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Featured Movie: Apocalypse Now

This 1979 movie was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story narrated by Marlow, who represents a company engaged in the ivory trade in the Congo. As he travels upriver to find the elusive company agent, Kurtz, he becomes more and more consumed by the jungle and begins to think more and more like Kurtz. In Apocalypse Now, much the same thing happens to Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) only now it isn’t the late eighteen hundreds, it is the twentieth century and the Viet Nam war.

The movie opens with Willard stuck in a hotel room in Saigon, waiting and wishing for a mission. As he narrates the film, he says, “and for my sins they gave me one.” He is assigned by General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) a mission in which he is to track down a renegade colonel deep in the jungle and “terminate his command”. The colonel has a sanctuary in Cambodia where he has an army of Montagnard tribesmen who both worship and despise him.

Willard’s journey upriver begins when he boards a Navy PBR (Patrol Boat River) to carry him toward Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). “The crew were mostly just kids. Rock and rollers with one foot in their graves,” he says. Along the way, he studies dossiers on Kurtz and begins to know the man better.

They come upon an attack on a Vietnamese village by the Air Cavalry led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his unit is supposed to escort them to the mouth of the river. Kilgore seems oblivious to war and seems to look at it as just another job. He only agrees to get the boat into the river after he discovers that the water at the mouth of the river is excellent for surfing. When the helicopters arrive there, they have to destroy another village. This is one of the best attack sequences ever filmed. As the helicopter force nears the village, they play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries on loudspeakers on one of the helicopters. “Put on psy war ops and make it loud,” says Kilgore. In one spectacular scene, he orders the tree line bombed with napalm.

Willard and the boat crew start up the river and you can see Willard’s mood change the farther they go. He realizes that Kurtz has discovered the madness and futility of war like he, too, is discovering.

The movie ends with Willard throwing down his machete and then the Montagnard tribesmen throw down their weapons. I suppose this is symbolism for the end of war.

The film was originally scheduled for a sixteen week shoot in the Philippines. This turned into 238 days filming. Sheen, at age 36, suffered a near-fatal heart attack while there. He returned to the filming location five weeks later. Marlon Brando showed up overweight and not prepared to shoot the film.

Apocalypse Now was nominated for many awards including best picture. Kramer vs. Kramer won that year.

This is probably the best war movie ever made. It shows the absurdity and futility of war and, as Kurtz discovered, what it takes to win a war. Francis Ford Coppola has done a magnificent job. Look for him playing the director of a television crew that is filming the war.

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Cast

  • Marlon Brando-Colonel Walter E. Kurtz
  • Robert Duvall-Lt. Colonel Kilgore
  • Martin Sheen-Cpt. Benjamin L. Willard
  • Frederic Forrest-Chef (Hicks)
  • Albert Hall-Chief Phillips
  • Sam Bottoms-Lance Johnson
  • Laurence Fishburne-Mr. Clean (Miller)
  • Dennis Hopper-The Photojournalist
  • G.D. Spradlin-General Corman
  • Harrison Ford-Colonel Lucas
  • Jerry Ziesmer-Civilian
  • Scott Glenn-Captain Colby
  • Bo Byers-Sergeant MP #1
  • James Keane-Kilgore’s Gunner
  • Kerry Rossall-Mike from San Diego