“War is hell,” the cliché proclaims, but it seems to be entertaining hell. Along with other ghastly subjects such as murder and vampirism, war ranks among the most popular and commonly used subject matter of filmed entertainment, and no war has yielded more or better films than the one in Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. Whether detailing the effects of the war by studying its aftermath or getting right into the heart of the battles, the Vietnam War has proven to be a source of boundless interest for filmmakers and moviegoers alike. Perhaps it is the moral ambiguity of Vietnam that makes it the most interesting war for film adaptations, and no films illustrate this ambiguity better than Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Apocalypse Now was the first and still, arguably, the best film to take place in the midst of the war itself, shot shortly after its ending in the mid-’70s and released on the brink of the Reagan era in 1979. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius supplant the metaphorical journey of its central character from 1890s Africa to the Southeast Asian jungle of the 1960s. Intimately tied to this shift in viewpoint is that, while Heart of Darkness‘s narrator, Charlie Marlowe, begins as a sane and stable man who faces madness and the inherent evil of mankind in the form of Mister Kurtz, Apocalypse Now‘s narrator, Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), has already been driven at least to the verge of madness by his previous Vietnam experience before the beginning of the film. This change of perspective suggests that morality and sanity had become much more tentative and ambiguous in the time of the Vietnam War.
At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival premiere of the film, Coppola stated that “My film is not about Vietnam; my film is Vietnam.” We are thrust into a world of madness with no moral center, an apt vision of conditions in the Vietnam War. This intention is evidenced not only by the chaotic and violent nature of the entire film, but also in the decision to make the story’s narrator a madman, thereby depriving the viewer of a more traditionally relatable gateway into the film’s story.
Just as the film itself “is Vietnam” in macrocosm, three of its central characters also are Vietnam in microcosm: Willard, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and Captain Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Willard has been in the jungle so much it has become who he is; in the film, he says of Vietnam: “When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” Kurtz and Kilgore are two sides of the same coin, the soldier gone mad from the madness of war. Kilgore is the joyful madman who revels in battle (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he says in one of the film’s most famous scenes. “Smells like victory”) and has managed to keep a tenable position in the military despite randomly decimating entire villages, joker123 the tune of Richard Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries,” for the sole purpose of clearing a neighboring beach so that he and his men can go surfing. Critic Michael Wood, in his article “Bangs and Whispers” from the October 1979 New York Review of Books, asserts that Kilgore should have been the Kurtz figure of the film, a man so flamboyantly insane that he provides a clear counterpoint to Sheen’s Willard, but the closer similarities between Willard and Brando’s Kurtz hint at a metaphorical journey of Willard into himself, into the darkest reaches of his own soul, that echoes his literal journey downriver to Kurtz’s lair. When he completes his assignment by killing Kurtz, he has perhaps silenced the encroaching darkness in his own heart.
Apocalypse Now‘s overall vision of madness – from Willard to Kilgore to Kurtz, along with fascinating side characters such as Sam Bottoms’s LSD-abusing surfer/soldier and Dennis Hopper’s fanatical photojournalist – paints a disturbing picture not only of the Vietnam experience, but of all humanity in a world that made the atrocities of Vietnam possible. As Coppola himself says about the making of the film in Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola’s 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, “We were out there with too much equipment, too much money and too much time… and we all went a little insane,” which can be seen as an astute criticism of America’s position in the war itself. Ultimately, Apocalypse Now is more than merely a war film, which may be why many critics consider it the best war film ever made, and perhaps even the greatest American film of any kind.