For reasons that are beyond my ability to explain, Apocalypse Now (1979), the American Film Institute’s (AFI) thirtieth greatest American movie of all time, has gone through a few different re-releases. There is a director’s cut and something called a “Redux.” What these basically mean is that they are longer versions of the same film. Why anyone would want to endure more of this horror, I cannot tell you. I will be reviewing the film in its original form, whatever that means. Luckily, it is the shortest of them, so at least I have that going for me. And yes, this is a part of the awful run of 1970s cinema, many of which, like this one, have the Vietnam War for their backdrop. So, here you go.
We will get to why the film is called Apocalypse Now by the end of this synopsis. For now, we meet its narrator, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen). As he tells us, he is in Vietnam for his third tour of duty because life back in the United States did not suit him. Thus, while he awaits a mission from the clandestine military organization for which he typically he works, he does all manner of awful things to himself. He explains his drunkenness and self-inflicted wounds are what come with the territory for a soldier. When his time finally comes, he is sobered up, and receives his orders. In brief, he is being sent deep behind enemy lines into Cambodia, where the United States Army is not supposed to venture, in order to kill Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Colonel Kurtz is a highly decorated veteran and once well respected. Yet, while serving as a Green Beret in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he seems to have lost his grip on reality. He has formed his own army of devoted followers that kill anyone they encounter regardless of their country. This includes Americans. To get there, he is to go along with a United States Navy river patrol boat (PBR) commanded by Chief Petty Officer George Phillips (Albert Hall). Get ready for a long time spent on a river. Before the journey commences in earnest, they need to get to the mouth of the proper stream, the Nung. To do this, they enlist the help of a regiment of Air Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall). He does not seem interested in assisting until he learns about the good surfing to be had where Captain Willard intends for their PBR to be dropped. In taking them to where the Nung empties into the sea, they destroy a Viet Cong village while blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from speakers mounted to their helicopters. This is only the beginning of the insanity. I am not going to tell you every stop along their route because that would be tedious. What I will relate is the mood. As they journey farther down the river, they begin to lose all connection to civilization. They wear less of their uniforms. One of the crewmen, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) paints his face, though his increasingly odd behavior is also fueled by drug use. All the while, Captain Willard is studying the files given to him on Colonel Kurtz, trying to understand what has driven the senior officer to madness. The real turning point is when they get to the last bridge on the river that marks the extent to which the United States Army has any semblance of control over the country. Adding to the chaos is the fact that the Vietnamese keep destroying the span, while the Americans rebuild it the next day, an endless and seemingly fruitless cycle that is taking its toll on the people defending it. Beyond this lies Cambodia. Chief Phillips believes that this is as far as they will go. Captain Willard, instead, orders them to keep going, and finally reveals the purpose for their trek. It is after this point that people on the boat begin dying. The first is Gunner’s Mate 3rdClass Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), who dies in an ambush not long after they pass the bridge. Later, Chief Phillips is killed in another trap, this time of a more primitive variety, when he is impaled by a spear thrown from the shore. The survivors, though, make it to Colonel Kurtz’s base of operations, which is where we get the title of the movie. The first person to greet them is an American photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), who tells them about how Colonel Kurtz is viewed basically a god. When Captain Willard finally comes face-to-face with the person he has so long sought, Colonel Kurtz initially imprisons him. He also kills Engineman 3rd Class Jay “Chief” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), who Captain Willard orders to stay behind and call in an air strike if Captain Willard does not return. Eventually, Colonel Kurtz relates that he has done what he did because it is the only way, in his eyes, to fight the war in Vietnam. Having witnessed the savagery of the enemy, he decides that having the “bravery” to commit atrocities is the only way to survive. Apparently, Captain Willard has heard enough because the first moment he gets, he grabs a machete and hacks Colonel Kurtz to death, who lays dying whispering, “The horror, the horror, the horror. . . .” I can, at least, agree with that sentiment. Captain Willard then collects Gunner Johnson, who had helped ritualistically slaughter a bull, gets back in the PBR, and leaves, clearly haunted by his experiences.
I am getting a little tired of tough watches like Apocalypse Now. Then again, there does not seem a happy way of presenting the Vietnam War, unless you go the silly route like Operation Dumbo Drop (1995). Obviously, Apocalypse Now does it differently. Still, war is bad enough without, for lack of a better term, over-dramatizing it. Certainly, there were some bad things that went on in Vietnam. One of the running themes in the film is how awful of a place is this part of the world at this particular time in history. To this point, Gunner Hicks makes an interesting statement. As they get closer to Kurtz Land, he talks about how he used to think that if he died in an evil place, his soul could still get to Heaven. You will note the past tense in that phrase, and it is evident that the war, like everyone who fought in it, has changed him. The obvious Christian answer to this is that, of course, no matter where one expires, your soul can still make it to Heaven. Our souls are not tied to time and place. Being timeless, they belong to God. At the same time, the things that we do can stain it and make having an eternity with Him a much less likely proposition. There is a hell, and it is where the unrepentant go. One could say Colonel Kurtz would be an example of a sinner who does not see the error of his ways. I am not sure what to ultimately think of him. He, no doubt, does evil things. Yet, at the end there is the suggestion that he wants Captain Willard to call in an airstrike on him because this is somehow the more honorable way for a soldier to die. Okay, so maybe not that complicated as this would basically be suicide. At any rate, none of these characters seem to care much for their souls, and that is, perhaps, the saddest part.
Hopefully, Apocalypse Now will be the last gut punch film from the 1970s that I have to watch from AFI’s list, though there may be one more. In any case, see something else. Your soul will thank you later.