General William Tecumseh Sherman was right. War is hell.
Apocalypse Now is a guide to hell. Its journey through the jungle netherworld almost reminds you of Dante's Inferno—just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. The film stands in a long line of anti-war movies, exposing the brutality and nihilistic violence of combat. High ideals and patriotism don't seem to matter much in this particular version of the war in Vietnam.
Vietnam was an unpopular war back home. It wasn't clear to many Americans exactly why we were fighting, and it seemed increasingly unwinnable. Some commanders engaged in questionable operations. One officer, explaining why an entire community of civilians was wiped out, famously told a journalist that "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." That is so Apocalypse Now.
The movie's villain, Col. Kurtz, is the evil of war personified. With his severed heads and eerie ramblings, he incarnates all the chaos we've seen in war movies in one single, demented person. Willard's journey to confront Kurtz is also the audience's journey. We're headed up the same river, trying to discover what war is really all about.
Questions About Warfare
- What position does Apocalypse Now take toward war? Would its conclusions about war apply to all wars or just to the Vietnam War?
- How do Willard's feelings about war change throughout the course of the movie?
- How do Kilgore and Kurtz compare in their attitudes toward war?
- According to Apocalypse Now, why was the Vietnam War being fought?
Chew on This
Apocalypse Now depicts war as being fought for its own sake, not for any patriotic reasons. It is violence for the sake of violence.
Apocalypse Now argues that war can destroy even a person with high ideals.