Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of James Conrad’s novella, “The Heart of Darkness.” Set in the waning days of the Vietnam War, it involves an American special operations Captain Benjamin Willard, who is sent far up the Nùng river, and into Cambodia, to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz has reportedly lost his mind and established a little kingdom of his own in the boondocks, complete with a ragtag army of fellow deserters, local indigenous peoples, and lunatics. Willard joins a patrol boat crew that gets past the large Viet Cong base at the mouth of the river thanks to a timely intervention from the U.S. Air Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Kilgore. From there, Willard and his fellow PBR mates head further up the river and encounter a number of scenes that illustrate how the father they get from friendly territory, the deeper they descend into a realm of war-borne madness. By the time find Kurtz, who lives as some kind of deranged demigod in an ancient Cambodian temple, we are in truly undiscovered country. The big question isn’t necessarily if the mission to kill Kurtz will succeed, but whether it even matters any longer.
Apocalypse Now has been called both a pro-war and anti-war film, but Coppola himself described it as an anti-lie film. His thoughts on the matter are perhaps best captured by one of Kurtz’s monologues when he ridicules how the Americans drop fire upon entire villages, but won’t write the word “fuck” on their planes because it is considered obscene. Kurtz has a point. And not a small one, either. To that end, one of my favorite lines of criticism on this movie comes from Roger Ebert, who praised the movie because it goes far beyond the Vietnam War and looks at war itself—specifically, the truths about ourselves that war reveals, but we would rather keep hidden.
I think about that point a lot when I see this movie, and for me, the film’s biggest moment of truth occurs early in Willard’s journey, when Lt. Col. Kilgore’s fleet of Air Cav gunships blow the living hell out of that Viet Cong stronghold. Kilgore is a man clearly convinced of his own immortality, and is having the time of his life visiting havoc upon the enemy. Against a backdrop of so much madness throughout the rest of the movie, it’s easy to write off Kilgore as just another flavor of insanity. He delights in playing Wagner over loudspeakers as he blitzes his targets from above. He is more interested in making sure soldiers who surf can get a proper break along the battlefield than in making sure the battle is finished. And when fighters napalm a nearby tree line to wipe out the last mortars menacing Kilgore’s surfers, he gives his infamous speech about the smell of napalm in the morning. Most folks remember that moment, but forget what happens right after it, when he pauses and tells the bewildered soldiers around him who just heard all this, “Some day this war is gonna end.”
He says that line as a warning to the other soldiers. It’s not every day that you get to ride in on gunships, blast a few dozen of the enemy and go surfing right after every day, so enjoy it while it lasts. Kilgore doesn’t say these things because he’s nuts, though. He does it because he simply likes war. And in a movie where damned near everybody else is driven nuts by the spectacle around them, Kilgore’s stability and certainty is as jarring as it is truthful. More of us love war than we care to admit. And Kilgore’s exhilarating battle scene underscores that in a big way.
For every person who witnesses the spectacle of battle and is horrified or repulsed, there is another invigorated by it. It has always been so. For a time, especially when this movie first came out, it was easy to imagine that the only proper response to war was to recoil from it and decry it. But that is untruthful. If Apocalypse Now is anything, it is about the truth of war. And Kilgore’s pointed lament that none of them can do this forever, that every war eventually ends, is one of the most truthful moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Speaking the truth is rarely easy. But it is always important. Especially when it’s about war.