The allegory—river journey as journey into darkness of the human heart—was ripped directly out of Joseph Conrad's classic novel, Heart of Darkness, which provided the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. In Conrad's book, a sailor, Marlow, describes the journey he took up the Congo River in Africa to retrieve a Belgian businessman named Kurtz.
Marlow discovers that the Belgian government has transformed the Congo into an imperialist nightmare, subjugating and killing the local Africans while extracting all the country's resources. When he finally reaches Kurtz, he discovers that Kurtz exemplifies this madness. Even though he talks about his high ideals, he's turned himself into a ruthless tribal leader, lording it over the Africans who follow him. Taking the dying Kurtz back down the river, Marlow hears Kurtz utter his last words: "The horror… The horror…"
In Apocalypse Now, the river journey is very similar: things start off violent and keep getting worse, before Capt. Willard (the movie's Marlow) finally reaches Kurtz's complex. In the same way that Marlow encounters the dark heart of Belgian exploitation in the form of Kurtz, Willard encounters the dark heart of the Vietnam War in his Kurtz.
For Willard, it's also a journey into his own psyche. He comes to realize that he's more like Kurtz than he'd like to admit. After putting a gravely wounded Vietnamese woman out of her "misery," he says in voiceover:
WILLARD: I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren't in the dossier.
Come to think of it, Huck Finn is on a journey of self-discovery via a dangerous trip upriver, too. So are Gail and Tom in The River Wild. Ditto Aguirre and the guys in Deliverance.
What is it about rivers?
First, just make sure you know what we're talking about.
Okay, now let's talk juxtaposition.
Coppola uses the juxtaposition of contrasting images and themes throughout the film. Probably the best example is when Kilgore obliterates a village and beach so his guys can go surfing. The men are in full combat gear in a cramped helicopter about to rain death on the village, while Kilgore and Lance debate the benefits of heavy vs. light surfboards. While the young soldiers are still cowering in fear and bullets are still flying, Kilgore screams at them to change their clothes and grab their boards.
There are lots of moments like this:
These moments of high contrast are part of what gives the film its surreal, hallucinatory quality. By putting all these absurdly contrasting images together—normal life vs. war, light vs. dark—the director's telling us that war is the worst absurdity of all. You can't make sense of it, so don't even try.
In some scenes, like the opening ones, images are even layered on each other, like when the helicopters and jungle intermingle with the image of Willard lying on his bed. We sure know what he's thinking about.
Nothing good ever happens when you get off the boat. Nothing. Zip. Nada. As Chef mumbles after his brief tiger encounter, "Never get outta boat."
If you're not attacked by tigers, you'll stumble into a massacre or get eaten up by the jungle like Kurtz. The boat is safety and "civilization." It keeps going upriver; it has the radio, their lifeline, that keeps the crew in touch with the rest of the army. Off the boat, there's only chaos.
Willard agrees with Chef:
WILLARD: Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f***ing program.
Problem is, you can't keep the jungle away from the boat forever. Chief gets speared by tribesmen on the shore. Willard has to get off the boat to hunt down Kurtz and nearly gets himself killed. Chef ends up as one of the disembodied heads. When Willard finally gets back to the boat after killing Kurtz, it means he has rejected the savagery of the jungle and is returning to the order and the comfort of the boat, right?
Maybe not. When the command center voice crackles over the radio, he switches it off. Willard's learned that nowhere is safe, that the regular army's mission in Vietnam is an illusion.
General Corman gets all philosophical (and a little melodramatic, in Shmoop's opinion) on Willard when discussing why Kurtz must be killed:
CORMAN: Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
The Lincoln quote comes from his first Inaugural Address. The movie strongly suggests that Kurtz isn't the only one who's abandoned the "better angels." The entire American leadership in Vietnam has done the same thing. Kurtz is just a more honest version of the same. As Kurtz says at one point:
KURTZ: What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? A lie.
Kurtz believes he's just extending the original logic of the war: subdue and kill the enemy. Corman believes that Kurtz has slipped over the edge into irrational evil. And Willard gets to learn that everyone is capable of having a very dark side.
Surfing is an all-American pastime: think Beach Boys and people chugging kale shakes before heading back to the shore.
That's why it's crazy to see helicopters blasting away at the Viet Cong before touching down and letting their crew go surfing. It's incongruous, this most joyful American pastime dropped smack into the middle of a war zone.
When Col. Kilgore orders some of his soldiers to surf while they're still fighting the Viet Cong, they're hesitant. Explosions and gunfire are erupting all around. Willard wonders if this is such a great idea, but Kilgore's totally cool with it:
KILGORE: If I say it's safe to surf this beach, captain, it's safe to surf this beach. I'm not afraid to surf this place, I'm not afraid to surf this f***ing place!
But what about the Viet Cong?
KILGORE: Charlie don't surf.
Charlie was a slang term American soldiers used to refer to the Viet Cong. There's definitely a harsh tone of cultural superiority there. Kilgore gives himself permission to destroy the village just to clear out the beach for the Americans to surf. A good wave is worth a few dozen Vietnamese lives, don't you think?
This theme is the same as the one in Conrad's novel. Substitute Americans for Belgians and Vietnamese for Congolese, and you've got one "civilized" world power trying to impose itself on a country of people seen as inferior and disposable.
A ferocious man-eating tiger is one of the terrors the crew encounters. Willard and Chef see it when they venture on shore and look around in the jungle. When the tiger jumps out toward them, they freak out and fly back to the boat. Chef has a nervous breakdown, raving about the beast:
CHEF: A f***ing tiger, f***ing tiger...I don't wanna take this goddamn s*** man...I didn't come here for this, I don't f***ing need this. I didn't get outta the eighth grade for this, man…. All I wanted to do is f***ing cook, I just wanted to learn to f***ing cook. All right, it's all right, it's gonna be all right...ever get out of the boat...bye tiger, bye tiger...
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.
Puppies. Who doesn't love themselves some puppies?
After the crew foolishly guns down a group of Vietnamese civilians whom they mistake for hostiles, they take a puppy from their boat. We see Lance bundling it up later on, carrying it as they venture further down the river.
The puppy's totally innocent. He just wants to chew on people's sandals and pee on things. He represents the innocent people that the guys have just shot to pieces. The puppy humanizes the whole slaughter scene; this is a family with a beloved little pet. It kills us to watch it.
No big secret: in the 1960s, lots of people were doing drugs. LSD was the hallucinogen of choice, easily available and affordable. There are lots of old people (hey—who you calling old?) around who still have acid (LSD) flashbacks when they're standing in front of a Red Box or buying paper towels at CVS. You can't buy your Snickers until it's over. It's not a good thing.
Hallucinogenic drugs will mess you up, mmmkay?
Surfer-soldier Lance Johnson hasn't learned these lessons yet. In fact, he drops acid just as they reach the last U.S. outpost on the river.
LANCE: Hey you know that last tab of acid I was saving. I dropped it.
CHEF: You dropped acid? ...Far out.
This doesn't get him killed as they're walking around, but it makes the war seem like some sort of strobe-light, fireworks freak-out. Like being at an Avicii show. The whole film has that dreamy, trippy quality, no LSD needed.
You could argue that the movie is saying that the Vietnam War itself is like a national acid trip—a bad hallucination. The soldiers encounter incidents that feel almost hallucinatory in their strangeness—surfing with Kilgore, the tiger, the Playmates, the last outpost, and finally Kurtz. Unfortunately, it's all real. There's no way out of this bad trip.
Scantily clad women dancing seductively in front of soldiers who've been isolated, sexually deprived, and in a constant state of anxiety and stress—add alcohol and what could possibly go wrong? When Playboy Playmates come to perform at a USO show, the solders go nuts. They start storming the stage, yelling, "Take it off!" and "You f***ing b****!" The Playmates quickly evacuate on their helicopter. Two soldiers grab onto the helicopter's skids, but then fall into the water.
This is another example of the travel to the dark side, where the soldiers' primal urges get the better of them. It could have devolved into a pretty dangerous scenario. It's a lot like the massacre of civilians on the boat, except that time it was fear that led the soldiers to act crazy.
Compare the Playmates scene with this one from South Pacific and see how much movie-making changed between 1958 and 1969.
Same issue, very different treatments.
If you're stuck in Vietnam on the same boat as Capt. Willard and you're looking for some light reading material to distract you from the horrors of war, you can pick up a newspaper and read an article about Charles Manson.
We see, at one point, that there really is a newspaper article about Charles Manson lying around on the boat. Why? Well, Manson was a charismatic cult leader who seduced a large group of people (known as the "Manson Family"), convincing some of them to commit horrible murders, including Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the famous director Roman Polanski, and several of her friends.
Manson's a lot like Kurtz—a charismatic cult leader whose followers worship him like a god. They're both part of what the novelist Philip Roth has called "the indigenous American berserk" (source).
Guess things weren't any better back home.
Kurtz may enjoy cutting off heads, but he's a man of many interests. Poetry is apparently one of his passions.
In one of the American photojournalist's babbling speeches, he tells Willard:
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll...uh...well, you'll say "hello" to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you. He won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, "Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life? 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you'"...I mean I'm...no, I can't...I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's...he's a great man! "I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas..."
The lines "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you" are from a famous Rudyard Kipling poem entitled "If." The poem's basically an evocation of the kind of hardcore, tough, stoic individual Col. Kurtz wants to be, containing lines like these:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
Kurtz is all about that kind of intense willpower and personal fortitude. It's what he thinks the American leadership in Vietnam is lacking.
Kurtz loves dark, emo poetry. How else is he going to express his tormented soul?
He reads lines from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" as Willard and the photojournalist sit nearby:
KURTZ: We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
Alas! Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…
Kurtz is probably thinking that these "hollow men" are the American leadership, the confused people, empty of reason, who sent him into combat and now want to kill him for doing what they asked him to do. Kurtz has been hollowed out, too, by all the brutality he's witnessed.
Fun Fact: the epigraph at the beginning of "The Hollow Men" reads: "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." This is like looking into an infinite hall of mirrors; we're watching a film based on Heart of Darkness in which Kurtz is reading a poem with an epigraph taken from Heart of Darkness about a man named Kurtz.
The photojournalist earlier quotes another line from Eliot.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas…
This comes from the "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It's one of the bleakest, most despairing lines in literature. In other words, just perfect for this film.
Putting severed heads everywhere just screams "Dark Ages." Maybe Kurtz could try getting pastel lamp shades and laying down some tatami mats?
We get the sense Kurtz thinks that having severed heads and crucified bodies everywhere makes a statement: brutality (and scaring the daylights out of your enemies) is the only way to win the war. He learned that "lesson" when his enemies hacked off the inoculated arms of the children in a village. It was a kind of sickening revelation to him. The trauma of seeing that was a turning point in Kurtz's descent into madness, although he views it as a moment of great clarity for him.
Helpful hint from Shmoop: if you run into someone with severed heads all over their lawn and it's not Halloween, get out ASAP.
When Willard hacks Kurtz to death, it syncs up with the scene of Kurtz's followers ritualistically killing a water buffalo outside—just like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon syncs up with The Wizard of Oz when you play them both at the same time. (It's true—they do.)
Not only did the water buffalo sacrifice win the American Humane Association's stern disapproval—since an animal was harmed (killed) in the making of this movie—but it symbolizes the idea that Kurtz's own death is a ritual sacrifice. Willard says that the jungle itself wanted Kurtz dead.
According to Francis Ford Coppola, he intended the scene to depict Willard killing the darkest aspect of himself, represented by Kurtz. Religious animal sacrifices are typically done to purge the people of their guilt, and we're meant to think that this is what's happening to Willard.
Afterward, Willard's faced with the choice of becoming the new king of Kurtz's followers, the same way the killer of the king in ancient pagan rituals would become the new king, according to the 19th-century book The Golden Bough. (A copy of The Golden Bough is visible among Kurtz's belongings.)
Willard declines the deity job. Who needs the pressure, and anyway, it doesn't come with health insurance or paid vacation.
Kurtz dies murmuring these words:
KURTZ: The horror…the horror…
It's his version of saying, "Seacrest out."
But what is "the horror," other than a quotation from Heart of Darkness? It could be Kurtz's final assessment of his own actions and what he's seen, the horror of war and the horror of what people are capable of doing to others. It could be a commentary on human nature in general. He could be talking about Jake and Vienna or Plan 9 from Outer Space. It's meant to be ambiguous. Regardless, Kurtz didn't die happy.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When we first meet Captain Willard, he's stuck in a Saigon hotel room waiting to hear about his next mission. Sounds cool, right—minibars and TV? Not really. Survivor wouldn't even debut for another twenty years.
We learn pretty quickly that Willard has all this psychological pain from his previous tours of duty in Vietnam. Also, he's a man of action who wants to be out there in the fight. Captain Willard clearly isn't made for this kind of stasis. He's a trained assassin, all about the adventure of the hunt. His ordinary world is a nightmare.
Two soldiers arrive and drag the sorry, drunken Willard into the shower. Then, they escort him via helicopter to see the men who will give him his mission, Lieutenant General Corman and Han Solo—er, Colonel G. Lucas.
They tell him they want him to kill a crazy American officer, Colonel Kurtz, who's been going beyond the limits of his mission and killing people without the government's consent. (Gotta fill out that paperwork.) Kurtz is living with his private army of indigenous followers in Cambodia, beyond the official limits of the war. They instruct Willard to "terminate" Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."
Willard accepts the mission, but feels weird about it. Even though he's assassinated other people, he now has to kill a fellow American, and that just doesn't feel right. He's not entirely sure if he'll go through with it. And he later learns the disturbing detail that another soldier, Captain Colby, was sent to kill Kurtz but ended up joining him instead. Will Willard go rogue, too, running around in the forest wearing body paint with Kurtz?
Willard gets to know the different crew members of the boat sent to escort him up the river to Kurtz, but the man who teaches him the most about how the Vietnam War is being conducted is Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. Kilgore's a total lunatic who seems to be loving the war. At one point he says, regretfully, "Someday this war's gonna end." To everyone else, that would sound like good news.
Kilgore conducts war with minimal interest in saving civilian lives. He's also unhinged enough to attack a Viet Cong-controlled village mainly because it's next to a beach with great surfing. Helping Willard get to the mouth of the river is just a secondary concern.
Kilgore's crazy, and lets Willard soak up his madness. But he doesn't represent evil like Kurtz does. Hanging out with Kilgore is just putting on training wheels for encountering the big man.
When Kilgore escorts Willard and the other crew members to the mouth of the river, he attacks a Vietnamese village and Viet Cong base in the process. Even though Willard's already been doing covert stuff and assassinating people in Vietnam, this is his symbolic initiation back into combat—and the audience's.
As villagers run away screaming, the helicopters blast the Viet Cong with machine guns and rockets. After storming the beach, Kilgore leaves playing cards on dead bodies so the enemy knows they were killed by Americans. After calling in an airstrike and unloading napalm on the village, Kilgore says, wistfully, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
Willard's definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Willard and the boat crew—Chief, Mr. Clean, Chef, and Lance—head down the river and run into a bunch of challenges. After a tiger leaps out at Willard and Chef, Chef has a nervous breakdown.
In a disastrous and tragic miscalculation, the crew also kills three Vietnamese civilians on a boat. The crew go aboard to see if they're working for the Viet Cong, and when a woman makes a sudden movement, Mr. Clean and the others machine gun the trio to death. It turns out the lady was just trying to protect a puppy.
If that was a test at resisting the brutality of war and retaining some humanity, it was an epic fail.
They meet other Americans, like soldiers fighting at the last U.S. outpost before Cambodia. However, these would-be allies are no help at all. They don't seem to have a commanding officer. There's also a slightly earlier encounter with a group of soldiers watching a bunch of Playboy Playmates putting on a USO show. But things get out of hand when the soldiers rush the stage and the Playmates have to scramble back to their helicopter.
As they get closer to Kurtz, Lance pops open a smoke grenade just to watch it billow (he's high), and the enemy notices from the riverbank and starts firing. Mr. Clean gets killed.
Finally, they enter Cambodia. Kurtz isn't exactly building Disneyland out in the Cambodian jungle: he's lined the riverbank with skulls and crucified bodies. A "Beware of Tiger" sign wouldn't have been enough?
When they finally arrive at Kurtz's compound, his private army escorts the soldiers ashore, where a wacked-out American photojournalist babbles at them about how great Kurtz is.
When Kurtz himself makes an appearance, he regards Willard with humor. Willard's here to kill him—but he's totally outnumbered by Kurtz's warriors. Kurtz tells him he's just "an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks." Given all he's been through to get there, that's gotta sting.
After Willard leaves Chef on the boat with instructions to call in an airstrike if he doesn't return after a certain number of hours, he sets off to kill Kurtz. Kurtz rambles on for a while, and has Willard thrown into a cage.
Fortunately for Willard and all the people in Kurtz's army, Chef doesn't get a chance to call in that airstrike (which would've probably killed Willard too). One of Kurtz's warriors hacks Chef's head off and Kurtz casually throws it in Willard's lap. Willard screams. He's thinking, can we please get this ordeal phase over with right now?
Kurtz lets Willard out of the cage, knowing full well that Willard's going to kill him. He's almost inviting it—he's had enough.
After some more rambling with Kurtz, Willard summons up the courage to grab a farm tool and then emerge dramatically from the water, silently sneaking ashore. As the Cambodians nearby ritually slaughter a water buffalo, Willard silently enters Kurtz's inner sanctum and hacks him to death. Kurtz dies, speaking his chilling last words (totally ripped from Heart of Darkness): "The horror…the horror."
Willard: 1. Kurtz: 0.
Willard still has to deal with Kurtz's army, though. Fortunately, they seem filled with respect, as if Willard has replaced Kurtz by killing him. They're not going to pick a fight with a man capable of murdering their god.
The Cambodians drop their weapons and make way for Willard, who grabs Lance (who's apparently been mixing it up with the Cambodians at the sacrifice) and gets on the boat. They head back downriver into Vietnam.
Willard has been reborn, newly made. By replacing Kurtz, the Cambodians view him as filling the same god-like role as Kurtz. He's encountered evil, met it face to face, and dispatched it. He's recognized that he and Kurtz are similar on one level, but he's rejected the celebration of mindless violence that Kurtz represents. He's struck down the person who most exemplified the chaos of and bloodshed of Vietnam. Will Willard feel newly redeemed? Resurrected as a person cleansed of his sins? Ready to go back to the real world?
Willard's first act upon getting back on his boat is to turn off the radio when it broadcasts the army's attempt to locate his position. It's not clear why he's doing it, but the implication is that he's also rejected the army's version of the war and, like Kurtz, is disconnecting himself from it.
The elixir is self-knowledge and knowledge about the folly of this war, but the director leaves it ambiguous exactly what Willard's thinking or what he's learned.
Although the movie doesn't give an actual date for when any of its events are happening, it might be around November of 1969, since there's a newspaper with an article about the Manson trial lying around the boat, and that's when the trial happened. The war ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese.
Despite the beaches and sun, Vietnam wasn't actually a hot tourist destination in the 1960s and 1970s. The Vietnam War kind of ruined that for everyone. (Now you can go there and drink virgin piña coladas to your heart's content.)
In Apocalypse Now, Vietnam is all beaches and jungles—extremely hot, humid beaches and jungles. Everyone's bathed in sweat most of the time. We see peaceful rivers, lovely beaches, and beautiful palms gently swaying, all of which are either bombed, shot up, or strafed with napalm. We're witness to the slow, steady destruction of a beautiful country.
Much of the film takes place on the river, as Willard and crew pass army outposts, villages, groups of Viet Cong, and endless stretches of menacing jungle. By using the trip upriver to tie the action together, Coppola gives us a series of set pieces that could each be mini-films on their own. A set piece is described by screenwriter John August as "a scene or sequence with escalated stakes and production values, as appropriate to the genre […]. Done right, set pieces are moments you remember weeks after seeing a movie" (source).
Yeah, some of those scenes sure stick with you.
The movie makes the jungle feel like a nightmare or a fever dream. It's all so surreal: soldiers surfing in the middle of battle, Playboy Playmates escaping from crazed troops, a tiger suddenly leaping out of nowhere, Lance Johnson dropping LSD in the middle of a battle. The movie's trying to make the audience feel like the Vietnam War wasn't a conflict with real goals, just a senseless, crazy nightmare. The film evokes the feeling of what it must have been like to be there: chaotic, disjointed, nonsensical.
"There is no way to tell [Kurtz's] story without telling my own," says Captain Benjamin Willard. "And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine."
Sometimes people criticize voiceovers, arguing that movies should "show and not tell." Fair point. Really famous voiceovers, though—like those in Sunset Boulevard, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now—show that this technique can work.
Capt. Willard functions as the movie's first-person narrator. He's our surrogate: we see what he sees, since he mainly acts as an observer. The movie never ranges too far outside Willard's range of knowledge; we don't know more than he does, and the voiceover helps us understand his actions in the film.
It's no big revelation to call Apocalypse Now a war film. You obviously didn't think this was a rom-com. But what kind of war film is it?
Apocalypse Now definitely seems to be more in the anti-war camp, along with All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, and Paths of Glory. In fact, Coppola has said that he believes that all movies are by necessity anti-war movies.
Most films portray war as meaningless slaughter, not as a great struggle for ideals. That might be because they deal with more controversial wars: Vietnam in Apocalypse Now and World War I in those other films we just mentioned. Movies about World War II still portray war as brutal and terrifying, but they usually suggest that the struggle against Hitler was the right thing to do and that the sacrifice was worth it. Same for films about the American Revolution.
Apocalypse Now is a psychological thriller because—well, just look at Kurtz. Willard's a troubled soul, too, and he shares his psychological journey in his voiceover narration. The movie takes us into a world where war has messed with the minds of both the hero and the villain.
Finally, the movie's an epic quest because it depicts a sweeping historical event on a large scale (the Vietnam War) and features a main character going on a long-distance journey to confront a mysterious and frightening enemy. The film, like the novel on which it's based, can also be considered a powerful social commentary on the nature of "civilization" and the illusion of "progress."
The moral of this story is that it's all a jungle out there.
When main screenwriter John Milius saw a hippie wearing a button-pin with the words "Nirvana Now," he decided to title his film Apocalypse Now. Nirvana is supposed to be final goal of Buddhism, a state of bliss, free from suffering. Instead, Milius' title implies total destruction and death—the end of the world. (Source)
The meaning of the Greek word "apocalypse" is "unveiling of the truth." And since Willard learns the truth about war and evil as he journeys up the river, that could be another dimension to the title's meaning.
We don't actually hear the title spoken; we just see it as graffiti scrawled on the wall of Kurtz's compound: "Our motto: Apocalypse Now." Who wrote it there? Somebody who spoke English, so maybe Kurtz, the photojournalist, or Colby (the assassin who decided to follow Kurtz).
It makes sense that Kurtz himself might've written it, since he's embraced total destruction as the meaning of his own work. Willard sees that Kurtz has written in a manuscript, "Drop the bomb! Exterminate them all!" He knows an apocalypse when he sees one.
In a shocking final scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death. "The End" by The Doors adds a crazy, anarchic tinge to the proceedings. The fires of the animal sacrifice blaze outside.
But after Kurtz is dead and has spoken his last words—"The horror…the horror…"—what's Willard going to do? Are Kurtz's followers going to kill Willard?
It turns out that they aren't. They just look at him, kneel, put down their weapons, and let him walk through. They're acknowledging him as the new god, and that could be his new mission, if he chooses to accept it.
He didn't go through all that trouble to kill Kurtz only to take Kurtz's place and start the whole thing over again. Then the government would have to send someone to assassinate him. And the movie was already way over budget.
Willard takes the strung-out Lance by the hand and guides him out of the tribe. As they head down to the boat and hop on board, we hear Kurtz's last words, "The horror…the horror…," again. In some cuts, the film fades to black. In another version, we see images of burning jungle and hovering helicopter fly by, just as we saw at the beginning.
Willard's escaped the cycle—or has he? His last act on the boat is to turn off the radio when he hears the command post calling him. Will he go rogue? Has he just had it with the army and the war? Shmoop, like Willard, is too shell-shocked to think about what he'll do next.
When you're loaded up on F-words and wartime carnage, you're gonna get labeled with a hard "R." Chef goes on long, profanity-laden rants, and we see Vietnamese civilians shot dead. Then there are the severed heads that Kurtz uses to decorate his compound. We're diving headfirst into the nightmare of war—and if that doesn't earn you an "R," what will?