Apocalypse Now is a war film that seems simple from the outset, but quickly becomes far more. It stars Martin Sheen, playing Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a man so deeply affected by war that even the sight of fans reminds him of helicopters dropping napalm. He’s tasked with going in Cambodia, finding a rogue Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Bradno), and kill him without question. The Colonel has been operating with odd tactics and has “obviously” gone insane.
What follows is a mix and mash between a war movie and a road movie. Willard joins up with a bunch of people in a boat, and they go down the river, eventually reaching their destination. That is, essentially, all. However, as the body count rises, as many events happen at each checkpoint they reach, you begin to realize that the film is more about the mindset of its main characters; you begin to understand, quite quickly, how one could become insane — if you can call it insanity — in this environment. “The horror. The horror.” Indeed. It certainly is horror.
As you go through Apocalypse Now, you see how horrible the war in Vietnam is — although you could replace the Vietnam war with any, and the film would be little different. There’s a distinct lack of leadership, and even the one leader we do meet, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), is so off-the-wall that he appears incompetent, to the point of allowing his men to surf in the middle of a battlefield. Or, better yet, chasing down our lead characters after they take his surfboard, potentially drawing attention to either himself or the men we’re following.
And then there are all of the checkpoints, which either quickly decay or already are in total chaos. The boat needs to stop to refuel, or restock, or simply rest, in a few places throughout the film, and every time it does, you see how terrible war can be. You bear witness to complete anarchy, shown to us in as unflinching detail as possible. It’s hard to watch much of Apocalypse Now and say that you’re happy about what you’re seeing.
There are, however, points where the mood is light. The characters smile, laugh, have a good time, and keep the tone jovial. This is often juxtaposed with horrible things — dialogue, quite often — but at least there is some humor there. Like when Duvall’s character goes through a war zone without a care in the world, spouting off lines you’d never expect to hear, while soldiers around him are killed, napalm is dropped, and the entire place gets blown up. His complaint after it’s all over? The napalm affected the waves, not allowing for proper surfing conditions.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film is ingenious. It is intense, haunting, hilarious (at times), and jarring. There are things presented that you do not wish to see, and yet they are shown in such a fashion that does not allow you to look away. It raises significant questions that you can ponder both during and after it finishes, and it an absolutely engaging viewing experience, with impressive visuals, gorgeous cinematography, and enough dissolve transitions to satisfy … something that likes a lot of them, I guess. What do you want from me?
The finale to Apocalypse Now stays with you for a long time after it’s over. While much of the film contains some interesting dialogue, the final few minutes has very little. It’s more effective that way. We let the visuals overtake us, and it stays in our minds because of this. Only a few words get to come out, and they haunt you. It will absolutely stick with you, and also make you reflect back on earlier moments in the film.
It’s not a film really about the characters, or about the war. You are as much of a character as anyone, even our lead, Willard. While we know that Willard has already suffered trauma in previous missions, he’s basically experiencing everything that we’re seeing for the first time — or at least reacts to it that way. Everything he sees, we see, and we have a good idea of just how horrifying that experience is. When we come face to face with Brando’s character, we really feel like we are; we’re not just watching a story in which characters meet one another — we feel like we’re meeting him.
That isn’t to say that the actors aren’t impressive, or that they’re inconsequential, because that’s not even close to the truth. It’s just that they’re a lesser part of something greater, and are easier to forget because you feel like you’re going through this experience with all of these people. There are some big names that show up here: the aforementioned Sheen, Brando and Duvall, as well as Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford and Scott Glenn, and they all do a good job.
Apocalypse Now is a fantastic film, one which fully immerses an audience in its proceedings. You feel like a character in a movie like this, with everything working toward making you feel like you are truly experiencing the horrors presented within. It raises some deep questions, is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, and is, without a doubt, worth the time it takes to watch it. You’ll be very glad you did.