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A Journey Back Into the Nihilistic Hellscape That Is ‘Apocalypse Now’

Rewatching Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic for the first time in over two decades reveals new insights into a flawed but powerful film

Matthew Kam

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now premiered in the United States 41 years ago this week, on August 15, 1979. I recently realized that I hadn’t seen it in nearly half that time—I’d watched it only once, on a rented VHS tape; I’m not sure I was out of my teens—so I decided to watch it again to see how my memory held up. The march of progress cannot be slowed; this time, I streamed it on HBO Max.

I hadn’t thought much of the movie when I watched it all those years ago. I remembered it being impressive as a spectacle—I especially remembered it being very loud—but the story of Captain Willard’s riverboat journey to assassinate the mad Colonel Kurtz, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness updated for the Vietnam War, had seemed bombastic and terribly slow. I’d kind of liked Martin Sheen’s performance as Willard but found Marlon Brando’s performance as Kurtz illegibly strange.

You will be surprised, reader, to learn that I, as a 20-year-old Blockbuster card holder, did not know better than the hordes of professional film critics who have consistently ranked Apocalypse Now among the greatest films ever made.

I do stand by my initial judgment on one point. Apocalypse Now is loud. Otherwise, almost everything I thought I knew about the movie was wrong. In no particular order, here are five moments that stood out to me as I reappraised this strange, elusive, horrifying film.

1. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

I’d remembered this line as a piece of macho showboating. Colonel Kilgore, the cavalry-hat-wearing, surfing-obsessed helicopter commander played by Robert Duvall, utters it mid-battle, while watching the jets he’s called in to obliterate a nearby treeline, and I’d filed it away as the sort of thing a deranged football coach barks while his athletes run stairs. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” “I love the sight of freshmen hitting the ground!”

It’s not that. For one thing, there’s no exclamation mark. Duvall is crouching when he says it, shirtless but wearing his giant hat, and he’s smiling a catastrophically extroverted man’s approximation of a private smile. His men are gathered around him. His voice, considering the roar of the battle, is low. He’s sharing a quiet reflection. “I love Venice in the winter.” My remembered version would have implied a man acting tough by pretending to be completely adapted to war. But Duvall actually loves the smell of napalm in the morning. It makes him nostalgic. He’s being completely sincere. He shares a napalm-in-the-morning story in the same tone in which you’d go, “I remember the first time I went to Six Flags with my friends.” And the insanity of this, of a man so contented within the crucible of war that the aroma of poison gas gives him a gentle sort of Proust’s-madeleine tug on the heartstrings, is several degrees more out there than anything I had remembered; it was an excellent taste of what was to come.

2. “Sometimes the dark side overcomes.”

It’s a famous bit of film trivia that George Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now, and that he pulled out in part to go make Star Wars. This sets up a tidy little alternate-history mind game: What if Lucas had stuck with his original project? What do the past 40-plus years of film history look like if Star Wars doesn’t come out in 1977; if Lucas (still a fiercely promising young director in the back half of the ’70s, remember, a full peer of Spielberg and Coppola) never gets sucked into the commercial Sarlacc pit of his most famous creation; if Coppola never has to endure the jungle hell-shoot that Apocalypse Now demanded (thus possibly forestalling the creative weariness that marked much of his ’80s work); and if the arcs of two of the most influential movies in history, one popularly beloved and one critically revered, are transformed beyond recognition?

In fact, Lucas’s involvement with Apocalypse Now wasn’t a fleeting thing. He worked on it for years. He was sufficiently tied to its creative germination that when Star Wars exploded, Coppola, mired in massive budget overruns on the project Lucas had abandoned, felt comfortable wiring him to ask for money. Still, it’s disorienting to see the dime-store Manichaeanism of the early Star Wars saga reflected in Apocalypse Now—a reflection that extends, at times, to actual duplications of language. “There’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil,” G.D. Spradlin’s General Corman says in an early scene (while sitting next to Harrison Ford! Who’s playing a character called “G. Lucas”!). “And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”

The dark side! Of course what Apocalypse Now does with the idea of an inner war between good and evil is utterly unlike what Lucas’s blockbuster does with it; in keeping with its Conradian source material, Apocalypse Now complicates the dichotomy at every turn, where Star Wars essentially says, wow, good versus evil, let’s see if the family of brass instruments would care to weigh in on this subject. Still, I’d remembered the philosophizing of Apocalypse Now, especially the gravelly voice-overs of Sheen’s Willard and the existential warrior-poet monologues of Brando’s Kurtz, as a weakness of the film. Doesn’t all that talk about good and evil and the nature of reality seem kind of—speaking of Star Wars—adolescent?

Yes, and that’s part of the point. What struck me on my recent viewing was how totally inadequate the characters’ attempts to find meaning are amid the annihilating incoherence of their situation. The movie doesn’t endorse the metaphysical accuracy of its characters’ variously corny and pretentious thoughts about life and war. Rather, it shows these thoughts as desperate attempts to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. If anything, cause and effect are reversed: The war is shown to be the creation of the kinds of people who fall back on these kinds of thoughts when confronted with something as terrible as war. Kurtz “reads poetry out loud,” as the journalist-acolyte played by Dennis Hopper marvels, but he also writes “exterminate them all” in his journal, and these activities are linked, not contradictory. Philosophy, which inadvertently perpetuates forms of thought that lead to colonialism and violence, is doomed as a means of coping with trauma, because it is part of the same system that makes trauma inevitable. The edifice of civilization opens endlessly onto its opposite; every side is the dark side.

3. “… names all sound the same.”

Who are the victims of this colonialist violence? It’s a weakness of the film, both aesthetic and moral, that they barely exist. The movie’s sympathies are clearly not on the side of the American military, and only fitfully on the side of the American characters it centers. But the Vietnamese tend to be depicted as a faceless, suffering mass, a blurred background of anonymous villagers and farmers and sailors whom the Americans shoot at senselessly. In one scene, the crew of the American riverboat that takes Willard to Kurtz’s stronghold rescues a puppy from a Vietnamese family it has gunned down in a moment of panicked misunderstanding, and the film invests more emotional energy in the puppy than in the young woman who died trying to retrieve it from its basket.

There’s something strange and insidious happening here. The Americans in the film are all strongly individualized; the Vietnamese are seen only through their eyes, and are obscured behind a screen of ethnic slurs and dehumanizing tropes (“the shit,” “the jungle,” “Charlie”). This dehumanization arguably furthers the film’s critique of American imperialism by showing the conflict as shaped by American prejudice. But it also is an act of American prejudice. The film is a little too ready, for instance, to believe that “the jungle” is full of moldering temples and vaguely cultic Indiana Jones–style tribespeople, and that these tribespeople are prepared, for unexplained reasons, to “worship” the white Kurtz. Exploiting the willingness of its presumed white audience to accept these hoary colonialist clichés lets Apocalypse Now get where it’s going more efficiently. But using unexamined racist narrative devices in a story partly about the insanity of racism puts the film in the bizarre position of condemning the current it rode in on. And for that reason, if you had to say whether Apocalypse Now is at heart an act of war or an act of peace, it would be hard not to choose the former. That it betrays itself in this way doesn’t make the film less fascinating, but it does make the experience of watching it bleaker and sadder—it makes Apocalypse Now a grim example of the destructive potential of civilization that Apocalypse Now so brilliantly diagnoses.

4. “Hojotoho! Hojotoho!”

At the same time, few films make war look more hellish than Apocalypse Now. The great French director Francois Truffaut famously said that there are no anti-war movies; film is such a visceral and kinetic medium that even ostensibly negative depictions of combat will feel exciting to the audience, and thus end up glorifying the thing they want to condemn. Rewatching Apocalypse Now, I was struck by how consciously Coppola seems to be working to escape from this trap, and how successful his strategies are. The famous “Ride of the Valkyries” scene, for instance: It’s both an incredible example of the visceral charisma of war on film and a master class in how to turn that charisma against itself.

Before unleashing the first wave of choppers, Coppola takes pains to show us that the attack is being carried out for the stupidest conceivable reason. Colonel Kilgore has heard that there’s good surfing to be found near a village controlled by the Viet Cong, so off we go to take the village, in a blaze of rockets and poison gas. The helicopters take off. The shots of their flight are deliberately intercut with shots of the villagers going about their peaceful mornings: farmers at work, schoolchildren in the town square. And then, boom, the choppers line up like an attacking wolf pack and Wagner’s martial anthem starts gonging across the sky. It’s an exaggeration, almost a parody, of film’s inherent tendency to glorify the machinery of violence, but it’s also phenomenally exciting. We’re caught up in the thrill of it, but because Coppola has so carefully constructed our understanding of the underlying lunacy and horror, and has so carefully layered the excitement with black comedy and sheer moral revulsion, the thrill works against itself. We feel the thing and dread it at the same time; we should remember that dread whenever we watch a more conventionally exciting war movie.

5. “Don’t look at the camera!”

I didn’t expect, when I decided to watch Apocalypse Now again, that I would constantly refer back to the films of Federico Fellini. There’s a famous reference to La Dolce Vita early in the movie, when a cow dangling from a helicopter recalls the shots of the statue of Christ flying over Rome at the beginning of Fellini’s masterpiece. But Apocalypse Now struck me almost as an attempt to reimagine La Dolce Vita as a war movie: a long film made up of loosely connected incidents, in which a protagonist suffering through a spiritual crisis encounters a series of exemplary experiences, which frame his attempt to understand the meaning of his life.

Apocalypse Now is Felliniesque in the fluidity of its camera and in its layered sound design. It’s Felliniesque in its sense of the dark interchange of moral bleakness and absurdist spectacle: the light-flooded Playboy Bunny stadium materializing out of the jungle, the TV director (played by Coppola himself) having a fit because soldiers keep looking at the camera as they run past into battle. (This last moment is a reminder that Lucas had intended to direct Apocalypse Now as a comedy.) It’s Felliniesque in its insistence that the most hierarchically controlled aspects of human culture are also the ones that stand on the brink of madness—possibly the only plane on which Italian gossip journalism and American imperial warfare can be linked.

The easy way to read this comparison would be to say that Coppola makes warfare into a Felliniesque spectacle, but it struck me in the opposite way. I started thinking of life in Fellini films as something like life in a war movie. And because it’s natural, when you’re a lazy (but glamorous!) internet writer not presently fighting in a war, to compare yourself to Marcelo Mastroianni, and a little harder to compare yourself to people shooting machine guns out of helicopters, I started seeing flashes of Apocalypse Now everywhere: in the selfies my friends posted wearing fancy pandemic masks, in the Rage Against the Machine track blaring from an Amazon delivery van, in the news story about Big Tech earmarking funds to combat environmental catastrophe. There are plenty of moments in the average day when you can watch the absurdity and cruelty of civilization in practice—often complete with invisible victims, if you’re lucky enough to be on the side that creates them. My daily life looks nothing like Apocalypse Now. But the power of a great movie, even a deeply flawed great movie, echoes beyond itself. The comparison with Fellini helped me see that even here, thousands of miles from the nearest overt warfare, the Valkyries are still riding in the sky.