Study Guide

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now Introduction


Release Year: 1979

Genre: Drama, War

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola

Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando


Which do you prefer waking up to in the morning: Folgers in your cup or napalm burning in a jungle?

The correct answer, of course, is Pop Tarts.

But Apocalypse Now is a film about people who prefer the napalm option, with a bottle of whiskey on the side and Richard Wagner blasting on the speakers. They're professional warriors trapped in the nightmare of 'Nam. It's the rumble in the jungle, the battle on the beach, the quiver on the river, the….

Okay, okay, we'll stop.

Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad's famous novella Heart of Darkness. Conrad's story is Belgium's exploitation of the Congo in the early 1900s, while Coppola's movie is about the U.S. fighting in Vietnam. Both deal with the same big themes—the nature of evil and power, suffering and redemption…you know, the usual light film fare.

Both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now depict a journey down a river in search of a man named Kurtz, who represents the darkest recesses of the human heart. And it's not a fun and games, Huck Finn-type journey either.

No, it's a descent into hell.

  

In the movie, Colonel Kurtz is an Army Special Forces officer who's gone off the grid over the Vietnamese border, terrorizing the Viet Cong with torture and murder. He's raised his own private army of tribal people who worship him like a god and has a kind of gruesome Survivor: Cambodia thing going on. After hearing rumors about Kurtz's brutality, his superiors decide he's gone totally insane and want Captain Benjamin Willard, a trained assassin, to find the colonel and "terminate [him] with extreme prejudice." This turns into one very demented jungle river trip, involving Playboy Playmates, various psychoactive substances, surfing, and a battle set to Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

Heads roll—literally. Lots of them.

Legendary screenwriter and fan-of-war John Milius started writing the script way back in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War was still happening. The screenplay was stuck in development for years and years, but eventually Francis Ford Coppola signed up to direct it. He'd recently made some films about an Italian family's business called The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

Yeah, the guy knew how to make epic movies.

Making Apocalypse Now drove everyone insane. Lead man Martin Sheen had a heart attack (at age 36), and director Coppola thought about suicide more than once. At one point, the set was destroyed by a typhoon; costs were out of control; it took two years to edit all the footage.

But when the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, everyone recognized it was a masterpiece. It won the Palme D'Or (like the Best Picture Oscar but classier in French). It scooped up an Oscar nom for Best Picture, and you'll find it on just about everybody's list of best war movies of all time. It took in about $150 million in global ticket sales. (Triple that number for the present-day amount.) No Star Wars, for sure, but not bad for a complex, disturbing, psychological war flick.

Along with Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now has become one of the all-time classic Vietnam War movies. It's a dark parable of the brutality of human nature, and a seriously trippy river ride into the heart of darkness.

Wake up, Shmoopers, and smell the napalm.

What is Apocalypse Now About and Why Should I Care?

War—what is it good for? Apparently it's very good for the movie industry. From Birth of a Nation to American Sniper, hot wars to cold, it's a tale as old as time and Hollywood's been telling it a lot.

The risk, of course, it that it's easy to glamorize war, especially when the cause seems just and stories of sacrifice and bravery can inspire and reassure. The exciting action of battles and dogfights can keep you on the edge of your seat trying to contain your urge to shout, "USA! USA!" and toss your popcorn at the Nazis or Martians on the screen.

Coppola says, "Slow down. War is hell, not a real-life version of Call of Duty 4."

Apocalypse Now is a classic anti-war movie, like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Grand Illusion. It suggests that much of war isn't really about high ideals or righteous causes. In the case of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now doesn't make the war look like it was about defeating communism. It depicts it as senseless slaughter without justification, embodied in the brutal and irrational Colonel Kurtz.

The movie doesn't really hit you over the head with its anti-war theme. It's not really a political film; it's a psychological one. It tries to give you a sense of what the war was really like for the people fighting it, piling absurdities onto a sense of doom. (If that sounds like a description of High School Musical 3—yes, you are correct.)

As a psychological thriller, the film explores a horrifying premise: that given the right set of circumstances, any of us are capable of descending into brutality. It's a study of what happens to people when they're forced into situations where death and terror are the norm, and where they've lost faith that there's any rationale for what they're doing. Both Willard and Kurtz have been damaged by their wartime experiences, and while Kurtz might seem the more extreme, Willard knows he's seen the heart of darkness, too.

Many returning vets are haunted by what they had to do in battle, things that violated their own personal morality and left them with a crushing sense of guilt (source). Apocalypse Now says that war has its own unique morality and it's not up to us to judge what people had to do under those punishing circumstances.

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Apocalypse Now would agree: the real jungle is on the inside.

Trivia

Clint Eastwood was approached to play the role of Willard, but he turned it down. One of he reasons? The story was "too dark." Seriously, Clint? We've seen Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River. (Source)

Brando had failed to read either Heart of Darkness or the script for the film, for that matter. Coppola spent weeks discussing Heart of Darkness and his role with him, while production came to a halt and 900+ cast and crew members sat around probably trying not to get heat stroke or malaria. (Source)

At the end of the opening scene where Martin Sheen breaks a mirror and cuts his hand, he started sobbing and tried to attack director Coppola. Is that what they mean by "method acting"? (Source)

Dennis Hopper didn't have to do much acting to come across as a manic, rambling journalist. He said he was using pot, amphetamines, and LSD during much of the shoot. We're sure he just did it for his art. (Source)

Harrison Ford plays a character named Col. G. Lucas in Apocalypse Now—a clear homage to George Lucas, who was friends with Coppola and Milius. Lucas directed Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars, which made Ford's career. (Source)

Apocalypse Now Resources

WEBSITES

Apocalypse Now Rotten Tomatoes Page
If you want to read some reviews of Apocalypse Now—positive reviews or those by crotchety dissenters—look no further. Just don't mention Metacritic… They're arch-rivals.

Apocalypse Now Filmsite Page
This is a site. With film info on it. About Apocalypse Now. How much more specific do we need to get than that? It has a synopsis and things like that.

Apocalypse Now Redux Metacritic Page
Basically the same kind of thing as Rotten Tomatoes, its arch-rival. They're like the Montagues and Capulets. Except the Metacritic page is for the Apocalpyse Now Redux cut of the movie, for some reason.

BOOKS

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
If Apocalypse Now left you with a hankering for dark parables about imperialism, look no further. This book was the original inspiration for the movie.

The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie
If you want to take a deep dive into the making of Apocalypse Now and other dimensions of the film, here's your golden ticket to the Willy Wonka World of Apocalypse Now facts.

Dispatches by Michael Herr
Dispatches is a crazy, fragmented, psychedelic classic of Vietnam War reporting. The author, Michael Herr, helped write the script for Apocalypse Now.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

SNL's Apocalypse Parody
It's a total shame that the video of this isn't available, but here's the transcript of the genius SNL sketch where Francis Ford Coppola is the totally out-of-control rogue director whose crew worships him like a god but who's going over budget, building sets just to blow them up, and slowly losing it. Naturally, United Artists studio heads send someone into the jungle to terminate the production with extreme prejudice.

"Telluride: Francis Ford Coppola Spills Apocalypse Now Secrets on 35th Anniversary"
Coppola gets chatty, talking about how Brando had to use a tape recorder with an ear-piece to remember his lines and about how he (Coppola) goaded Martin Sheen into punching his own reflection in the mirror—spilling real blood all over.

"An Interview with John Milius"
This interview with Milius gets into his love of war, the way he wrote Apocalypse Now, and his beef with modern-day movies (of course, this was back in 2003). It's a treasure trove.

"My Favourite Cannes Winner: Apocalypse Now"
Writer Alex Hess effuses about his deep and abiding love for Apocalypse Now. What's with these Brits misspelling "favorite" all the time?

Thumbs Way Up
The late great Roger Ebert, the Dean of American Film Critics, reviews one of the all-time classics. He liked it.

"10 Things You Probably Never Knew About Apocalypse Now"
This article discusses the real-life inspiration for Kurtz, why animal rights activists hated Apocalypse Now, and a bunch of other things (okay, eight other things, cause it's out of ten, right?).

"17 Fascinating Facts about Apocalypse Now"
The internet is all about lists, so here's another one. Except this time, it's been amped up to seventeen facts.

"The Strained Making of Apocalypse Now"
Robert Sellers discusses just how fraught the making of Apocalypse Now was, from a disastrously overweight Brando to the illegal use of cadavers as props on set.

New York Times Says "Meh"
The New York Times' critic, Vincent Canby, gave Apocalypse Now a decidedly mixed review. He had nice things to say about a lot of it, but hated the ending—didn't like the whole Kurtz part of the movie. Maybe he was just missing the young Brando.

TCM Article on Apocalypse Now
Turner Classic Movies is all about classic movies. It's in the title, right? So, naturally, they must have something to say about Apocalypse Now.

VIDEO

Apocalypse Now—Original Extended Trailer
There's some cool music in this trailer—The Doors and The Stones—and it hits some of the movie's big highlights without giving too much away. What more can you say for a trailer?

Martin Sheen Interview on Apocalypse Now
Sheen suffered for his art, having a heart attack on the set of the movie. So he's got to have something to say about it…

Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola Discuss Apocalypse Now
Sheen and Coppola sit down for a friendly chat. It's very friendly, in fact. Coppola knits Sheen a sweater as a present. (Okay, that doesn't actually happen. But they're clearly friends.)

Dennis Hopper Talks about Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando
Hopper talks about his hyper performance in Apocalypse Now. He's a lot more mellow here than he was in the movie.

Clip: "The Smell of Napalm in the Morning"
You can tell they knew this was going to be a big line. Just look at the way they focus on Duvall as he hits the line. They knew what was up.

"Money, Method, and Madness": Making Apocalypse Now
Coppola contemplates suicide on set, feeling like the movie's going to be terrible. He and the other actors reflect on the utterly mad experience of making the movie.

Francis Ford Coppola Interviews Screenwriter John Milius
The director and screenwriter go deep into film in this interview—breaking down Apocalypse Now and the art of filmmaking.

Coppola's Wife Discusses His Behavior on the Set of Apocalypse Now
Since it looked like Apocalypse Now was going to be a disaster, Coppola started to lose it. His wife covers this dark period in this clip from the documentary she made about the movie, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.

AUDIO

"The End" by The Doors
The Doors were a favorite among soldiers in 'Nam, and "The End" has a particularly apocalyptic feel to it. After all, the apocalypse is the ultimate end.

Apocalypse Now—Full Soundtrack
There's lots of sixties classics on here—plus Wagner, who's sort of an outlier in this crowd but equally awesome.

"Voyage" from the Apocalypse Now Soundtrack
Lots of weird electronic noises on this one. Sounds ominous. Francis Ford Coppola had an assist from his dad, Carmine, on arranging these parts of the soundtrack.

"Finale" from the Apocalypse Now Soundtrack
This is another father-and-son effort from Francis Ford and papa Carmine.

"Ride of the Valkyries" by Richard Wagner
We wouldn't be doing our duty if we left this off the soundtrack. This is probably the most famous musical moment in the whole movie. Now, thanks to this, the average American listens to Wagner all the time.

IMAGES

Apocalypse Now Poster
The helicopters almost look like birds, flocking by a blood red sunset. There's also an Asian vibe to the art, indicating the movie's location in Vietnam.

More Apocalypse Now Artwork with Helicopters
This is another close-up image of some of the promotional art for the movie, featuring more helicopters superimposed over a sunset and mist.

Another Apocalypse Now Poster, This Time With Brando's Face
Brando looks like a menacing titan, with the lights of war and a bloody sun around him. We can see Willard's face up by the sun, too.

Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) Emerges from the Water to Kill Kurtz
This is a great visual, kind of creepy—the assassin emerging to kill.

Dennis Hopper as Kurtz's Photojournalist Fan-Boy
The camera catches Hopper, somewhere in the middle of his babbling monologues.

Extras
Here's Martin Sheen with some of the Ifugao locals who played the roles of Kurtz's Montagnards. We could swear it's Emilio Estevez. Oh yeah, Emilio is Sheen's son. He kept the real family name, unlike his brother Charlie.

Extras
Sorry. Animals were harmed in the making of this movie.

Even Kurtz Has a Boss
Coppola directing Brando on the set.

A Cigarette Now
A rare moment of R&R for our beleaguered director.