when he returns to the boat and simply says "there is no CO". This takes on a different meaning when one considers a remark made by Willard near the very end. When Roach says "yeah" he means he knows who is in command, but it is not so much who as what. It is no human being who is in charge of this situation, but the jungle itself. That is where they get their orders from. Roach very likely knew this, but did not want to say anything to Willard as he is not ready to grasp that realization just yet.
The loss of any clear human authority marks the final breakdown of social order. As Willard points out in his narration past Do Lung Bridge "there was only Kurtz". Passing the bridge marks the final departure from anything resembling "civilization", with the journey continuing into the wilderness. The American army is no longer here to protect or assist the crew, a fact they are constantly reminded of as they encounter the old wreckage of American vehicles with no signs of life present anywhere. Without any protection, it is here that the boat crew begins to die off.
The first to go is Clean in a brutally abrupt shift in mood. The scene begins on an optimistic note (or at least as optimistic as Apocalypse Now can get) with the crew opening mail that they received at Do Lung Bridge. Lance once again brings out the recurring motif of mist, this time in the form of "purple haze" that surrounds him and the boat. Meanwhile, Clean gets a touching audiotape from his mother describing her plans for when he gets home. Everything seems calm until the VC provide one final attack. Clean is shot and killed almost instantly, before the tape is even finished. His mother still continues to talk of her plans to invite family members to celebrate his return home while his body is sprawled out in plain view over the deck. This component becomes even darker when one considers that Lawrence Fishbourne was only fourteen at the time of filming and lied about his age to get the part.
Clean's death hits the men pretty hard, as though they have not already been through enough trauma. Shortly after this encounter the crew is attacked by what they might consider "savages" who start firing arrows. In theory, there is no real harm at this point, the arrows are fake and just meant as a psychological weapon, but only Willard is able to figure it out. In fact, throughout the film Willard has seen things differently from everyone around him. In a strange, twisted sort of way, Willard's confused state of mind arguably gives him the clearest perspective on everything that is happening. In that sense, he could be considered the sanest character in the entire film despite his obvious need for therapy.
Unfortunately, Willard is the only one who can see clearly what is going on. None of the crew listen and instead begin firing recklessly. They are firing in plain sight at people who have likely spent their whole lives in the jungle and thus know how to survive in it. Like Do Lung Bridge, everyone is firing blindly, and this leads to the death of Chief, who is impaled by a spear once he tries to pull out a machine gun. Chief collapses to the deck, but his final action is a failed attempt to impale Willard on the tip of the spear in his chest.
Willard tries to take this opportunity to release the two surviving members of the crew. Chef immediately recognizes the absurdity that Willard has to kill another American, but agrees to continue onward anyway. This ties back to Willard's statement after escaping the tiger: "never get off the boat, not unless you're going all the way." Chef is not ready to get off the boat yet, and he is the kind of person who is not ready to go all the way. Lance on the other hand is, and he got off the boat a long time ago, back when he started putting on the war paint.
At the compound, Willard encounters a strange character played by Dennis Hopper who identifies himself as "a photojournalist". This man has come to idolize and respect Colonel Kurtz in more than a few ways. He seems to be unable to express anything besides pure admiration when telling Willard about the Colonel, even when admitting that said Colonel threatened to kill him if ever takes a picture of him again. Meanwhile, in Chef suggests waiting at the boat for Kurtz to arrive when they are told he is away. Once again, this ties back to Willard's statement of "never get off the boat". Chef is unable to go all the way. He is not ready to get off the boat, but Lance is, and he does. In fact, Lance is so fargone by this point that he blends in, disappearing almost entirely among Kurtz's followers for much of the remainder of the film.
Willard finally gets his chance to confront Kurtz, leading to the famous sequence in which the Colonel is kept entirely in shadow. Kurtz is clearly not all there in his right mind, but he talks to Willard about what he has been through. Kurtz learns that Willard is there to "terminate his command" but Willard himself is already starting to question his mission. After all, Kurtz is a decorated officer who only became a Green Beret because he threatened to quit if the army did not let him.
After everything Willard has been through, it is hard to call Kurtz's methods "unsound". While the ethics of his tactics could be debated, it is hardly any more "unsound" than massacring an entire village to go surfing or shooting an innocent woman to ensure the mission continues as planned. Kurtz himself goes on to describe his disturbing experiences in the field. He speaks of an incident in which his platoon vaccinated a group of children in a village, only to return moments later to find every child who was vaccinated had their arm hacked off.
It is somewhat ambiguous precisely what Kurtz's views on the Vietnam War are, but everyone in the film has some way of dealing with it. Willard tries to distract himself from the war. Lance learns to embrace it and becomes one with the chaos. Chef tries to reject it. Chief simply does what he is told and tries not to ask questions. Clean spends a lot of time thinking about going home. Kilgore tries to make Vietnam resemble what he considers home. Kurtz on the other hand has been in combat longer than any of these people. He has seen war can do to anyone.
He is himself basically winning the war for the Americans despite their desire to kill him, but he no longer seems to consider himself part of the army. Even more curious is that Kurtz seems to know he does not have much longer to live. He is dying on a psychological level and has no intention of stopping Willard from completing his mission. It is just a question of Kurtz preparing the doubting Willard and making sure he dies the way he wants to. At the same time, Kurtz wants Willard to understand what he has endured. To do this, he takes Willard captive and holds him during the night in an uncomfortable situation, leading to one of the film's most disturbing sequences.
Chef is back on the boat and, true to Willard's advice earlier in the film, has refused to get off. He is frightened by Kurtz's compound and tries to conduct a radio test with the presumed intent of ordering an air strike, as was instructed by Willard. Willard is being held captive during the night outside a bamboo cage with barbed wire strapped around his neck. Kurtz approaches dressed in war paint, a reminder of who he once was and a symbol of who he has become. He then proceeds to throw an object in Willard's lap.
That object turns out to be Chef's severed head. Kurtz apparently killed him to prevent the air strike (as is evidenced later on, when someone can be heard trying to reach the boat on the same radio, implying the previous conversation had been cut abruptly). However, if Kurtz simply wanted to prevent the air strike he could have just stopped short of killing Chef or simply threatened to kill him if he did. The fact that Kurtz goes to the extreme of placing the man's severed head in front of Willard suggests an intended message. The question is what is Kurtz trying to say?
The obvious message is that Kurtz wanted to make an example of Chef, but perhaps not in the way one might normally expect. It was not that Chef was going to kill him, but in the way he would kill him. Willard himself points out toward the end of the film that Kurtz expected to die, but wanted to do so in a way that he considered honorable. He wanted to go out "like a soldier, standing." While Kurtz wanted his people "exterminated" he did not wish for this to happen until after he died. Forcing Willard to experience this nightmare is his way of telling him.
For the first time in the entire film, Willard actually displays fear. Up until now, he has basically tried to block out everything besides his mission. He has tried not to think about anything else going on in the war and to ignore it when possible. Kurtz is now forcing him to confront the horrors of war, literally face to face. Seeing that an innocent man has been killed so brutally and having the head staring back at him serves as Willard's first glimpse into the true face of horror. Willard tries to kick the head off him in the hopes of hiding, but there is no way to escape. Even after the head falls off his lap it continues to stare back at Willard, and with his bindings there is no way for him to escape.
Having had his eyes opened to the horror, Willard is eventually freed by Kurtz and allowed to walk around the compound. He is not kept as a prisoner, as no attempt is made to ensure he stays, but Kurtz knows he is not going anywhere yet. There is not exactly anywhere else for Willard to go at this point. He has already gone as far as the journey will allow, and there is no going back without finishing the job. All Willard can do is learn about the man he was going to kill and wonder why everyone wants Kurtz dead.
By this point, Willard no longer considers himself an American soldier, even though he says in his narration "they were going to make me a major for this." He is simply a man with a job to do, and to complete the task of killing Kurtz Willard strips himself of the remnants of his military background. He does not even register the messages coming in over the radio. First off, he refrains from wearing any obviously military clothing and rejects any type of firearm in favor of a simple machete. In theory, Willard could have just stepped off the boat to approach Kurtz, but instead he goes through the water.
As Willard notes in his narration "Everyone wanted him dead, him most of all. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from." This ties back into Willard's encounter with Roach back at Do Lung Bridge. When Roach was asked if he knew who was in charge and simply said "yeah" he was referring to the jungle, not to any human tasked with organizing the men. Willard also embraces this same idea. He notes that "everyone wanted him dead" but it is the "jungle" that seems to finally convince him to go through with the task. Instead of simply stepping off the boat, Willard dives into the river and emerges now a warrior of the jungle, not particular to any one nation.
Willard moves toward Kurtz and proceeds to do what the entire film has built up to him being responsible for doing: killing Kurtz. Willard approaches Kurtz, though taking him somewhat by surprise and thus failing to give him the dignified death he desired. Willard proceeds to slash at Kurtz repeatedly, all intercut with shots of the slaughter of a water buffalo. As Kurtz falls to the ground, he utters one final line that describes everything he has seen in his life before he dies: "the horror, the horror." Willard leaves the compound, encountering Lance whom he takes by the hand as both return to the patrol boat.
The film ends as the two remaining men begin their journey back to what might once have been considered "civilization" but neither one is in any position to be going back. Willard knows there is nothing left for him, and Lance is left in a confused state of mind not unlike that of Willard in the film's opening moments. These two men may still be alive and the job may be done, but this is far from a happy ending. For both the survivors, there is nothing to go back to. Even when and if they ever leave Vietnam, they will never truly leave behind the horrors they have endured in the war. Lance is starting to end up in a similar position to where Willard was at the beginning, but Willard himself has gone even further. For him there is no escaping the horror. In a way, he is starting to become a new Colonel Kurtz, beginning to understand how he was affected and why he changed the way he did.
In the end, questions of what defines sanity are raised. Willard may be the sanest person in the film and even he is clearly in need of psychiatric treatment. Ultimately, the entire war is insane, and everybody involved only serves to emphasize that point. Everyone in the film is forced to confront the insanity of war one way or another, and each reacts differently, but only a handful of people can truly grasp the chaos and the madness and learn to confront it. As Kurtz himself describes it:
"Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror, and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."