Often heralded as one of the greatest war films of all time, evident by the fact I managed to pay attention for the entire length of the movie, Apocalypse Now certainly doesn’t disappoint. For those viewers looking for explosions and gunfire there is carnage aplenty, and for those viewers being roped into watching it by someone looking for explosions and gunfire: don’t panic. Apocalypse Now isn’t just mindless destruction, it’s also an engaging story about identity and the fragility of humanity when faced with extraordinarily stressful conditions. However at the resolution the story’s ending is fumbled but it’s not so clumsily handled that it spoils the rest of the movie.
U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is given a mission to terminate “with extreme prejudice” the command of Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), as he has gone insane and now leads a group of natives and rogue U.S. soldiers. Willard is accompanied on his mission by the crew of a navy PBR (Patrol Boat, River) Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), and Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller (Laurence Fishburne). As Willard and the crew travel upriver through Vietnam and into Cambodia, where Kurtz is hiding, they go through myriad experiences which provide snapshots of the war from a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village to a USO show. By the time Willard reaches the end of the journey he has gained insight into Kurtz’ mentality and their confrontation is not as straightforward as we might have expected.
The reason this film works overall is its lack of pretence; there are no projected falsehoods about the glory of war or that all soldiers are good, which is a brave stance to take, especially when your subject is the American military during the Vietnam War. The film doesn’t make assumptions or force an agenda on the audience about whether the war was right, or pass judgement on those who fought in it. Instead the film simply shows, or attempts to show, the Vietnam War as it was to provide context for the story. Apocalypse Now also has one of the most memorable scenes ever the helicopter scene. A group (flock? herd?) of helicopters descends upon a village raining down death from above on a Viet Cong controlled village with Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The scene has explosions, complex aerial manoeuvres, and even a couple of soldiers surfing which personally sums up the soldiers’ desire for some form, however brief, of escape from the horrors of the war better than Willard’s story.
The ending is where the film started to lose me. As Willard works his way through the jungle he slowly understands more and more of Kurtz as he reads intelligence reports on him and goes through escalating ordeals on his journey. By the time he reaches Kurtz’ hideout he seems enamoured, or at least intrigued, with Kurtz. However, Kurtz doesn’t really have the gravitas to make this whole situation believable. He has a whole group of indigenous people, as well as some turncoat soldiers following him like a demi-god carrying out atrocities for him and Brando’s performance had all the charisma of a drunken, flatulent Kristen Stewart. This is a prime example of a mistake the film makes a few times throughout, relying on telling us information instead of showing us. While it doesn’t pull me out of my engrossment most of the time it happens the fact that we’re told about this leader with an enthralling personality is a bit jarring. If he is supposed to represent the viable alternative to home or fighting in the army, I’m not convinced.
Apocalypse Now deals with tricky subject matter in a mostly interesting way while presenting a good, until the end where they pull a Lost and leave me a little confused and disappointed, story with characters who were fleshed out enough to be believable. It’s a shame that if any part of the film had to be sub-par, it was the ending; that’s when you want the journey to come together and culminate in to something which does the rest of the film justice. I found the ending doubly disappointing since the first two hours of the film, plus the message overall, did lure me into enjoying a genre which I would normally avoid due to its almost candid depiction of soldiers and war. It struck me as a blend of The Odyssey (as in Homer) and Dulce et Decorum est with some unforgettable action thrown in and it had me completely on board, so I was surprised to find myself drifting on a door while Celine Dion blared in the background. In the long run, I don’t think the ending completely ruins or negates the skilfully crafted film preceding it, so watch Apocalypse Now… Now!