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Apocalypse Now Movie Review

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G. D. Spradlin, Jerry Ziesmer, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, James Keane, Kerry Rossall, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Linda Beatty, Bill Graham

Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Before he left production to work on Star Wars, George Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now. How weird is it to imagine a world where two of the most influential movies in cinematic history, one beloved and one revered, may not have existed?

And Lucas isn’t the only thing these two titans of cinema have in common. They both explore the dark side of humanity. They both focus on the internal battle of good and evil. They even both star Harrison Ford (he even plays a character named G. Lucas in Apocalypse Now!).

But where Star Wars shows us that good always wins, Apocalypse Now isn’t so sure. Sometimes the dark side overcomes us and the better angels of our nature. This is especially true in war, where it seems every side is the dark side.

For a film that’s so controversial, the plot of Apocalypse Now is actually quite simple. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is on a mission to penetrate into Cambodia, locate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and terminate him with “extreme prejudice.” Kurtz, who has set himself up as a god somewhere in the jungle, is committing actions that are not sanctioned by the U.S. government. Even worse, he’s become a danger and an embarrassment to the U.S. and must be eliminated.

For the majority of the film, we follow Willard’s journey up the (fictional) Nung River to locate Kurtz. He is accompanied by four others: the boat’s commander, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall); the chef (Frederic Forrest); an inner city kid looking for some action (Laurence Fishburne); and Lance (Sam Bottoms), a surfer who’s more often stoned than sober. However, only Willard knows the reason for the mission.

Along the way, Willard’s crew meet the fanatical Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Kilgore’s scenes are some of the best in the entire film, mostly because he’s a complete lunatic who will risk just about anything to ride a good wave. Totally, dude.

The turning point in the film comes when Willard’s boat stops a sampan in order to check its cargo. A misunderstanding causes someone on Willard’s crew to open fire, killing everyone on the sampan and seriously injuring a young girl. The crew takes the injured girl on board to get medical attention, but Willard can’t afford the delay. He executes her, perfectly illustrating the ruthlessness that can hide inside anyone. From this moment on, everyone on the boat sees Willard differently.

As the boat continues down the river, the rest of Willard’s crew are picked off one by one. Eventually he arrives at his destination, greeted by a drugged-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper). After about 2 hours, we finally meet the elusive Colonel Kurtz, who spends the last 30 minutes babbling, quoting poetry, and mumbling about the horrors (“THE HORRORS!”) he has seen. Willard, who is now torn between his duty and admiration for the man, must decide the best course of action.

It is in these final sequences that the meaning of Apocalypse Now finally takes form. What director Francis Ford Coppola is investigating is the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, particularly those in the upper military echelons. Willard isn’t under orders to kill Kurtz because he’s switched sides, but because he is a renegade, living by his own rules (small wonder that the U.S. Army “declined to cooperate” in the production of this film).

Unlike other films about the Vietnam War, such as Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now pushes us beyond the battlefield and into the dark places of the soul. It’s a film not so much about war as it is about how war reveals the truths in us that we would be happy never to uncover.


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