#511) Apocalypse Now (1979)

#511) Apocalypse Now (1979)

OR “Waiting for Brando”

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Coppola and John Milius. Based on the novella “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.

Class of 2000 

For this post, I viewed the original theatrical cut. No time for you, French plantation subplot!

The Plot: At the height of the Vietnam War, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) receives a classified mission from the Army and CIA. Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone rogue, commandeering an outpost in Cambodia and waging his own war against the Viet Cong. Willard’s assignment is to find Kurtz and “terminate with extreme prejudice”. A Navy patrol boat escorts Willard down the river, and along the way Willard and the crew encounter various outposts and battles, including a napalm air strike led by Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall). As Willard’s boat delves deeper into the jungle rivers, Willard delves deeper into understanding Kurtz’s psyche, illustrating that the mental anguish of war is just as painful as the physical.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “hallucinatory, Wagnerian project” that “produced admirers and detractors of equal ardor”, but argues that this eclectic reception is a good analogy for the Vietnam War.

But Does It Really?: “Apocalypse Now” is just shy of an untouchable classic for me, a Flawed Classic if you will. Everything about the whole undertaking is impressive and admirable, but ultimately I’m still not sure what this movie was trying to say, about the war or about anything. Maybe the point is there is no point? Regardless, “Apocalypse Now” successfully respects the psychological damage of warfare on our soldiers, while simultaneously making the war a visually stunning event. I would even dare to use pretentious words like “poetic” and “lyrical” to describe this film’s visuals and dialogue. Despite its shortcomings, “Apocalypse Now” is a one-of-kind movie that has more than earned its NFR designation.

Everybody Gets One: An aspiring filmmaker and former USC classmate of George Lucas, John Milius challenged himself to adapt the “unfilmable” novel “Heart of Darkness” to the screen. Rather than keep the book’s setting of turn-of-the-century Congo, Milius transplanted the action to the Vietnam War, keeping the book’s themes of obsession and insanity. “Apocalypse Now” is also the only NFR entry for master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who has collaborated with such directors as Bernardo Bertolucci, Warren Beatty and…Woody Allen? Recent Woody Allen? Oh no…

Title Track: Originally called “The Psychedelic Soldier”, John Milius changed the title after remembering a button he had seen worn by hippies that read “Nirvana Now”. Because the film has no opening or closing credits, the title is written on a wall at Kurtz’s temple so the film could be copyrighted.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Apocalypse Now” got mixed notices from the critics, but was one of the highest grossing movies of 1979. At the 1980 Oscars, “Apocalypse” received eight nominations, one behind “All That Jazz” and “Kramer vs. Kramer”, which the film lost most of its categories to. “Apocalypse Now” did, however, take home two deserving awards: Cinematography for Vittorio Storaro and Sound for Walter Murch and his team.

Other notes

  • If you want a detailed account of the film’s legendary production woes, look no further than 1991’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”, in which Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper use Eleanor Coppola’s extensive behind-the-scenes footage to chronicle her husband’s own descent into madness. In brief, among the setbacks Coppola faced during production: Replacing Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen a week into filming, the destruction of multiple sets from Typhoon Olga, Brando showing up overweight and having not read the book, Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack and being off the film for six weeks, and Coppola struggling to come up with a satisfactory ending. All of these and other events made the film’s budget balloon from $12 million to $31 million, the actual shoot extend to over 14 months, and the film’s scheduled release date of April 1977 pushed back to spring 1978, and then again to August 1979.
  • The opening sequence is a wonderful set-up to the ride we’re in for. Footage of jungles being destroyed by helicopters, mixed with The Doors’ “The End” immediately puts you in the time and place, and Martin Sheen’s instantly dynamic performance makes you question what exactly you’re in for.
  • I always forget that Harrison Ford is in this movie. Harrison filmed his cameo as Colonel G. Lucas (get it?) before “Star Wars” was released, so he was still relatively unknown during production. Also appearing in this scene is the film’s assistant director Jerry Ziesmer, who utters the famous line “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”
  • Among this film’s achievements is that “Apocalypse” never falls into the trappings of your standard war movie. If anything, with its jaded narration and cinematic lighting, “Apocalypse Now” feels more like film noir in the jungle (film vert?).
  • The napalm strike on the Viet Cong is one of the most impressive endeavors of this or any movie. The sheer scope of the attack is so immense, you forget it’s a work of fiction. As awe-inspiring as the sequence is, I found myself genuinely saddened by the total destruction of life and land occurring, juxtaposed with the jingoistic rowdiness of the American soldiers, and all set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. A truly unsettling movie moment in the best way possible.
  • Robert Duvall, man. He embodies Col. Kilgore so thoroughly you buy everything he’s selling. There’s a certain intensity mixed with a cavalier attitude that would make the character hilarious if he wasn’t so terrifying. The “Napalm in the morning” speech is a film highlight, and a perfect cap to Kilgore’s character.
  • This movie has issues with women. There are only a handful, and all of them are either mercilessly killed, called a “bitch” by a man, or both. The only substantial female actor in the movie was Aurore Clément, and she got cut!
  • As we get deeper into the movie, the film becomes more about Willard trying to get inside Kurtz’s head, causing Willard to become a bit mad himself. Sheen’s intense performance is nicely balanced by the work of his shipmates, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, and a 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne, who lied about his age to get cast in the movie.
  • Once we arrive at Kurtz’s temple, the film doesn’t stop being good, but it does become a different movie. Perhaps it’s the film’s lack of literal momentum once they’ve reached their destination. One thing that’s definitely helping is Dennis Hopper’s performance as the unnamed photojournalist who has drank the Kurtz Kool-Aid. It’s your standard spaced out Dennis Hopper performance, but with a tinge more fear in it. This is a man in over his head, and he knows it.
  • Like Orson Welles in “The Third Man” or John Huston in “Chinatown“, Marlon Brando’s inherent mystique and star power help carry the dramatic weight and limited screentime of Col. Kurtz. It’s a chilling performance that’s worth the two-hour wait. Also, he swallowed a bug.
  • For those of you keeping score, that’s two Coppola movies in which a character is awakened to find a severed head of someone they know lying next to them. Maybe I should have called this blog “The Chef’s Head”?
  • While still effective, the ending doesn’t fire on the same cylinders as the rest of the movie. For starters, I just watched a water buffalo get slaughtered for real; I’m as unpleased by that as the American Humane Association was. Then, Willard kills Kurtz, takes his writings and just…leaves? I thought the whole point was Willard’s descent into madness; shouldn’t he stay in the jungle and become the Montagnard’s new god? I don’t know what the definitive satisfying ending would be, but there’s something missing. But hey, if I went through what Coppola went through making this movie, I would also end it with the lines “The horror…the horror…”


  • Francis Ford Coppola’s gamble on “Apocalypse Now” paid off handsomely, but his next film, “One From the Heart”, was an expensive flop, leading to a decade of Coppola making more commercial films to keep Zoetrope Studios afloat. While Coppola has never again reached the same pinnacle as “Apocalypse Now”, he still has quite a legacy of films. Plus the winery up in the Napa, so he’s fine.
  • Feeling that he may have cut too much out of “Apocalypse”, Coppola revisited the film in 2001 with “Apocalypse Now: Redux”, which reinstated 45 minutes into the film. In 2019, Coppola went back again, cutting 20 minutes from the “Redux” version for the 40th anniversary Final Cut. And we’re all fine with these changes because the original cut is still readily available (hint hint, Lucasfilm).
  • There have been more faithful adaptations of “Heart of Darkness”, most notably the 1993 TV movie with Tim Roth and John Malkovich.
  • Many, many, many parodies over the years for “Apocalypse Now”, most of them paraphrasing the napalm line or making the film’s subject matter a more light-hearted fare, like this musical!
  • My personal favorite of all the parodies comes courtesy of “Hot Shots! Part Deux”. “I loved you in ‘Wall Street’!”
  • And once again, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is a wonderful companion piece to this movie. Even more impressive, Eleanor Coppola paints that unflattering a portrait of her husband, and they’re still together! Talk about #CoupleGoals.

Listen to This: The Doors’ self-titled 1966 debut album made the National Recording Registry in 2015, and appropriately concludes with “The End”.

9 thoughts on “#511) Apocalypse Now (1979)”

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