It’s been forty years since Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece Apocalypse Now graced American cinemas and brought with it a gritty, realistic view of the horrors of the Vietnam War.
It holds nothing back when it comes to the violence of war, even if it is set as a modern retelling of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. I think most people can agree that the film is damn near perfect, so let’s examine how the film deals with war and the people in it.
For me, the most upsetting scene is Robert Duvall’s surfing fanatic Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore making light of the conflict. He is solely focused on having fun and enjoying the waves, instead of struggling with his decision to kill the enemy soldiers. All he wants to do is surf, and everything he does revolves around his own personal wants and needs. He seems in a foul mood until he meets former professional surfer 3rd Class Lance Johnson, and only then will he listen to Martin Sheen’s request to drive him up the river.
It is a blatant disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and the character seems all too real to imagine people like him don’t exist. The Vietnam War was a flawed conflict to begin with, and America’s cockiness after winning two world wars led soldiers to believe there was no way the “greatest country in the world” could lose or do any wrong. That bravado is reflected in Kilgore’s attitude throughout the film, and I’m sure the character acted that cocky throughout his deployment.
Some people could view parts of the film as promoting the war as “state-sponsored tourism.” Vietnam seems like a tropical paradise where you can drink beer and surf, and according to Apocalypse Now, the U.S. Army will provide you with everything you need to have a good time. The USO will even fly in Playboy Bunnies to entertain you when you’ve seen too much bloodshed.
These images could be used for actual recruiting purposes, so long as they don’t show the part where the napalm the hell out of villages. I remember talking to a recruiting officer in high school; he said the Army would be a great place to travel the world and play in the band. Nowhere did he mention training how to shoot a gun or become a tool for the military to use however they see fit. The promise of travel and camaraderie wasn’t enough to make me abandon my pacifist values.
I grow increasingly concerned with the U.S. Military’s attempt to convince 18-year-olds to risk their life for their country when they have just earned the right to vote and cannot yet drink alcohol. The military uses imagery like that mentioned above, as well as a free college education, to bolster their forces. I had many friends in high school who dreamed of a military career, spending their time amassing different colors of camouflage pants to wear to school and kills in Call of Duty.
Those friends I talked to after their deployment were disenchanted with the military and felt the promotional materials lied to them about what being a soldier consisted of. Those scenes in Apocalypse Now both show the cockiness of the American War Machine and warn against promoting the military as an extended vacation.
Apocalypse Now Synopsis:
In Vietnam in 1970, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) takes a perilous and increasingly hallucinatory journey upriver to find and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-promising officer who has reportedly gone completely mad. In the company of a Navy patrol boat filled with street-smart kids, a surfing-obsessed Air Cavalry officer (Robert Duvall), and a crazed freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), Willard travels further and further into the heart of darkness.
Apocalypse Now was released on August 15, 1979, by United Artists. The film earned $78 million domestically and over $150 million worldwide while in theaters.
Today it’s considered by many as one of the greatest movies ever made. Nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Coppola), and Best Supporting Actor for Duvall, and won for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.
Categories: Movie Anniversaries