“The horror! The horror!”
Very few movies have been able to accurately capture the essence of the Vietnam War. Even better known movies in the “Vietnam War” genre have been too nationalistic and self-conscious to fully portray the ambivalent emotions of the time. We look at earlier, more patriotic portrayals of the Vietnam War on film with a grain of salt. We find these movies too one-dimensional to deal with the pain and terror that our soldiers experienced. “We’ll never make these mistakes again,” we say. And for the most part, we believe what we say. Of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now claims differently. As one of the first Vietnam War films to convey the gorey, less glamorous side of the conflict on screen, Apocalypse Now stands above the rest.
Apocalypse Now centers around our supposed hero, Captain Willard, and his quest to find a man who has deserted the US Military.
Before Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard emerges from an ancient temple, splattered on with blood and covered in black paint, before we even get a glimpse of the “hairy” Cambodian jungle that haunts Willard’s imagination, we come into contact with many colorful characters that refuse to be forgotten. There is, for example, Lieutenant Kilgore, a charismatic figure and one who truly believes in the war, though he would much rather be surfing. There is Tyrone, or “Mr. Clean,” a young African American soldier who in many ways is too naive to deal with the war that he was forced to fight in. Of course there is Colonel Kurtz, the man that Willard has been sent to look for. He is most memorable of all, a great American fighter who goes rogue and gets comfortable beheading those who question him. And there are many others, for each character seems to represent the many faces, nationalities, colors, and beliefs that clashed during that time. The characters themselves are the most accurate part of the movie.
True, Apocalypse Now is more a psychedelic vision of the chaos of jungle terrorism than an accurate, word-by-word retelling of the events of the Vietnam War. It has been criticized often for its lack of clarity and its jumbled-up storyline, not to mention its nearly three-hour long running time (and that’s not even considering the Redux version, which is short of five hours by about ten minutes). But these criticisms have little to do with the overall package. Regardless of these inconsistencies, Apocalypse Now is still a Technicolor sight to behold, complete with bloodlust, dense jungle, and a strong undercurrent of humanity.
Like other movies filmed in the 1970s, Apocalypse Now hinges on a newfound style of American realism. No more of that sugary happiness spoonfed to the public in the 1940s. Here, ethics are questionable and are no longer black-and-white. It is hard to choose which side to support, as both our main characters and the perceived villains are corrupted by the violence and immorality seen around them. The war itself is cross-examined, and the main theme is quite obvious: War is bad, and it brings out the bad in good men.
This is a theme that may be rather hard for people to watch. No one likes to think that things they previously thought were purely good are truly mixed-bags. Everyone likes to think that people are good, except for the enemy. But human nature is never cleanly cut. Humans are not bad themselves, but the human condition causes them to become evil. This, at least, is what Apocalypse Now argues.
Just for this brutal honesty alone, I give this movie five stars. But because Apocalypse Now includes so much more than that, I would willingly give it more. This film is unapologetically beautiful. It covers history, but the rose-tinted glasses through which we see this nostalgic film is red only because of the blood. This movie does not apologize for its violence or its directness, which is in part what makes it so valuable. There is such a strong human element in this film that is hard to describe, and is often unachievable in cinema.
Not considering the message of the movie, the film itself can be difficult to watch. Heads (quite literally) will roll. Innocents are killed in cold blood, and at times for no other reason than that they looked like the enemy or just were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The American soldiers also suffer unbearable cruelties, often the result being a splatter of red across your TV screen. Life matters little to the jungle, which itself is a force in this cinematic masterpiece.
Yes, Apocalypse Now can be hard to watch at times, but it is never false in its analysis of human conflict, never unoriginal, and certainly never unambitious. The blood on the screen, made even more vivid by the fading remnants of Technicolor imagery used at the time of filming, is disturbing to see, perhaps even more so because it is juxtaposed against the lush Vietnamese (but really, Philippine) jungle. The movie is perfect in its contrast between the innocent and the profane, although both mingle quite often. The youngest of soldiers swear, kill, and take drugs, but we also see that they are vulnerable. We see the effects of the war on the Vietnamese people and on these young soldiers. In the world of Apocalypse Now, no one is safe from insanity.
What movies often fail to do is make their audiences question the societies in which they live. Apocalypse Now goes beyond that and allows its audience to question the entire world it lives in. Imagine what society be like if there were no films that portrayed the ironic banality and the strange condition of the human spirit. That, my friends, would truly be horrifying.