Most war movies take great care to show you how disorienting it is to be in the middle of battle, and a lot of these set pieces end up being some of the greatest examples of cinema we have. There are the fiery jungles of Platoon, or the assault of the senses that made up the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. The underrated Letters From Iwo Jima offered up a distinct view of what it was like in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and another movie on the list, All Quiet on the Western Front, offered a stark difference between civilian perception of a war and the horror of actually being a soldier in it.
They all effectively show us the insanity of conflict, in their own way. I’ve walked away from each movie with a better understanding of how things must have felt to the people who fought through World War I, World War II, Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is something different entirely. More than any other war film I’ve ever seen, it shows us how war drives good men insane, and how that insanity spreads through the rest of the company, the troupe, through the whole system. It presents armed conflict as a gentlemen’s agreement to go absolutely nuts for a while. Soldiers who are sent to fight go crazy in their own ways, and it’s quietly accepted as long as they direct their issues at the enemy. When that stops happening, the machinery stops and the corrupting influence must be expunged.
That’s precisely what happens to Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a decorated war veteran who throws away a promising career to return to the Vietnamese jungle. There he disappears, only to resurface as a legend amongst the populace and the military alike. He’s gone AWOL along with a few other soldiers, and reigns over a small group of people he’s molded into believers. Capt. Ben Willard (Sheen) is sent to find him and bring him back if he can. If he can’t, then Kurtz is to be eliminated by any means necessary.
When we meet Willard, we immediately know he’s not in a good place. His hotel room is a mess and for a military man he seems keenly disinterested in changing that. When the Army comes for him he greets them in nothing but his underwear, clearly under the influence of some mighty powerful drugs. He’s cleaned up, shipped out and sent after Kurtz in short order, only getting himself together once someone’s given him a direction. It makes me wonder if the obsessive routine and discipline instilled in military men is meant as a psychological defense against the chaos of war. Once the battle starts, there’s no guarantee of anything at all — maybe it’s best to focus on the few things you can control, like your movement, the combat readiness of your gun, reflexes that you’ve trained to be automatic.
Willard meets a crew who takes him down the river to the border between Vietnam and Laos, and what he finds on his journey to Kurtz is a long line of people desperately holding on to a center in a situation where none exists. Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Duvall) is obsessed with surfing; it’s a good thing that a member of Willard’s crew just so happens to be a world-famous surfer in civilian life. This gets their crew a little closer to their destination, but only if they ride along with the company on the raid of a nearby village. This sets up the first of so many set pieces that illustrate the hopeless confusion, fear, anger and paranoia that rolled through the Vietnamese jungle like so much dense fog.
Through his travels Willard meets more and more people who are lost, unable to cope with the death all around them or the immediacy of it staring them right in the face. There’s one particularly haunting sequence where the men on the boat drop acid and marijuana, then come upon another group of Army guys holding a bridge across the river. It really feels like everyone around him is mad, staring into the night where gunshots fire from places they have no hope of pinpointing. Their only choice is to shoot back, to rail against the darkness, to try keeping it together when everyone around them is falling apart. Willard asks one of them, “Who’s in charge?” A man replies “I don’t know” between bursts of gunfire.
If this is what the civilized world leads to, then madness sounds oddly alluring. Willard begins to think that maybe Kurtz has gone through the other side of it and found something, and his thoughts become more open to the idea the deeper into the jungle he goes. When we finally meet Kurtz, of course he’s not what we expect — Brando was nowhere near what Coppola expected when he showed up, vastly overweight and hideously underprepared. But they found a way to make it work, and what was committed to film was incredibly memorable all the same.
Kurtz is more interesting as a legend than a man. It’s fascinating watching the society he’s gathered, how they interact with one another, their environment, the few outsiders who drift into their orbit. And the ultimate end to Willard’s journey is less interesting than the things he uncovers along the way.
Coppola plays Willard’s journey as a fever-dream, with long dissolves and the droning of helicopters and gunfire constant in your ears. It’s very easy to get lulled into the atmosphere of war, to feel it sticking to you; the desperation and insanity waiting for those soldiers out there is palpable. All it would take is one thing to set things off, for everything to go wrong.
That intense, moody feel is what makes Apocalypse Now so great and so hard to watch. There’s a lot of unpleasantness there; not just the terrible things that Willard does and witnesses, but the quiet where he has to reflect upon it. The movie wallows in its mood and invites you to sink into it as well. I’ve never seen a war movie that so deeply involves you in its emotional heart; most of them work on a more immediate level, all adrenaline and horror. Apocalypse Now slows down to force you to live with not only the long, loud battles but the longer silences in between. It’s there that the really awful stuff lurks.