The horror... the horror...

I just watched “Apocalypse Now” - probably 15 years since I had seen it, and first time seeing it widescreen (albeit on a small screen). It’s an amazing film from the standpoint of cinematography, and also very powerful emotional content. It did feel rather episodic though - for example the segment with Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is quite long and memorable (“Charlie don’t surf!”) yet serves the fairly small point of getting Willard and his boat to the river. The episode with Willard and the Chef getting chased by the tiger adds to the sense of danger and paranoia but is otherwise disconnected. The famous scene with the USO show with the Playboy playmates is another example. Moreso than supporting the main plot these scenes add more to the sense of the surreal, like how a lot of these young soldiers were picked up out of their everyday American existence and dropped into this completely alien land where they’re are constantly facing sudden death from who knows who or what, but then they’re also surfing and having beach parties and stuff. Like I think the Martin Sheen voiceover describes, they tried to make the soldiers feel at home when in fact they are most certainly not at home.

One thing I’m curious about is how Vietnam veterans react to the movie. To me it comes across as anti-war, depicting the Americans as brutal and reckless and heavy-handed and great at killing people and blowing up villages, yet ultimately ineffective at accomplishing a mission. But supposedly it was also criticized for glorifying war and violence. PS I was born in 1975 so I have no first-hand memories of that era.

I would agree with your assessment of it being anti-war, especially considering the fact that it was based upon Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an extremely pivotal anti-Imperialistic literary work.

Apocalypse Now was like a drug-induced nightmare. Anyone unfamiliar with the war would lack any context to put it in. Parts of it were accurate, other parts, total fiction. It was not anti-war, it was a plaything of the writers and director. A skewed version of reality.

The young men going into battle knew honor, duty and love of country. They had fathers or relatives or neighbors who had been in World War II or Korea. Vietnam was starting off like the Korean conflict, but leaders without a clear, stated goal, would send troops on missions to fight the enemy, who often fought without a uniform. The beggars became the Viet Cong or VC. Then the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops showed up. By 1968, more bombs had been dropped in Vietnam than on Europe during World War II and the Americans weren’t winning. It was all but over by the end of 1973. Saigon fell in 1975.

A sad movie about some sick and deranged people.


My husband served in the Viet Nam war in the Medical Corps. He also said much of this movie was very fake, but a part of it was what the war zone (which was the whole country!) was really like. He spent a year there, went with helicopters to pick up wounded and was stationed at Da Nang near to the Green Berets who had their main base in the north there. He said most of it wasn’t very realistic, and he didn’t see as much drug use as the movie shows, but there was a lot of use of alcohol after each mission returned. He was attached to the Army Infantry, and also took care of a lot of the Green Berets who were wounded in action. He saw a lot of death of young men who really didn’t know why they were there. He was older when he was there (he also served as a Combat Medic in Korea) and was in his 30’s. He lost a lot of respect for those who “micromanaged” the war from either Saigon, or worse, from Washington. He felt the war could have been won, had it been managed by professional soldiers, but also pointed out that, with the exception of the Special Forces Groups, Americans do not fight well against guerilla warfare in jungles. They are not properly trained for it. He died two years ago. Served 20+ years in the Army as Medic (in Combat) and Medical Specialist (an Advanced LPN with specialist training). He received Bronze Stars in both Korea and Viet Nam for going after wounded while under fire, even into minefields. He did not think he was a hero, and felt that Viet Nam was the worst year of his life. For a good view of the Viet Nam war, the movie that would probably come closest to the true conditions would be “Full Metal Jacket”, which was more accurate from the Infantry point of view.


It is more if a modern application and rebelling of Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness which is a gem of a book.

I agree. The characters could have taken part in any war. Their personal drama is such that the war sometimes seems as a mere setting for it.

It’s a great film and exaggerated parts don’t take anything away for me. It wasn’t mean to be a documentary. A director always takes poetic licence with material. Getting a feel for the craziness is a more interesting way of suggesting what reality was like I think.

I saw the “Redux” version at a historic theatre once on the big screen. It was a great experience.

Not sure how the Redux edit compares to the original, but nonetheless it is still a great movie. I did feel the Director’s Cut had a bit of “padding” like some have said, but I doubt it affects the quality of the film terribly much. I felt quite privileged to see the film at an “old school” theater.

I’ve seen many classic films there.

I would agree with that. I think they took some license with taking incidents that were, overall, unusual and not everyday experiences in the war, and condensed them such that the trip up the river was one crazy or brutal experience after another, emphasizing the journey into “the heart of darkness” that awaits. So for me it all works as a movie, regardless of whether it was meant to be an overall accurate portrayal of Vietnam. But I was born a few months after the fall of Saigon, so to me it is not personal.

What surprises me is that movie was made so soon after the war. It really was a different era - not like today when “support our troops” is a popular catch phrase; back then many vets returning from the war were not exactly welcomed back with open arms, as their peers are protesting the war and burning their draft cards and whether or not they were literally spat upon, many vets were disparaged for their service. So for vets who had returned home from the war just 5-10 years prior, was this movie, which depicts soldiers shooting up fishing boats and napalming villages while smoking dope and dropping acid like rubbing salt in open wounds. I haven’t really watched any recent war movies, so I don’t know if any contemporary war movies treat, say, Iraq or Afghanistan the same way.

It wasn’t meant to be a documentary? Uh, I’ve written movie treatments. You can’t do a movie about a real war and not include all real elements. You can’t do a movie about World War I with modern tanks. Real war consists of fierce battles or skirmishes, followed by periods of intense boredom. That covers most engagements. Unless you’re talking about the Siege of Khe Sanh, most engagements there were brief and hit and run. Meanwhile, our B-52s were dropping tons of bombs on gigantic areas of green plants. Those who say our troops were not trained for jungle warfare is like saying our troops weren’t prepared and trained for Iraq or Afghanistan. We had thousands of helicopters. How many did the VC have?


If you’re interested in the Vietnam War, an interesting book to read is “The Green Berets” by Robin Moore (interesting character, journalist, treasure hunter…)

Written very early in the war when US involvement was relatively (compared to later years) limited. The writer went through part of the Special Forces training then went on a deployment to Vietnam with them in 1963. He provides an interesting view of the Green Beret and the US involvement in the war at that point in time.

The movie is very loosely based on the book and not anywhere near as good.

Interesting point. I think that if a director wanted to do something like that today, they would be sent for some sensitivity training :smiley:

On a less-related note… this time around I noticed that Harrison Ford appears as an officer early in the film, in the scene where the other guy says “Terminate… with extreme prejudice.” I hadn’t noticed it at first, the character has these big aviator-style glasses on, and is very buttoned-up. And suddenly I thought, wait a minute, that’s Harrison Ford! By the time this was released (1979) he was well-known because of Star Wars. But if casting & shooting on this film happened several years earlier, he might have still been a nobody.

I also wondered, If this film were to be made today, would the director bother to pay Marlon Brando to show up & mumble his lines from the shadows? Or would they just CGI him in. Kind of a waste of the million dollars or whatever they paid him.

I’m sure they would CGI the water buffalo or ox or whatever gets slaughtered in the climactic scene. I’m not sure what they did then; hard to imagine they slaughtered an actual animal on camera, not because they had the same sensibilities of “no animals were harmed…” back then, but I can’t imagine how many takes (and how many animals) it would take to get that just right. So for some of those shots maybe it was a side of beef dressed up in an ox costume or something?

The movie is interesting because it was based very loosely on “Heart of Darkness,” and the original script was by John Milius, one of the few arch-conservative writers and directors today (he wrote almost all the scenes with Robert Duvall, and he originally wanted to cast Lee Marvin instead of Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz), and Coppola, who was decidedly liberal, re-wrote the script. Some of the script rewrite was done by Michael Herr, a journalist who had been in Vietnam, and whose book “Dispatches” was lauded as non-fiction but was revealed as fiction years later, and which had the same psychedelic viewpoint as the film.

They started filming with Harvey Keitel (a former Marine), who couldn’t handle the endless script changes and Copolla’s mercurial direction, so he quit and was replaced by Martin Sheen, who had a heart attack while filming. Copolla’s marriage was falling apart while they were making the film.

You throw all those different influences and sources together, and it comes together and is always interesting to watch - there’s some wonderful performances in there, I always get a kick out of Dennis Hopper’s zonked-out journalist - but I’m not sure if there’s a real message, other than “War is Bad” (although they make it look pretty exciting at points), or that “We shouldn’t have been over there,” but it kind of gets lost in the fireworks.

Harrison Ford had small parts in a couple of films Coppola made or was associated with (The Conversation, American Graffiti, which was written and directed by George Lucas and produced through Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios - Ford’s MI officer is actually named “Colonel Lucas” if you look at his name tag), and some other actors that became more prominent later are scattered through the film - Scott Glenn is glimpsed near the end in the Montagnard compound as the Special Forces Captain who was first sent to bring back Kurtz and fell under his sway, Laurence Fishburn from “The Matrix” is so young he’s almost unrecognizable, and R. Lee Ermey has a small role as a helicopter pilot (before he became famous as the Drill Sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket.”)

Arizona Mike,

that is very interesting. I didn’t know about the drama behind the scenes. I guess it helped with the overall feel of confusion in the film.

No, it wasn’t meant as a documentary. In the same way that High Noon was originally written to be about gangs in Chicago in the 1930s, Apocalypse Now simply took Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and put it in the Vietnam war. Movies are, by definition, stories that are not true. There may be a basis behind the story and elements of the story may be factually correct but overall, it is supposed to be taken as entertainment. Oliver Stone’s JFK is a perfect example.

Another example that comes to mind is “West Side Story” took the story of “Romeo and Juliet” and set it in 1950s New York with feuding Puerto Ricans and white kids taking the place of the feuding families. The story is totally fictional, but the setting is a real place & time. Certainly they didn’t routinely break out into song during their interactions with each other & with the cops (“Gee Officer Krupke!”), nor would street fights have been highly choreographed song-and-dance numbers. So it is not realistic in every detail. But does it reflect actual tensions between Puerto Ricans and Anglos in that time & place? Is the underlying story something that could have happened (a love affair between a Puerto Rican and Anglo, to the disapproval of everyone else around, setting off a chain of violence and retribution and ultimate tragedy?)

One could ask exactly the same questions about Apocalypse Now - it is not meant to document a historical event, but rather sets a fictional event in the context of a real time and place. So does it accurately portray that real time and place? To my knowledge, US soldiers didn’t specifically shoot up a sampan during a routine inspection when one of the occupants went back to get a puppy she had hidden in a crate. To my knowledge there wasn’t a USO performance with Playboy Playmates where they had to evacuate by helicopter when the soldiers rushed the stage. And there wasn’t specifically a Col Kurtz who went rogue and set up his own private army with the natives in Cambodia. But are any of these things - whether the smaller episodes or the larger story, things that could fit overall with the Vietnam war? I.e. were US soldiers often unsure of who was the enemy, and out of paranoia and self preservation sometimes shoot first and ask questions later? Maybe. Did some soldiers and officers treat the Vietnamese as subhuman, or with extreme disregard? Maybe in some cases. Were there American officers who used “unorthodox” methods? Perhaps so, but maybe not to the extent of Kurtz. Would special forces officers be sent to “terminate the command” of such a rogue officer? I don’t know, that sounds more Hollywood to me. Etc. I gather that none of the craziness that is portrayed was the routine experience of any soldier, but rather sort of a composite of many unusual incidents, real and fictional, that are meant to be plausible in the overall context of the war.

Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Lion King” was an adaptation of “Hamlet”, with some story elements taken from “Macbeth”. The hope was that by turning it into a modern kids film, it would make the story feel relevant to today’s audiences, and it would inspire kids to later go on and read Shakespeare.

Fascinating, I never thought of it before, but I think you’re right. Down to the ghostly apparition of Mufasa that Simba sees (except much later on, not in the opening act). And things work out better for Simba and Nala than for Hamlet and Ophelia.

Personally my favorite “translation” of Shakespeare to a different time & place is Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”.

I’ve always loved “Forbidden Planet” myself! Especially the terrifying “id” reinterpretation of Caliban! Every space horror movie has to have that scene in it where the monster sucessfully attacks from an unseen position!

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