Apocalypse Now movie review & film summary (1979) | Roger Ebert (2022)

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Apocalypse Now movie review & film summary (1979) | Roger Ebert (1)

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Apocalypse Now movie review & film summary (1979) | Roger Ebert (2)Francis Ford Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now" was inspired by Heart of Darkness, a novel by Joseph Conrad about a European named Kurtz who penetrated to the farthest reaches of the Congo and established himself like a god. A boat sets out to find him, and on the journey the narrator gradually loses confidence in orderly civilization; he is oppressed by the great weight of the jungle all around him, a pitiless Darwinian testing ground in which each living thing tries every day not to be eaten.

What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.

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A week ago I was in Calcutta, where I saw mile upon square mile of squatter camps in which hundreds of thousands live generation after generation in leaky huts of plastic, cardboard and scrap metal, in poverty so absolute it is impossible to see any hope of escape. I do not mean to equate the misery of those hopeless people with a movie; that would be indecent. But I was deeply shaken by what I saw, and realized how precious and precarious is a happy life. And in such a mood I watched "Apocalypse Now" and came to the scene where Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) tells Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) about "the horror."

Kurtz is a decorated hero, one of the best soldiers in the Army, who has created a jungle sanctuary upriver inside enemy territory, and rules Montagnard tribesmen as his private army. He tells Willard about a day when his Special Forces men inoculated the children of a village against polio: "This old man came running after us and he was crying, he couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile, a pile of little arms. . . ."

What Kurtz learned is that the Viet Cong were willing to go to greater lengths to win: "Then I realized they were stronger than we. They have the strength, the strength to do that. If I had 10 divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment." This is the "horror" that Kurtz has found, and it threatens to envelop Willard, too.

The whole movie is a journey toward Willard's understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army's best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.

The film has one of the most haunting endings in cinema, a poetic evocation of what Kurtz has discovered, and what we hope not to discover for ourselves. The river journey creates enormous anticipation about Kurtz, and Brando fulfills it. When the film was released in 1979, his casting was criticized and his enormous paycheck of $1 million was much discussed, but it's clear he was the correct choice, not only because of his stature as an icon, but because of his voice, which enters the film from darkness or half-light, repeating the words of T.S. Eliot's despairing "The Hollow Men." That voice sets the final tone of the film.

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(Video) Siskel & Ebert Take 2: Vietnam War Movies - Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Hair, Hearts and Minds

Another crucial element in the ending is the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who has somehow found Kurtz's camp and stayed there, stoned, as a witness. He blathers to Willard that Kurtz is "a poet-warrior in the classic sense" and "we're all his children." In the photographer's spaced-out ravings we hear disconnected snatches of the poetry he must have heard Kurtz reciting: If you can keep your head when all about you . . . I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floor of a silent sea. . . ." The photographer is the guide, the clown, the fool, providing the balance between Willard and Kurtz.

Why has "Apocalypse Now" been so long bedeviled by rumors that Coppola was not happy with this ending? At the film's premiere at Cannes, I saw the confusion begin. Coppola originally intended to show the movie as a 70mm roadshow with no credits (they would be printed in a booklet). But the 35mm release would need end titles. After he was finished filming on the huge set of the Kurtz compound, Coppola was required by the Philippine government to destroy it, and he photographed it being blown up. He decided to use this footage over his closing 35mm credits, even though (this is crucial) he did not intend the destruction of the compound as an alternative "ending" to the film. Alas, confusion about the endings spread from Cannes into movie folklore, and most people thought that by "ending" he meant all of the material involving Kurtz. In the 20th anniversary DVD release, Coppola patiently explains all of this once again.

In any event, seen again now at a distance of 20 years, "Apocalypse Now" is more clearly than ever one of the key films of the century. Most films are lucky to contain a single great sequence. "Apocalypse Now" strings together one after another, with the river journey as the connecting link. The best is the helicopter attack on a Vietnam village, led by Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), whose choppers use loudspeakers at top volume to play Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as they swoop down on a yard full of schoolchildren. Duvall won an Oscar nomination for his performance and its unforgettable line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." His emptiness is frightening: A surfing fanatic, he agrees to the attack only to liberate a beach said to offer great waves ("Charlie don't surf").

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There is also the sequence where the patrol boat stops a small fishing boat with a family on board. A little girl makes a sudden dash, and the jumpy machine-gunner (a young Laurence Fishburne) opens fire, wiping out the entire family. It turns out the girl was running for her puppy. The mother is not quite dead. The boat chief (Albert Hall) wants to take her for medical treatment. Willard puts a bullet into her; nothing can delay his mission. He and "Chief" are the only two seasoned military men on the boat, trying to do things by the book; later, in a scene with peculiar power, the chief is astonished to be killed by a spear.

For me the most remarkable visuals in the film occur when Chef (Fredric Forrest), one of Willard's crew members, insists on venturing into the forest in search of mangos. Willard can't stop him, so he joins him. The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shows them as little human specks at the foot of towering trees, and this is a Joseph Conrad moment, showing how nature dwarfs us.

The rock 'n' roll soundtrack opens and closes with "The End" by the Doors, and includes disc jockeys on transistor radios ("Good morning, Vietnam!"). The music underlines surrealistic moments, as when Lance (Sam Bottoms), one of Willard's crew, water-skis behind the boat. It also shows how the soldiers try to use the music of home, and booze and drugs, to ease their loneliness and apprehension.

Other important films such as "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Casualties of War" take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned "America," only "the enemy," and one director told me, "It is all the same--we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .") But "Apocalypse Now" is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.

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In a way I cannot quite explain, my thoughts since Calcutta prepared me to understand the horror that Kurtz found. If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool's paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss. What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this.

Note: In my original review of "Apocalypse Now" I quoted the French director Francois Truffaut: "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." Coppola's joy and agony are revealed in"Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," a 1991 documentary by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper about the making of "Apocalypse Now," with personal footage and journal entries by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, who made secret recordings of Coppola expressing his doubts and discouragement as the project threatened to swamp him.

Film Credits

Apocalypse Now movie review & film summary (1979) | Roger Ebert (10)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Rated R

153 minutes

Cast

Marlon Brandoas Colonel Kurtz

Robert Duvallas Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore

Martin Sheenas Captain Willard

Frederic Forrestas Chef

Albert Hallas Chief

Sam Bottomsas Lance

Larry Fishburneas Clean

Dennis Hopperas Photographer

Directed and produced by

  • Francis Ford Coppola

Screenplay by

  • John Milius
  • Coppola

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FAQs

What is the point of the movie Apocalypse Now? ›

Apocalypse Now continually spotlights the ironies that accompanied the Vietnam War in particular and western imperialism in general. The film is not overtly antiwar, but it takes pains to reveal the atrocities of a war fought by the United States in the name of democracy and freedom.

What is the difference between Apocalypse Now 1979 and Redux? ›

A longer director's cut, titled "Apocalypse Now Redux", debuted on 11 May 2001 at the Cannes film festival. This cut was re-edited by Coppola and Walter Murch and features a new Technicolor dye prints with additional footage originally left out of the theatrical release.

Why is Apocalypse Now such a good movie? ›

Still, seeing the film on a big screen, with a surround sound system, is an essential cinematic experience. Apocalypse Now builds a vision of war around paradoxes and incongruities and grueling ironies. It interrogates the whole business of war without being reductionist or trite.

Is Apocalypse Now a perfect movie? ›

Apocalypse now is not only the best war film ever made but it's also one of the best films of all time as it won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes and it's constantly recognized as a benchmark in cinematic history.

Why is Apocalypse Now so controversial? ›

Variety reported that in the wake of the storm, the "U.S. military refused to cooperate, and there were claims that the governments of Australia and Philippines were pressured to deny production assistance to the film, which was considered to be taking a negative look at America's role in Vietnam."

What does the tiger symbolize in Apocalypse Now? ›

Chef's run into an incarnation of the enemy, the violence and brutality lurking inside the jungle. Like Kurtz, the tiger is a force of destruction. Yet, at the same time, it's got a certain nobility or dignity. The message is: this is my place and you don't belong here.

What does the ending of Apocalypse Now mean? ›

The horror, as Kurtz repeats in his death, is that it never ends. Willard sails away, silently, and we know that the Vietnam War would continue to wreak havoc and cause countless suffering. We know now that war still exists, and that the reason it exists is because the darkness within our own being is never-ending.

What does Redux mean in Apocalypse Now? ›

In a note released with the film, Coppola emphasizes that this new material was not simply shoehorned into the original version of the film, but that "Redux" is "a new rendition of the movie from scratch." He and his longtime editor Walter Murch "re-edited the film from the original unedited raw footage -- the dailies, ...

Which version of Apocalypse Now is best? ›

While the former cut of Apocalypse Now is about 182 minutes long, the latter was 202. As in the case of the definitively better Godfather 3: Coda cut, which trimmed 4 minutes off the original, shorter means better for Apocalypse Now. The theatrical cut is - by far - the best version of this surreal Vietnam War classic.

What did Kurtz do in Apocalypse Now? ›

Kurtz located his army, including their wives and children, at a remote abandoned Cambodian temple which they fortified. From their base, Kurtz led attacks on the local V.C. and the regular N.V.A. in the region. Kurtz employed barbaric methods not only to defeat his enemy but also to send fear.

Is Apocalypse Based on a true story? ›

But the actual plot of the book — the quest for Colonel Kurtz and the circumstances of his mysterious sway over both Africans and Europeans in the jungle — is purely fictional.

Is Apocalypse Now an allegory? ›

Apocalypse Now achieved its highest aspiration: Not only was it immersed in the historical period and place—Vietnam—but it was an allegory of people facing reality and truth. The truth of life and the nature of war, of man, of civilization and of savagery. That is why the novel Heart of Darkness worked as a model.

Is Colonel Kurtz a villain? ›

Kurtz, is the main antagonist of the 1979 epic psychological war film Apocalypse Now.

Does Willard become Kurtz? ›

As Kurtz is Willard's endpoint, so Willard is Kurtz's. Kurtz sees Willard as a receptacle for the philosophy that he has lived out in Cambodia. Kurtz wants to die but must first impart his knowledge to Willard so that the assassin will be able to denounce the war after he completes his mission.

Does Willard go insane? ›

Burnt-out special ops guy Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is going insane in a Saigon hotel room before he gets offered a very special mission.

Was the cow killed in Apocalypse Now? ›

Two water buffalo were also promised. "That was a big part of their compensation," he said. After his wife, Eleanor, a documentary filmmaker, captured the locals' first water buffalo sacrifice, he decided to film the second, equally bloody and brutal slaughter for the final scenes of "Apocalypse Now."

What's wrong with Apocalypse Now? ›

Catastrophes plagued the production. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. Coppola convinced himself he was to blame and one evening had an epileptic seizure. "We had access to too much money and little by little we went insane," he later confessed.

Is Apocalypse Now an accurate representation of Vietnam War? ›

Although Apocalypse Now is set within the historical backdrop of the Vietnam War, it is not historically accurate in the timeline of the war. However, where the movie lacks in factual evidence, it makes up for in its psychological portrayal of the war and the personal effects that it had upon the soldiers.

Why the human kills the tiger? ›

Tigers are poached for two main reasons: their threat or perceived threat to wildlife and/or people and monetary gain. Historically tigers were poached for furs. While there is still some sold illegally, increased public awareness campaigns and international trade controls have reduced this demand.

What does the river symbolize in Apocalypse Now? ›

The river also symbolizes transformation, as when Willard, hidden in the water, rises up from it as the new Kurtz before the assassination scene. While the river leads Willard to a place of death and despair, in the final scene it is also Willard's escape route.

Why was the tiger afraid? ›

Here's what tiger are afraid of: Tigers, like the majority of animals, are terrified of fire. The use of fire to keep tigers at bay has been practiced for decades by big cat “tamers.” Tigers are also frightened by strange sounds that they have never heard before.

Who killed Kurtz in Apocalypse Now? ›

These are the words spoken gasping by Colonel Kurtz on his deathbed. Butchered in the temple by Captain Willard, he is actually the victim of a higher will. His death has the solemnity, the sacredness of a pagan sacrifice.

Did Lance go insane in Apocalypse Now? ›

Actor Sam Bottoms admitted to being high or tripping during much of the shooting for real. ("We were bad boys," he remarked (source).) The trip upriver is its own hallucinogenic nightmare, so Lance's altered states of consciousness hardly even register as all that different from real life. It's all groovy.

What is the famous line from Apocalypse Now? ›

"We train young men to drop fire on people!" - Colonel Kurtz, 'Apocalypse Now'.

What kills Clean in Apocalypse Now? ›

One of the letters in the packet informs Willard that the U.S. military previously sent another man on the same mission to retrieve Kurtz but that the man is now operating with Kurtz. As Clean listens to an audiotape letter from his mother, the PBR comes under a surprise attack by Vietcong, and Clean is shot fatally.

What does Charlie mean in Apocalypse Now? ›

Charlie is the American soldiers' derogatory nickname for their enemy, the Viet Cong, and the surf-mad colonel is trying to persuade his troops to ride the waves, despite the bombs falling all around them.

What is the purple smoke in Apocalypse Now? ›

The use of violet-colored M18 Smoke Grenades can be seen during the "Purple Haze" scene, in the film Apocalypse Now (1979).

Who is the villain in Apocalypse Now? ›

Colonel Walter Kurtz, portrayed by Marlon Brando, is a fictional character and the main antagonist of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Colonel Kurtz is based on the character of a nineteenth-century ivory trader, also called Kurtz, from the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

What does Redux mean in movies? ›

The term has been adopted by filmmakers to denote a new interpretation of an existing work by the restoration of previously removed material. This trend began with Apocalypse Now Redux, which Francis Ford Coppola released in 2001, re-editing and extending his original 1979 movie.

Where does Apocalypse Now rank all time? ›

Apocalypse Now is ranked 14th - The Greatest Films.

Is there any truth in Apocalypse Now? ›

According to Britannica, "Heart of Darkness" is based on Conrad's own experiences as the captain of a riverboat in the Belgian Congo. But the actual plot of the book — the quest for Colonel Kurtz and the circumstances of his mysterious sway over both Africans and Europeans in the jungle — is purely fictional.

Is Apocalypse Now about PTSD? ›

From the jump, Apocalypse Now conveys the sense of a man riddled with PTSD, who's all but lost himself in the trauma. Willard's weighed down by the things he's seen and the things he's done, which have rendered him spiritually crippled and unable to escape this war's inexorable grasp.

Why did they steal the board in Apocalypse Now? ›

Willard steals Kilgore's surfboard early on because he believes sincere emotion is still possible, even in Vietnam. By the time of the sampan massacre, he's read about Kurtz and thought about Kurtz and pondered the decision to "get out of the boat" and reject lies.

Does Apocalypse Now portray war realistically? ›

“Apocalypse Now” accurately portrays the conflict between Special Forces and the conventional “straight leg” Army. Bureaucratic self-protection is a prime theme in the film, and was a terrible problem in Vietnam. This real-life Green Beret colonel, however, was not crazy, and was well connected.

What killed Clean in Apocalypse Now? ›

As the boat voyages through smoke from a smoke grenade thrown by Lance, Clean gets shot and killed while listening to a tape from home with his mother telling him not to get shot.

What is the famous line from Apocalypse Now? ›

"We train young men to drop fire on people!" - Colonel Kurtz, 'Apocalypse Now'.

What does the ending of Apocalypse Now mean? ›

The horror, as Kurtz repeats in his death, is that it never ends. Willard sails away, silently, and we know that the Vietnam War would continue to wreak havoc and cause countless suffering. We know now that war still exists, and that the reason it exists is because the darkness within our own being is never-ending.

How disturbing is Apocalypse Now? ›

Coppola's Brutal, Psychological and Horrifying Vietnam War Epic Is a Heavy But Necessary Watch. One of the best directed films ever. Apocalypse now is extremely fast paced, psychological and potentially disturbing for anyone younger then 13.

What are 5 events that can lead to PTSD? ›

The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:
  • Combat exposure.
  • Childhood physical abuse.
  • Sexual violence.
  • Physical assault.
  • Being threatened with a weapon.
  • An accident.

Can PTSD lead to death? ›

The more severe the PTSD diagnosis, the greater the likelihood of death from heart disease, the study showed. Vietnam veterans who experienced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were twice as likely to die from heart disease as veterans without PTSD, a new Geisinger study finds.

What does Charlie dont surf mean? ›

The phrase “Charlie don't surf” is a quote from the movie Apocalypse Now, which technically means that Vietnamese don't surf. Although, it more deeply symbolizes U.S. victory in the Vietnam War and that the victor can do whatever they want on the defeated enemies' homeland, which in this case is to go surf their waves!

What does Charlie mean in Apocalypse Now? ›

Charlie is the American soldiers' derogatory nickname for their enemy, the Viet Cong, and the surf-mad colonel is trying to persuade his troops to ride the waves, despite the bombs falling all around them.

Were there bodies in Apocalypse Now? ›

Real human corpses were bought from a man who turned out to be a grave-robber. The police questioned the film crew, holding their passports, and soldiers took the bodies away. Instead, extras were used to pose as dead bodies in the film.

Who was supposed to be the lead in Apocalypse Now? ›

One of the most famous movie recastings in Hollywood is when Francis Ford Coppola changed up the lead actor for his 1979 war movie "Apocalypse Now." Originally Harvey Keitel was cast in the role of Willard, who's on the hunt to assisinate a rogue Army Special Forces officer.

What does Redux mean in Apocalypse Now? ›

In a note released with the film, Coppola emphasizes that this new material was not simply shoehorned into the original version of the film, but that "Redux" is "a new rendition of the movie from scratch." He and his longtime editor Walter Murch "re-edited the film from the original unedited raw footage -- the dailies, ...

Does the Nung River exist? ›

The fictional Nung River is the setting of a literal and metaphorical journey. As the river takes the boat up to Cambodia and Kurtz, the crew moves beyond civilization to the heart of darkness within themselves. After Chef and Willard venture into the jungle, Chef screams that he should not have left the boat.

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