Let’s Talk About… ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Film #15 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

“Some day this war’s gonna end.”

The line, spoken by Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving, cavalry officer Bill Kilgore to Martin Sheen’s smoldering, would-be-assassin Benjamin Willard about a third of the way into Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, reads like the wishful thinking of a war-weary soldier. Duvall’s character crouches on a beach in the middle of a battle and the sound of exploding artillery and small arms fire, and smirks as he delivers the line. It’s chilling. And it’s not wishful thinking – it’s a lament.

I thought about this line for a long time even after the credits had rolled.

In 1991, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary film detailing the troubled production of Apocalypse Now, was released to universal acclaim. I was in high school and both Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now were in heavy rotation on Showtime. It was the only movie channel we had at the time and I was a big movie fan even then. Needless to say, I became very familiar with both the narrative film and the documentary. Armed with this experience, I went into this viewing of the film with quite a few preconceived notions. I was familiar with the popular interpretations: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, racism, colonialism, madness, etc. And I dreaded writing this review, because I feared having nothing noteworthy to say about the film that has not already been said a thousand times before. But something clicked when Robert Duvall spoke that line.

It’s widely known that John Milius based his screenplay for Apocalypse Now on Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. And Apocalypse Now may echo its source material’s criticism of imperialism and bigotry. It may also be a meditation on the futility of war and the madness that results from witnessing and committing atrocities one never thought himself or his fellow man capable of committing. It may be all of those things. But it seems to me on reexamination, to also be wrestling with the question of man’s place in nature. Is he a part of it or is he outside of it?

The answer to the question is written in every facet of the film from dialogue and action to setting and cinematography.

The film opens with Captain Willard awaiting “a mission” in Saigon. He laments that he has awakened in a hotel room to find that he is “only in Saigon” (instead of out where the fighting is). As the scene unfolds, we watch Willard unravel. He seems torn between his life at home in the States with his family and the violence that awaits him in the jungle. He’s had a taste of it, become aware of his true nature, and now the hotel room feels like a cage. There is a marked difference between the Willard held captive by the facade of civilization and the Willard who has been set loose in the wild, war-torn countryside. The former seems on the edge of insanity while the latter is calm, seemingly at peace.

Similarly, Duvall’s Kilgore seems not to even notice the destruction happening all around him as he encourages his men to strip down to shorts and surf waves in the middle of an intense beach battle. Indeed, Kilgore is at home amidst the chaos of war. He is at one with his war-like nature and laments that it will end some day. To him, war is joy. War is natural. By the end of the film, nearly every character, even the reticent Navy boys Willard hitches a ride with, give in to violent natures they had been previously unaware of.

A few shots in the film contribute to this theme of nature and man, but none more so than one that happens at about the 53 minute mark. Willard and one of the Navy boys, Frederic Forrest’s Chef, are hacking their way into the jungle to find some mangos, and the camera pulls back to a wide shot. The scale of the men against the jungle says it all: these men aren’t outside of nature, they are only a very tiny part of it. It’s a breathtaking moment in the film and shortly after a tiger hurls itself out of the thick undergrowth at the two men and they are forced to flee in terror.

The set design in the film also subtly alludes to the internal struggle of man by mapping it onto the landscape itself. Throughout the film, all traces of civilization in nature have either been reclaimed by the jungle and war (nature) or are in the process of being reclaimed. The contrast of the festive lights at the refueling depot and the bridge battle scene against the surrounding jungle and war point to the artifice of civilization. That these societal trappings are either in the process or in peril of being destroyed is further evidence that man’s nature, no matter what he does to deny it, will always reveal itself in his actions.

But Marlon Brando’s illusive Colonel Kurtz has the final word on the question. And though we have to wait the entire movie to get a glimpse of the object of the film’s action, the payoff is worth the wait.

“There’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies.”

Kurtz has done unimaginable things. Inhuman things. But he is honest about them. He understands his nature. He understands that the same capacity is within all men and that the pretense of civilization is simply a disguise meant to hide that fact.

Kurtz isn’t crazy. He is the tiger. He has confronted the darkness within and made his peace with it.