I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”
Number 49 on the top 1000 films of all time is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic adventure war film Apocalypse Now.
Set in the height of the Vietnam War, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard who is tasked with assassinating Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone insane and commands his own Montagnard troops in Cambodia. Accompanying Captain Willard are a Navy Boat Patrol commanded by “Chief” (Albert Hall) and crewed by Lance (Sam Bottoms,) “Chef” (Frederic Forrest) and “Mr Clean” (Laurence Fishburne in his first major film role.)
Taking Saving Private Ryan as a prime example, I think that any good war film should do two things. It should portray an evocative, powerful and gut-wrenching picture of war and it should demonstrate the loyalty and camaraderie that soldiers share with each other. Apocalypse Now ticks both of these boxes. As well as this, the location and set pieces are great too. Filmed in the Philippines, the surrounding landscape and scenery are gorgeous.
The Vietnam War cost the lives of almost 4 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, American and many more soldiers and civilians, so there is no doubt that the war was bloody and destructive. The film is just as horrifying. Apocalypse Now contains a number of great action sequences that convey the terror the war caused. The standout example of this is the scene involving Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore who encounters Captain Willard’s group and agrees to escort them through the Viet-Cong held coastal mouth of the Nung River. Even though, Duvall has less than 15 minutes screen-time, his scene is without doubt one of the best in the film. Duvall’s character is tyrannical, insane and terrifying. Duvall spends much of his time screaming obscenities and he is great with it. He also gives us some of the film’s most quotable lines, such as “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”
This scene also contains one of the film’s most notable sequences: a helicopter raid of the local area set to Ride of The Valkyries. This sequence demonstrates the grotesque grandeur of war and does it well. For example, when a local Vietnamese girl throws a grenade into the American ground troops, Kilgore responds by having her and the rest of her group shot down from the helicopter. One can’t help but sympathise with the Vietnamese girl who is very much the victim in the situation considering the Americans are the aggressors in her home and country. Another brutal scene comes when the Willard and his crew inspect a civilian sampan for weapons. Panicking, Mr Clean shoots all on board. To prevent any further delay, Willard coldly shoots the last remaining survivor.
As the film progresses, we see Captain Willard and his men grow closer and closer together. Whilst, Chief constantly comes to blows with Willard, he acts as a father figure for the seventeen year old Mr Clean and is greatly affected by his death. Captain Willard is initially sworn to secrecy but after after the death of Chief, he comes clean with Lance and Chef. I really enjoyed watching all of the soldier’s interactions with each other. Seeing how they’re affected by each other’s pain and suffering was visceral and felt realistic of how real soldiers would react.
This notwithstanding, the film isn’t perfect. My main issue with it was its length. At two and a half hours long, it does drag quite a bit and the pacing is uneven. Whilst Coppola did well in building the suspense in certain scenes, this is completely undone in others. For example, after Mr Clean’s death scene, the survivors find an outpost held by French troops and decide to stop there to catch their breaths. However, this led to all of the previously built up tension dissipating and turned the film into a bit of a snooze-fest. I almost fell asleep!
Truth be told, I was also a bit disappointed with Marlon Brando’s contribution. As the only other thing I’ve seen him in is the Godfather, I was expecting great things from him and these expectations never materialised. Even though he is the villain in the film, he never has much presence until the very end where when he does actually appear, he is mainly kept in shadow. Whilst Coppola agreed to have Brando filmed in shadows, due to how he was overweight and drunk for most of the filming, this hurt Colonel Kurtz’ characterisation. Whilst it can be effective to keep some villains hidden in darkness, as it were, I argue that the same does not apply for Colonel Kurtz.
It’s good in its portrayal of war and the horrific violence that encompasses it. It does well in its characterisation and demonstration of relationships. It’s just a shame that the pacing isn’t consistent and the character names are a little confusing. Anyway, in its portrayl of the death and destruction of the Vietnam War, without doubt, in America’s struggle to rid Vietnam of communism, they left miles and miles of broken bodies and burnt crops.