Reflections on "Apocalypse Now"

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando


A video presentation of this material is available here.


At the height of the Vietnam war, American officer Captain Benjamin Willard is called to a meeting with his superiors, the upshot of which is that he is assigned the mission of terminating the command of American Colonel Walter Kurtz who has established what amounts to a renegade militia in Cambodia and is using methods his commanding officers find questionable and run contrary to their moral and ethical standards.

Willard is to follow the course up the Nung river taken by Kurtz and, en route to his base, Willard will encounter what Kurtz experienced on his journey and will develop an understanding of his prey's character, reasoning and evolution. As will we, the audience.

Willard is a capable and experienced officer but he is profoundly troubled. Through a brilliant series of vignettes, we are given to understand that he has seen much action, violence and destruction, and that he may have lost perspective on what he has gone through and what life can mean. He has lived at such a heightened pace and level of adrenalin that he can no longer cope with civilian life, or indeed peace and quiet at all. He is almost detached from regular life and needs to be surrounded by threat and action to feel alive and have purpose, and that is when he copes best.

Willard's skills and mindset make him the perfect weapon or tool to carry out the mission to eliminate the Colonel who is causing embarrassment by not adhering to the military's code of ethics and conduct. Kurtz is accused of murder and using methods that raise doubts about his very sanity. Willard's superiors use reasoned argument and legalistic language to justify their position and the action they are sanctioning, and they are apparently unaware of their own hypocrisy and fail to recognise the irony in the fact that they are commissioning a murder in response to their dismay at the murders committed by Kurtz. The bottom line is that Kurtz is to be assassinated because he has taken the military imperative to destroy the enemy to heart and is using what he considers the most effective methods and means to achieve that goal, but methods and means not in keeping with the veneer of respectability military command wishes to maintain.

Using a navy patrol boat and its crew, Willard makes his way up the Nung River to reach Kurtz and his base. As they travel ever farther from what is familiar and accepted, they go more deeply into waters and experiences that test their mettle and also their perceptions of warfare, civilisation and humanity. The farther they go, the less rules of engagement, order and sanity seem to apply.

They come across Lt Col Kilgore who will help relay them upriver. In order to do so, he and his airborne forces attack and destroy a seemingly peaceful and idyllic coastal village, principally because of the good surfing conditions in the waters nearby.

This sequence imparts the devastation, agony and chaos of battle quite brilliantly. The sudden contrast between the relaxed calm of everyday life and the indiscriminate destruction inflicted by military forces is quite breath-taking and totally engaging in its intensity and unpredictability. Like those involved in the action, our senses are assaulted and we don't know what will happen next, leaving us quite disorientated. We are starting to share some of the experiences, thoughts and feelings Willard and Kurtz might have known.

The single greatest source of calm, composure and clarity of purpose in this action is Kilgore, an officer so immersed in and conditioned by warfare, violence and bloodshed that he has become desensitised to battle, danger and suffering. The authority to make life-and-death decisions for others, combined with the ease of their implementation, with little or no apparent control over his actions, has undoubtedly affected his judgement and his attitude toward responsibility and humanity. Perhaps in an effort to impose sanity on his circumstances, or to find a way to survive and cope mentally, he appears to have lost focus on purely military objectives and has personalised his mission, focusing on opportunities for surfing and opting not to see potential danger in indulging this activity. He is a good officer in terms of organisation and the mechanics of command, but he appears to have lost sight of the bigger picture.

Willard and the boat crew make a stop to pick up supplies and they are surprised to find the post bathed in light, with troops gathered in noisy and good-hearted anticipation in a specially built amphitheatre overlooking a water-borne stage set for a show. There is great excitement and a request for fuel by a member of Willard's crew is ignored in favour of the selling of souvenirs, causing the professional and highly focused Willard to lose his temper and threaten the offending soldier. Shortly afterward, a helicopter deposits three Playboy Playmates of the month to dance for and entertain the troops, leading to a breakdown in discipline, general chaos and the hurried departure of the girls and the helicopter. This also leads to a brief meditation by Willard on how the enemy receives no such treats and is hardened and more focused as a result. This is one of several instances of implied criticism of the incorporation of entertainment and home culture in the daily lives of young conscripted soldiers in the struggle to defeat a determined, focused and enduring enemy.

When they reach Do Lung, the last American outpost on the river, they are confronted with scenes of sheer chaos, fear and bewilderment, with soldiers driven by the fundamental desire to survive. There is a repeated and existentially wearing cycle of action with a bridge being built or repaired during the day, only to be damaged or destroyed at night. There appears to be no chain of command and little clarity of purpose or order. In military terms, it is directionless and a stalemate, while in human terms it borders on nihilism and depression with soldiers left to question the purpose and point of their presence there and their lives reduced to relying on instinct to survive and destroy the enemy.

Willard sees and experiences all this but Kurtz saw it before him. Being a professional, Willard wants to know his target and so he studies and shares details of Kurtz's career with us. Destined for one of the top positions in the military, Kurtz effectively renounced promotion to join Special Forces when he was 38. He put personal conviction and action above career, perhaps believing he could achieve more in the field than from a desk. Willard appears to admire him and, in following in his footsteps, is learning to understand him and how he reached this position.

There is minor conflict between Willard and the Chief, who is nominally in charge of the boat. The Chief understands and follows regular orders but he is very apprehensive of people like Willard as he senses danger and threat in him. As they approach Kurtz's base, the boat and crew are attacked by tribesmen throwing sticks and the odd spear. The Chief is fatally wounded by one of these spears but before he dies, he tries to kill Willard by pulling him on to the spear head protruding from his chest, perhaps because, by instinct, the Chief hopes that this cycle of death will be halted if he stops Willard and his like. It is ironic that Willard has similar feelings toward Kurtz and is set on taking similar action.

Within Kurtz's camp, all trappings of civilisation have been abandoned. All of Kurtz's followers have suffered the psychological horrors we have encountered on our journey to the camp and life has been reduced to death or survival, with Kurtz deciding people's fates. He is accepted as leader perhaps because of his purity of purpose and his ruthlessness, and he rules by fear and dread.

Eventually, Kurtz offers an explanation for his methods. After immunising some children in a village, the enemy arrived and, to show displeasure and enforce compliance, they hacked off the arms of the children who had been immunised. It was at this point that Kurtz had an epiphany - the only way to defeat such an enemy was to apply the same strength of purpose and have the strength to manipulate horror in your own favour. Thus, conflict is stripped of all niceties, facades and pretences at standards and morality in favour of the purity of horror as the ultimate weapon and means of destroying your enemy.

Kurtz could easily have had Willard killed but instead he engages in a vaguely philosophical discussion with him. Perhaps Kurtz views him as an equal and wishes to receive his understanding and approval, or perhaps he sees himself in Willard and recognises the validity of his mission and Willard's right to exercise his judgement just as Kurtz had done.

The imagery is clear when Willard kills Kurtz. Kurtz is being brutally sacrificed to protect and maintain the facade of civilised warfare. He was a good soldier and as such became a product and perhaps victim of his own profession, as he took his task to its logical conclusion rather than playing the game expected of him.

After killing Kurtz, Willard re-emerges to face the horde of Kurtz's followers. As Willard drops his weapon, both physically and symbolically, the followers drop theirs and they appear ready to accept him as their new leader, but Willard gets in the boat to leave. Having followed Kurtz's path and shown the same strength, determination and occasional ruthlessness as Kurtz, he could easily have taken on his mantle. However, Willard has stated he is no longer part of the military, perhaps implying he has developed beyond their code of conduct, or even that he no longer recognises authority. He lacks the ambition, drive and ego of Kurtz and, more importantly, he may have developed an existential understanding beyond that of Kurtz and he sees that only by laying down his weapons and allowing people to lead their own lives will the ceaseless cycle of bloodshed and dependence come to an end. Kurtz has therefore also been sacrificed on the altar of peace and freedom.

If an acceptable definition of art is "an attempt to convey concepts, ideas and emotions, typically through words, images or sound, in a concise and engaging manner", then "Apocalypse Now" is, for me, a work of art. The storyline and imagery lend themselves to an onslaught on the senses and the mind, leading the viewer down the same existential path as Willard and Kurtz and allowing us to understand this descent into murder and mayhem while warning us off this road.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie