The true hero of Francis Ford Coppola’s backbreaking Apocalypse Now, if there is one, might be Chef, the harried saucier and whacked-out soldier played by Frederic Forrest. Chef is about the only guy in the movie who has a relatable past and who looks to the future. He reacts to the madness of Vietnam, and to the inscrutability of the particular mission he’s part of, as most of us would. Chef eventually becomes the default partner of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), whose assignment is to find and kill (“terminate with extreme prejudice”) one Walter E. Kurtz, a colonel who went crazy and went native, forming his own Montagnard army out in the darkness of the jungle.
Apocalypse Now, which shared the 1979 Palme d’Or with The Tin Drum, is an epic freak-out, a fever dream of immense proportions. The making of it famously almost killed Coppola, and it could be argued that his filmmaking afterwards never felt quite as vital or as organic. Vietnam, or the Vietnam he recreated, burned him out as surely as it did Willard and Kurtz. As the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness showed, Coppola began the journey as Willard and ended as Kurtz, and one can sense that in the film itself, which seems to shift allegiance from Willard to Kurtz. When we finally meet Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a great bald shambling mountain usually in shadow, he both does and doesn’t seem to be the monster we’ve been waiting for. Unlike the Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which provided the movie’s structure and throughline, this Kurtz doesn’t become a savage in proximity with other savages. Vietnam has made him a savage. And he’s bitterly, even ironically aware of this.
Willard receives his orders over a crunchy lunch of roast beef and shrimp, while an amusingly nervous Harrison Ford plays a tape of Kurtz’s voice. Coppola moves in for a close-up of the shrimp, as if Kurtz’s musings on a snail crawling across a straight razor were issuing forth from the dead crustacean. As the general who puts the hit out on Kurtz, G.D. Spradlin carries effortless authority when he intones “Every man has a breaking point. You and I have them. Walt Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously he has gone insane.” Before that, though, Spradlin has a great little moment when, describing the pre-breakdown Kurtz as “a man of wit and humor,” he smiles to himself as if remembering something hilarious Kurtz did or said, something made tragic now because that Kurtz is gone. Also, I always wonder who the strange-looking dude in civvies is, the one whose sole contribution to the chat is “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”
Needing to get back in the shit, Willard takes the mission and finds himself in a PBR among a motley crew, including the aforementioned Chef, a kid from the projects nicknamed Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne, ridiculously young and wiry), and the boat’s grim-faced captain Chief (Albert Hall). Most of them are kids, though it’s worth noting that Sheen, despite his weathered voice (reading Michael Herr’s narration) and gravitas, was only 36 when filming started, and Frederic Forrest was four years his senior. Nobody on the boat really understands the mission, least of all Willard himself, who keeps squinting at Kurtz’s dossier and marveling at what a model soldier he was. Perhaps Kurtz hasn’t gone rogue; perhaps he has simply achieved military apotheosis, carrying out the logical extension of the armed forces.
The centerpiece of the movie, of course, is the segment dealing with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), leader of the Air Cav helicopter division that will escort Willard and his boat and crew through a particularly hairy part of the river. Kilgore is a near-cartoonish hawk who lives and breathes war and is also an avid surfer — this section of the film is pure John Milius, who wrote the screenplay with Coppola. At first, Kilgore isn’t very gung-ho about helping Willard out (the order got lost in communication, or at least Kilgore pretends it did), but when he hears that the village’s surf has “a fantastic peak,” he’s all over it. Essentially, Kilgore and his men rip the shit out of the village and napalm it so that a star surfer traveling with Willard, the California boy Lance (Sam Bottoms), can strut his stuff.
Coppola clearly finds this horrifyingly absurd — it’s probably the film’s most vivid instance of Strangelove-esque satire. Yet somehow Coppola finds it in himself to turn the episode into one of the greatest combat sequences ever filmed. We feel horror at the wanton taking of life, yes, but we also feel exhilaration. For a few minutes, we enter Kilgore’s universe — Milius’ universe — where war is a cascading orgasm of glory. It doesn’t hurt that Coppola recruits Wagner’s ferocious “Ride of the Valkyries,” used as iconically here as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was in 2001. Even here, though, we get glimpses of Coppola peeking through Milius’ bluster: the soldier who refuses to get off the helicopter (“I’m not going! I’m not going!”); another soldier wounded and screaming, loaded into a med chopper that falls victim to a VC girl with a hidden grenade. Kilgore’s rhetoric soon changes from “Outstanding, Red Team, outstanding. Getcha a case of beer for that one” to “I want my men out of there. I want them out.” The sequence ends, legendarily, with Kilgore’s “napalm” soliloquy, delivered by Duvall as if he were reflecting on a childhood memory of Christmas. “Someday this war’s gonna end,” he finishes, sounding saddened, understanding all too well the trouble men like Willard encounter once war has ended for them.
After this, the movie returns to its rambling riverboat episodic structure, though there are still many pleasures. A highlight is the scene at the Do Lung Bridge, where Lance drops acid and the eternal confusion of war is summed up by that great exchange: “Who’s the commanding officer here?” “Ain’t you?” It’s here that Carmine Coppola’s foreboding score gets utterly weird, a cross between carnival music and the exertions of a monster movie — which describes this movie’s Vietnam as well as anything else.
At long last, Willard finds Kurtz, holed up along with a coke-addled Dennis Hopper and an unrecognizable Scott Glenn. It’s as if Kurtz’s mania were contagious, infecting any rational men who enter his lair. Marlon Brando mumbles in the shadows, delivering hipster rants about atrocities, while Martin Sheen listens silently, long since resigned to the fact that he’s never really been the center of this movie. Willard is a cipher, a burned-out husk who’s seen too much death to be at peace. (The 2001 Redux version, which I own but can’t bring myself to watch, apparently adds a little more shading to Willard.) This loud epic dark fantasia ends on a rather elliptical note, which seems the only way for it to end. It begins, in fact, with an end — the Doors’ “The End” — and concludes the same way, in a humid room that bears witness to bloodshed. Willard begins by punching a mirror and ends by destroying another mirror image of himself.
Apocalypse Now is a confounding mix of the conventional and the surreal, a man-on-a-mission war flick that expands into a meditation on The Warrior, complete with recitations from “The Hollow Men.” Interestingly, the last words we hear (aside from a reiteration of Kurtz’s “The horror”) are “PBR Street Gang, this is Almighty” — even God can’t impose himself in the jungle, where men kill each other for reasons no more or less insane than the reasons Kurtz has scattered heads and other body parts around his compound like so much trash. There is greatness in Apocalypse Now, but there is also madness, and they feed off each other. Coppola flew, Icarus-like, too close to the heat of a certain truth about man and nature, and it burned him, badly. Brando alone seems untouched by it, floating imperiously above moral concerns. Kurtz is the Almighty here, although we see that the real force is the jungle itself.
People didn’t really know what to make of Apocalypse Now at the time; it had been hyped and heralded for so long prior to its release that it must’ve come as an anticlimactic disappointment. Thirty years on, it looks painfully rich and relevant and wise, willing to face the heart of darkness straight on, an acid flashback to a time when America and the world seemed “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/And all the children are insane.”