Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

“I don’t see… any method… at all, sir.”

During the Vietnam War, a captain (Martin Sheen) is assigned the task of finding and assassinating a mad lieutenant colonel (Marlon Brando) who has become a god-like figure for natives living deep in the jungle.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Assassination
  • Dennis Hopper Films
  • Francis Ford Coppola Films
  • Frederic Forrest Films
  • Harrison Ford Films
  • Jungles
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Martin Sheen Films
  • Robert Duvall Films
  • Scott Glenn Films
  • Vietnam War

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while “Francis Coppola’s epic about the madness – ‘the horror!’ – of the Vietnam War is considered controversial,” “there is really no volatile material,” and he adds that “the only cause for debate among people interested in the war itself is Coppola’s best, most authentic sequence: stoned, leaderless soldiers fight continuously behind enemy lines while headquarters has forgotten about them.” He writes that “many visuals are exciting, but the picture is annoyingly self-conscious,” and “too often Coppola seems to be calling attention to his artistry and imagination.” He asserts that “the boat trip comes across like a ride at Disneyland, where the special-effects men have prepared tableaux on the banks at every turn of the river”:

… and he concludes his review by noting that “the scene in which Sheen and Brando lie around philosophizing while Coppola gets super-pretentious with his camera and character placement recalls the similarly shot, ultra-boring scene of Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.”

While it’s not a personal favorite, I’m a bigger fan of this wartime flick than Peary. Coppola was nothing if not forthright about his own concerns with the film not making sense (see the must-see documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse [1991] for more on this), which makes it doubly impressive that the film actually does cohere. Sure, it’s more of a mood piece than a “rational” or straightforward adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness — but it works on its own terms as a surreal immersion piece. Coppola and his team set out to tell a tale of the Vietnam War that would highlight its deep absurdity and lasting impact on everyone involved, and in this, he succeeds.

We see characters ranging from an already-damaged captain (Sheen) who is shaken from an alcohol-fueled fugue to head out on a new mission:

… to the team of bureaucrats (including Harrison Ford) who cooly task Sheen with assassinating a member of his own military:

… to megalomaniac, helicopter-riding Lt. Colonel (Robert Duvall) who “loves the smell of napalm in the morning” and repeatedly insists to a California surfer named Lance (Sam Bottoms) that the war-ridden waters surrounding them are just fine to head out onto.

We also meet the other members of Sheen’s river patrol boat crew, including CPO Phillips (Albert Hall), “Clean” (14-year-old Laurence Fishburne), and “Chef” (Frederic Forrest):

… and eventually encounter a hopped up photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who takes Sheen to see the mysterious Captain Kurtz (Brando).

The final half-hour — taking place deep in the “heart of darkness” in the jungle — evokes all sorts of problematic issues related to colonialism and exoticism of native peoples, but it’s palatable given that this is precisely the film’s point: we went in to “help” a country we knew little to nothing about, and emerged more confused and damaged than ever.

Note: Watch for a brief “cameo” by Scott Glenn as a member of Brando’s cult.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast

  • Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography
  • Good use of an eclectic score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful classic.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Apocalypse Now (1979)

  1. A no-brainer must-see that benefits from more than one viewing.

    While it’s not a personal fave for me as well (which is not at all a comment on the quality of the film), I admire its intentions more than Peary does. I don’t agree that “the picture is annoyingly self-conscious,” and “too often Coppola seems to be calling attention to his artistry and imagination”. Nor do I think that the film ever falls into the territory of being pretentious.

    I lean toward thinking the film is brilliant – and can sympathize with Coppola’s fears during production that the film wasn’t going to make sense. It’s a subject that would create that kind of fear if approached in an uncompromising manner.

    I saw it on release – quite an impact in the theater – and maybe 3 or 4 times over the years. I also saw ‘Hearts of Darkness’ and the director’s cut version ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’ (which, on the one hand is interesting but, on the other hand, is not required viewing). So I suppose I have sufficiently immersed myself.

    Though Storaro’s work is flawless and arresting, to me this is less a film than (taking an operative word from the assessment here) a “surreal” state of mind. It’s not so much that you watch it as a regular kind of film: you let it wash over you and absorb it.

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