- Why it’s the best
It’s the best because it’s treating a complex and controversial subject in an artistic manner, on one hand, and on the other, suprinsingly realistic. Such a controvserial subject as a colonel who rises against the army which sent him to fight couldn’t have been realized if the men who worked on it were not as committed to making beautiful things as they were. The cast was brilliant and Francis Ford Coppola really put his soul into the creation of this movie, trying not only to give its spectacular visual aspect, but to make us understand the more subtle messages that were hiding in the small details of the story. These messages are indeed deep and can even influence our view on the war.
Finally, I say that Apocalypse Now is the best war movie because it also has an incredible story, which follows not only its characters’ motivations, but also the destructive effects of the dehumanization of the war, played once again by a formidable cast, who alongside with a fantastic main director and a brilliant director of photography (Vittorio Storaro), who gave color to a subject which is as grim as deeply rooted in our souls.
And with this said, I will begin my analysis and interpretation of the movie:
ANALYSIS (Warning, it contains spoilers duuh):
War destroys people
The movie starts with the famous scene of the Vietnamese forest being completely blown off. We hear The Doors’s brilliant song “The End” on the background and we are drowning into the mind of Captain Willard, the first person we see, and some of his memories from the jungle.
When people hear about a war movie, they are often thinking about explosions, shootings, people killing each other, booby traps and so on and so forth. Here we see something else. We see a story about a man and about the effects war has on him.
Captain Willard is a heavy drinker and a smoker. We understand from his first lines that the only thing he wants is “to get back into the jungle”.But “he’s here”(Saigon). ”Getting softer”. He said yes to a divorce. Now he’s alone, but this doesn’t affect him. What does affect him is that “every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger”. His hatred for the communists grows exponentially, as well as his impatience.
War has separated Willard from everything but the jungle. At once he lost the love for his wife and for his home, and only has the love for warfare and for demolition. War has made him a machine, capable only of killing.
Then, we see him completely losing his mind. We see an incoherent sort of dance (which I advise you to keep in mind because it is important), then drinking, hitting the mirror and then crying. He is lost.
When Willard received the mission to kill Kurtz, this happened in a very nice and cozy building, at a table, while eating a hot meal. It’s important to see the difference between the Willard’s apartment and the house he got into. It’s important to see how different are the lifestyles of those who fight, and those who order. And Kurtz’s tape suggests this in a very explicit way. Kurtz despises the generals for the luxury they live in, and he isolates himself in the Cambodian jungle, surrounded by an army of locals who treat him like a God after he kills two Vietnamese agents under the pretext that they were double agents.
Somehow it makes sense that Kurtz has understood the nature of the war he is fighting and doesn’t want to fight anymore. In this scene we will hear the Special Forces representative saying that Kurtz fought a war in his heart , between good and evil, and “good doesn’t always win”. Keep this in mind, because it’s once again important. For now on, the answer to the question “What is right and what is wrong?” is only for you to discover.
The most realistic representation of war
Colonel Kurtz understood the nature of the war. And in the next scenes, there are suggestive things that make pretty clear what war actually is.
When Willard with his crew arrives in the midst of the war, the first person Willard encounters is a cameraman who is just shooting around, but who behaves like he is directing the war (and who is actually Francs Ford Coppola). We see destroyed buildings, hurt children and the star of this first part: Colonel Bill Kilgore, the only one with a hat instead of a cap and sunglasses.
We see the Colonel throwing “death cards” on corpses while a voice in the background tells the Vietnamese that the US Army is there to protect and to help them. This is the true face of the war they were fighting, a hypocritical and destructive face, because they were sent there to kill, not to help.
And Bill Kilgore is just the right representative for this harrowing face of the war, because even his name suggests it. He is not there to help anyone, he is there to carry some orders given by the men who told Willard about his mission. Yet, he does his job perfectly as the man in charge, and besides the fact that he kills the Vietnamese like bugs, he is a father and a friend of his soldiers. We see Kilgore singing and drinking with his comrades, while maintaining a friendly and compassionate expression, trying to cheer the soldiers up and giving them some of the distractions they had at home (surfing, music), because he knows somehow that they are not supposed to be here, but they are, so if they can’t be at home, he will bring the home in Vietnam, regardless of how the Vietnamese think about it. Kilgore represents almost all the “qualities” of his soldiers: ignorance, unconditional hate, hypocrisy, selfishness and carelessness, while maintaining a love for his people, for distractions, for beauty and for the surfboard.
That is the first phase of the process in which the soldiers are losing their humanity and their minds, having no respect or empathy for the so-called “gooks”, killing and burning them with napalm. They lose the emotions for other people, but still, they at least have themselves…
Almost the entire movie, Willard is a static and unresponsive character. Someone could say that he completely lacks emotions and he can’t have them. War, as I said before, had this effect on him, so he is now alone and nostalgic. We see him drinking almost everywhere alone, without his comrades.
Besides the napalm, he starts smelling something else. He looks at Colonel Kurtz and starts to admire him for his balls; he sees some sort of hero, someone who could have easily been the best of the best, but who chose to be a fugitive and a “criminal”. Why was that? And why Captain Colby, who was sent to kill Kurtz before Willard, is now an ally of his? These questions become so obsessive for Willard that is the only thing that he cares about through the entire movie.
This is pretty well shown in the sequence when they arrive at a U.S. base supply depot and Willard “starts barking” when a Sergeant doesn’t want to give him fuel, so he grabs him violently. Willard doesn’t care about anything else but his meeting with Kurtz.
At this supply base, a show is taking place, where Playboy bunnies are coming down from a helicopter to dance and to entertain the soldiers. Here we see the second phase of their dehumanization, when they are almost killing each other in order to touch the bunnies. They stopped caring even for themselves and only want pleasures to help them get over the war.
Here is a good remark over the American values. The soldiers get some boost for their sex-drive just to fight more. Sex is used only for manipulation and motivation.
After they leave behind the supply base, they encounter the first personal drama of their trip. They board a Vietnamese boat to search it for weapons. And after this, Clean starts to “clean” the Vietnamese because a woman ran into Chef to protect her “fucking puppy”. Here we finally see that these soldiers are nothing more than inexperienced and non-judgmental children who woke up with a gun in their hands. And we have to say that Kurtz was right when he said that most of the US Army was made up from incompetent soldiers.
But this doesn’t stop here. After the crew sees that the woman was still alive, Chief proposes to take her to an ARVN. You know what that meant? That meant that they had to turn back and to put off the meeting with Kurtz, a thing that Willard could not accept. That’s why he shot the woman without thinking.
Here Chef starts to cry and to see the true’ horror of this war, which is not necessarily the fact that they kill each other, but the fact that evil does exist in the hearts of his so-called comrades. So if his comreds are evil, and the Vietnamese are also evil, then what is good?
But the trip doesn’t stop here. They encounter the last US Army outpost on the Nung River: the Do Luong bridge, or better said, “the asshole of the world”. Finally, we see the last stage of the dehumanization of the soldiers. We see them crawling desperately to the boat in order to get on it because they wanted to get out of the bridge. There we see the other soldiers shooting incoherently the “gooks” and completely losing the respect for the other soldiers. They are desperate and broken. The only thing they want is to get out of the jungle.
After they get past the bridge, they start to die one by one. Clean dies the first as he is the youngest and the most inexperienced. Chief dies next, killed in a savage way, with a spear. Chef is the next, being killed by Kurtz. They have seen too much and their hearts couldn’t bare more darkness.
Lance, unsurpinsingly (as we will discover), doesn’t die.
Willard and Kurtz
We have to ask ourselves here why Willard was sent after Kurtz in the first place. We should know after all the encounters he had with the soldiers or the enemies that Willard doesn’t actually have any empathy for nobody and his heart is sufficiently dark to survive the monstrous trip.
So what happens when two completely dehumanized men are meeting each other? Well, let’s take it from the beginning. After they land on the Cambodian shore, they encounter the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), who tells them that “out here, we are all his children”. This line is a strong meaning for how Colonel Kurtz is seen in that part of the jungle, as a god. Not only this, the photojournalist also behaves like he has been enlightened by Kurtz. Some time after this, Willard is taken by the people and brought to Kurtz. It’s important to see that Willard is dragged through the mud, and when Kurtz starts telling Willard about the Ohio River, he also starts mentioning that “it’s like Heaven fell on the earth in the form of gardenias”. This strongly suggests why Kurtz told his people to drag Willard through the mud, to give him a sense of home and to wake him, to bring him on the ground, and to wake him up from the nightmare he has been in till then. Kurtz here makes the connection between the gardenias that grew next to the Ohio River (Willard’s whereabouts) and the mud.
Kurtz, however, he behaves like an omniscient and omnipotent deity, who knows Willard’s name without even asking him. We see his face mostly covered in darkness, a strong suggestion for the darkness which was found in his heart. By telling Willard that he expected someone like him, Kurtz admits to himself that the darkness is spreading like “malaria” through the soldiers. But after that, he finally tells Willard the most truthful thing in the whole movie: “You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill”. This line sums up all the opinions Kurtz has on the US Army and on the war.
“The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad”
This line gave me goosebumps, because here I finally knew what happened to Kurtz. When the photojournalist tells Willard that Kurtz likes him, this doesn’t mean that he respects him or considers him some capable man. On the contrary, Kurtz sees Willard as someone who can bear even more darkness than he did, and so, he thinks Willard has the potential to get out of the jungle with his soul still clear. Kurtz was destroyed by the things he had done and the realization that he was also just an errand boy. That’s why he hid himself in the jungle to look after the Cambodians, to try and to repay the spiritual debts he thought he had to some of the people he caused useless suffering, and to try and spread his knowledge to those who attained the last stage of darkness. His soul was mad because he was tormented by all the horrors he saw and did, and by the fact that he did them for no reason at all.
But Willard has the potential of knowing what Kurtz knew and still getting out of the jungle with both his mind and soul clear. When Kurtz gives Chef’s head to Willard, this was only a little test to see how far the dehumanization process went. And in that painful moment, the only thing Willard did was to call for Jesus Christ. Once again, Kurtz has the opportunity to deify himself, by showing up the next day surrounded by children.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Once again, we have the end theme, when Kurtz reads the Hollow Men by T.S. Elliot. We should remember here that the movie started with The End by the Doors and it’s ending with a piece of poetry written by Elliot. Here, the end is not really the end, but just the announcement of a new beginning, a new beginning Kurtz dreamt of, a world in which the atrocities of the war will not be known by those who didn’t understand what horror is. And even Kurtz’s final lines are a whimper: “The horror… The horror”.
“He broke from them, then he broke from himself”
We should understand by now that Kurtz is completely dehumanized and his heart turned dark. Now that it is broken, he can see objectively everything.
“Because it’s judgement that defeats us”
Kurtz has reached his breaking point not because of the horror that broke him, but because he suddenly realize what he was doing. He finally realized that was something wrong with the way the Army treated this war and he stopped and thought. And then, he couldn’t bear anymore, so he retreated in the heart of the jungle, where he could spread his knowledge only to those who had seen enough horror and suffered because of it. And another example of those is Captain Colby, who is there, and who is dancing in exactly the same way Willard was dancing in the first scenes of the movie. So at least, this “Dark knowledge” Kurtz was trying to spread is now in Colby and in Willard.
We remember the fight in Kurtz’s heart between good and evil, and by now, we should know that not the evil that has risen against his own people won, but the evil that has been buried inside him for a long time.
In the very end, Kurtz is not a villain anymore. He is a man who saw too much and did too much, and whose last wish is that his son will understand what he was trying to do. Besides, what he wanted the most in his last moments, was to be taken and killed like a soldier, not like an assassin, like the generals wanted him to be killed. His death scene is very ambiguous, but in my opinion, it makes a nice parallel with the cow’s sacrifice, denoting that Kurtz’s death was nothing but another sacrifice that war made in order to stop the horror, to bring and end to the darkness that was going to fill the hearts of the unprepared soldiers.
Finally, Willard steps out of the temple as the man who killed Kurtz and attained some kind of godlike state in which he possessed the heart of darkness and the knowledge which came with it. The Kurtz era has ended and the new era, an era that is supposed to be without horror is about to begin. This is being suggested by the fact that the Cambodians put their guns on the ground after Willard steps out of the temple.
The other characters
“Why the fuck did Lance survive that far?”, should be the first question you ask yourself. Well, as I said before, the trip was a travel through different stages of darkness and dehumanization, and only the hearts that were dark enough could have survived. Lance survived because, for him, this entire war in Vietnam was nothing more than a vacation. He was a surfer who got along pretty good with Bill Kilgore and who didn’t have any compassion for everyone to begin with. When they come to Do Luong Bridge, he was on LSD, suggesting one more time that the war was nothing more for him than a trip and a vacation. When Clean dies, the only thing he cares about is the dog because it reminded him of home.
Chef was, to begin with, “wrapped too tight for Vientnam”, always reading and sensitive to everything. In the tiger scene, he almost cried and after some Vietnamese innocents died for “A fucking puppy”, he really started to cry. It’s a nice metaphor for all the people Kurtz was talking about, the people who could not understand and bear the true horror, and so they shouldn’t have been there.
Chief tried to be a leader and to build relationships with everyone on the boat, but his decision of stopping to search the Vietnamese boat costed the crew a lot a of painful moments. We see that, even if he tried to do the right thing, he got only hatred for Willard and for the war.
Clean has been just an impulsive teenage boy, who shouldn’t actually have been in this war, just like many other teenagers who were there and played the role of cannon meat.
He plays as some intermediary between Willard and Kurtz, playing the ignorant buffoon who was indoctrinated by Kurtz’s philosophy, but who still doesn’t understand it perfectly. Even if the values that Kurtz was trying to “preach” were deep and ambiguous, photojourlanist’s words that are meant to describe Kurtz are “He reads poetry out loud man…”.
Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest films that have ever been created, and in my personal view, the best war drama out there. Apocalypse is, once again, a movie about people, and about their motivations, their desires and their sacrifices, depicted in an astonishing way both by the actors and by the director.