Guest Review: Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now has always been preceded by the legendary stories of its troubled production, one of those cursed film enterprises (The Exorcist is another) whose backstories are almost as entertaining as the final product itself : in this case, weathering a typhoon that wrecked the sets; earning condemnation from the American Humane Association for filming the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo; Francis Ford Coppola attempting to direct Marlon Brando at this stage in his career; various haphazard budget overruns and casting adventures (e.g., Harvey Keitel dumped at the last minute for Martin Sheen, who subsequently suffered a heart attack during the shoot); and continuing delays in its release that ultimately earned it the nickname Apocalypse Later. All of this and more are detailed in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which makes a worthy companion piece for a night of Apocalypse Now.

The final result is hardly a flawless picture. Attempting to transpose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to America’s Vietnam adventure, the whole thing is very nearly torpedoed by Brando’s arguably unbearable performance as Col. Kurtz in the final hour, and it’s often marked by an almost narcissistic tendency to amp up the drama of scenes beyond what they can support. Yet for all that it contains numerous unforgettable sequences, such as the mission led by Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore to take the point of a river and drop Capt. Willard’s (Sheen) boat past a point of danger on his mission upriver. Watch for the Coppola cameo as a TV news producer in this sequence, attempting to direct the visuals of the military action, and look for how much is going on in any one of these scenes, with their tracking shots and explosions and helicopters diving into the action and amphibious vehicles leaving the water, and Duvall calmly striding through all of it. In those moments, it is riveting as spectacle.

One element that drew me to Apocalypse Now in the first place continues to draw me back, and redeems it still: the participation of Michael Herr, who gets a writing credit for “narration.” Herr is the author of the book Dispatches, a collection of journalism from Vietnam in the ’60s and early ’70s. Herr’s book is largely responsible for establishing the strange, hallucinatory, and death-fetishizing understanding most of us have now of that military enterprise: details as simple as the ubiquity and omnipresence of helicopters, or as profound as the alienation of Americans who refuse to give up the pleasures they know such as surfing and acid-rock, even under fire, can be traced to his work.

Herr’s sensibility haunts everything most central here: the breakdown of chains of command, order giving way to chaos, a loss en masse of moral compass. “Do you know who the commanding officer is here?,” Capt. Willard demands of the soldiers he encounters in a nighttime scene, dug in and attempting to return fire on the jungle from a single assailant unknown by anything but his taunting voice. One soldier slowly takes Willard’s measure. “Yeah,” he finally says, and then deliberately turns to walk away.

There’s nothing small about Apocalypse Now. It’s done on the grand scale, and for that reason as much as any other I find that I now prefer the so-called Redux version, released some 10 years ago, which adds nearly an hour to an already long movie. It remains for me still the one great Vietnam picture by which all others are measured.

“This is the end.”

JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.

  • ANH

    “Appocolypse Now” is a riveting movie at times – with marvelous sound effects and some haunting, unforgettable scenes.

  • Normangillen

    Agree w/author on the “Redux.” A pity that version wasn’t released originally.

  • Jeff Bradley

    The Redux was great for finally getting to see those scenes that had become legendary and talked about by fans before they were cut back in and also to see what the longer “miniseries” cut that Coppola had intended would look like. In the end though, I think the ’79 cut is as long as that journey “upriver” needs to be. Ending the helicopter attack sequence on “Someday this war’s gonna’ end.”, is the prime example of the grandeur, horror and irony of the original cut which I think the Redux just makes overwrought. One thing I DO miss is the “destruction of the Kurtz compound” end credits sequence. Unintended by Coppola and only seen in the regular release and tv versions – that had to be an interesting theatrical experience leaving the theater – just as Willard is leaving – and “the apocalypse” destroys Kurtz’s world.   

  • Brighttyger

    Apocalypse Now failed for me from the opening. I thought Martin Sheen was awful and could barely watch the movie.  Didn’t believe him for a second.  The surfing during the battle and the lost in the trenches scenes were the only ones that really impressed me.  Brando was insufferable, in full I AM AN EGO mode.  And the final thumbs down was the movie’s total misunderstanding, or deliberate sabotaging of Conrad’s novella, a great and moving book.  Yeah…I really hate this movie!  Did love Deer Hunter and Coming Home.

  • นักวิจารณ์ภาพยนตร์ยอดเยี่ยม


    • Tom K.

      @ ( My keyboard ain’t got them characters. ) The movie was surreal and the music of that period in our history absolutely ROCKED ! Vietnam Vet ’68 – ’72.

  • G P Mcgill

    The scene at the bridge is based on a Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which has a panel depicting Hell.

  • guest

    I was a non-combat soldier in VN, which is critical to my opinion of this movie. To a direct combatant, it’s a different story, but to the rest of us, this movie nails the surreal atmosphere of the whole sad misadventure. We used to sit on top of the bunkers at night, in folding chairs with cans of warm beer, and “watch the war”. Yeah, the author is right; the film’s weaknesses are actually its strengths. That’s what it was like.

  • Gary Vidmar

    It’s a visual tour-de-force, and a surprisingly effective take on Conrad.  It works very well as a surreal war film, filled with brilliant bits like the Wagner and the Playgirls, and eventually, Marlon Brando, so underrated as Kurtz…the horror…the horror…
    It’s the kind of great cinema that can stand beside CITIZEN KANE, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as a groundbreaking visual achievement. 

    • Anne

      I agree with you completely.  This film allowed me to see what fighting in Vietnam was probably like: surreal and incomprehensible to the people who were actually there.

      And visually it was stunning — what film should ultimately be about, in my opinion.


        Well Anne, You might think this is what Vietnam was like, but take my word for it, It is Not A True Pitcher Of The Vietnam War.

        • harryfaversham

          You told Anne straight Gunny…Good for You…Semper Fi.

        • BearCasey


  • Larry McElhiney

    The Redux version adds many scenes which Coppola decided to remove from the original film.  Some of them probably should have been left out as he had done.  

    Now watch “Hearts of Darkness” which is the documentary created from material that Eleanor Coppola captured during the original filming plus added footage. 

  • Randall

    I agree with Larry M. about the Redux version. The original issue was much tighter, and more true to Conrad’s style of storytelling.
    Duvall’s pleading for the return of a surfboard diminished his war-loving character irreparably.
    The French plantation sequence might have been about the contrast in strengths between “feminine sensibility” vs. “masculine savagery” in wartime (interesting), but it wasn’t well-developed and impactful enough.
    The French philosophy lesson at dinner drifted into a heavy-handed, tedious diatribe that didn’t carry its message, or the right tempo, toward the finale.
    I also agree the end credit sequence was more relevant in the original (and TV) version.
    I enjoy watching both pictures, but prefer the original as simply better storytelling on film.

  • JohnnyB

    Vietnam vet, this movie is an insult!

    • Tom

      @ JohnnyB :  My brother-in-law did three tours of duty and has intentionally never seen ANY movie about the Vietnam War.  Like “guest” who sat on the bunkers in a folding chair and “watched the war”, my crew and I would sit on the cat-walks around the flight deck of our carrier, when there were no flight operations, and “watch the war” !  There are only two ‘Nam War movies that I really watch: “The Deer Hunter” and “We were Soldiers”. Every few years I’ll watch “Apocalypse Now – Redux”, but I have to be in the right mood and have some time.  Welcome Home Johnny B. !

      • nick

         My ex father inlaw who served in the Pacific during WWII will also not watch any war movies.

    • harryfaversham

      I hear you Brother. I fought the River War in the Mekong 68-70. If my crew behaved like the one depicted in this movie… we’d all be in our graves for the past 42 years and have our names on that Black Wall in D.C. .

  • Rufnek

    Never cared for any version of that film or the way Brando hams his way through it. Duvall’s quote is the only scene I still recall from my one viewing (no reason for a second) of that film, and that’s mostly because it’s the one everyone talks (and talks and talks) about. I’ve seen Duvall in much better roles in many better films–Capt. Newman MD, for one, which was truly about the insanity of war.

  • classicsforever

    I was in the last draft of the Vietnam War. It was winding down and I joined the Army Reserve. For me it was a pleasure to serve with the vets who had been in ‘Nam. I never grew tired of hearing their stories. Nothing but respect for them.

    One thing I’ve always remembered from this movie is the speech Kurtz makes to Willard about his past service and his idea of the perfect soldier. From the military history I’ve read it makes sense. The best warriors are those that can be compassionate and also extremely aggressive when the need arises. I think they wanted Kurtz dead because he wasn’t “playing the game”. He might have been a little insane, but he wasn’t stupid.  

    • Tom K.

      I enjoyed Col. Kurtz telling the story about the ” pile of little arms “. Fascinating and Chilling.

  • Sunra37

    With on exception, the Redux is horrible. Understand completely why Coppola cut those scenes out. The exception is, of course the plantation scene. As superb as it was, the inclusion of that scene would have MADE Apocalypse Now  a Vietnam movie. The original simply uses Vietnam (as opposed to being about Vietnam) as a setting to tell Conrad’s tale of the journey into the deepest recesses of our instinctual (i.e. primative) mind. Each step further up the river further strips away the civil side revealing more and more of the primative. Deep inside all of us, rests a Kurtz! What better setting to use to update Heart of Darkness.

    • nick

       Interestting observation. I saw the original when it came out. I have never seen the Redux version all the way through, and have to admit I never rewatched the whole film. I have seen the Plantation scenes, and they really were good. Too bad that Coppola did not try to make some quite of in the middle prequel with a film surrounding those scenes.  Amazing that recently on Sight and Sound Poll that it is in the top twenty. Having said that, perhaps it would be in the top ten of all time if it wasn’t for the Brando scenes. the film for me just went down hill after he got into the film, and for me was somewhat pretentious. Everything before that though was incredible.

    • Tom K.

      @ Sunra37: The plantation scene was well done, but the scene of what happened to the U.S.O. Show Playboy Bunnies is an excellant depiction of the continuing moral corrosion as the riverboat crew continues up the river. The Bunnies – so clean and bright and untouchable at the Show, are soiled, dulled and corrupted at their strange camp by the river, where you know they will probably always remain.

  • Charles Lee

    As a Vietnam vet – not sure that gives me any more credibility than anyone else in this discussion but I will use it if it helps – Apocalypse Now is not the movie by which other Vietnam movies is measured. At least it should not be. The one movie that captured the essence of what it was like in “the Nam” is Platoon. It clearly brought out how the soldiers felt about being there. There were the gungho kill crazies – I actually knew guys who kept notches on the M-16′s to count the enemy they had killed. There were the guys who would intentionally hurt themselves in some way to get out and get home. There were guys like me who found no thrill in killing but simply followed order and did what we had to do so survive. The movie even touched on the divide between the “oilers” – people who drank alcohol – and the heads – weed smokers.

    My $0.02 is if you want to see the consummate Vietnam movie, see Platoon.
    Also I would be interested in a poll that says, “What is your favorite war movie?” I would vote for “Saving Private Ryan”

  • jimmcdonl

    One of my favorites, and while I prefer Redux to the original I still count the original as one of my favorites. One memorable theater experience from watching the original on its first run that seems to have been eliminated from available copies of the film came during the closing credits as shown in the version of the film I saw when it was first released. People were leaving the theater but were stopped dead in their tracks by a flash of light coming from the screen. The closing credits were being shown against the backdrop of the air strike that had been called in. Kurtz’s world was being destroyed. People stood there and watched and didn’t leave until it was over.

    Now Brando, though once one of our greatest actors, was completely implausible as a Green Beret colonel especially at that stage of his life. I understand the part had been offered to Steve McQueen, who would have been a better choice. So would Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, or any number of other actors who could have been believable as what that character was supposed to be. And the boat crew, entertaining as it was, was wrong. The Brown Water Navy was made up of highly professional, mostly pretty gung-ho volunteers, not draftees who wanted to be anyplace but where they were. The chief (Albert Hall) would have been on a PBR, maybe Chef (Frederic Forrest) but the others didn’t belong.

    More attention to realism in character creation and casting here would have made it a better Vietnam War movie. Still, it was a hell of a movie.

  • James

    I was on the Cambodian border with infantry unit — this movie has little to do with reality but is a smear of the army and most troops there — Viet Nam vet

  • Van Hazard

    Apocalypse Now, especially the Redux version, is one of the great flawed films of all time. The first three quarters of the film is a masterpiece, and in ways improves upon Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness because of the tension Ford and Sheen bring to the assassin’s growing fascination with his target, the ambiguous renegade Kurtz.

    The biggest challenge — and flaw —of this film has always been in delivering a Kurtz equal to the extraordinary build-up. Given his dossier and Willard’s voice-over narration, one could argue no one could have delivered a worthy Kurtz. Brando, however, compounded the problem by not reading the script and going off on one of his ‘creative’ tangents in improvising not only his lines, but the entire character. Perhaps he knew no one could deliver Kurtz under those circumstances, but the bald, bloated Brando in the film certainly didn’t pass muster as a Green Beret colonel, nor did he give Coppola a performance that maintained the focus and tension of the last quarter of the film — it simply raised more questions about the character than it answered. .

    The Redux version mitigates the problem of Brando’s odd performance somewhat because it restores a few cut scenes that provide slivers of insight into who and what Kurtz is and why his ‘going native’ is as much a threat to his own general staff as it is to the enemy. The larger Vietnam theme of the film is immeasurably enhanced by the amazing French plantation scene totally cut from the original release version. The scene frames and summarizes the entire film and places the story in an historical setting necessary to explain the actions of virtually all the characters depicted.

    That said, few vets I’ve talked to about the film feel it actually depicts how that war was fought in the trenches, but that’s not what Coppola was going for. In his own, flawed way, I suspect Coppola was hoping to reflect the haunting complexity of the times and explain why our professed mission in Vietnam ultimately failed, and in that he may have succeeded exceedingly well…especially when you see the Redux version.

  • Gary

    I confess to liking both the original and Redux versions of the movie, and to not having much of a preference. I am NOT a Vietnam vet, so my opinion should be judged as being, in this arena, somewhat uninformed about what the war was really like for those ‘in country’. Nonetheless, my favorite parts of the movie were the latter parts of the trip up-river, which for me appeared cinematographically very ‘atmospheric’. For me, this movie was the best of the bunch, although I also liked Deer Hunter (harder to watch, especially the early part of the movie back home in Pennsylvania) and Full Metal Jacket (almost like watching two separate movies — one set in basic training and the other in Vietnam); I wasn’t as enamored of Platoon, and have never even watched Coming Home. As for Brando’s character, I think I might have actually preferred an actor that would have rendered a portrayal that would be less ‘out there’ and more ‘real-world’ — maybe even G. Gordon Liddy! Recall that he played a somewhat similar character — a former Vietnam-era Colonel nicknamed “Captain Real Estate”, I think, who was now managing a heroin-smuggling operation out of the Golden Triangle — in 2-3 different episodes of Miami Vice.

  • awaywrdsn

    The first time I saw it I thought it was good a little crazy but good the second time all I thought about was all these knuckleheaded cult leaders Saving Private Ryan much better use of the Military.

  • Ruptured Duck

    Outside of a few memorable scenes and characters like Robert Duvall’s over the top performance, this movie was a big disappointment. It started out okay, but really flopped
    big time by the time Marlon Brando’s hideout was reached.

  • JRJ

    I was in Viet Nam, not as a hardened jungle fighter but as a support troop. And yes, I’ve always thought from the time it came out that the surreal quality of this film does justice to what it was like. In evening, after duty, troops typically would sit in beach chairs atop the bunkers and “watch the war”. “What’re you gonna do tonight?” “Watch the war.” This was typical.
    One guy drove a trash truck around the post. He was ashamed to write home that this is what he did, so he made up some sort of story. I could go on and on…

  • Tom K.

    @ JRJ : I was on an aircraft carrier operating on ” Yankee Station ” just off the coast of Vietnam. Some nights, when we did not have flight operations, we would sit out on the catwalks and we would ” Watch the War “. I enjoy watching the Redux version of ” Apocalypse Now ” and have seen, probably, every movie made about that war where America won every battle and managed ( mismanaged ) to lose the war. My brother-in-law, who was on the ground in Vietnam for THREE tours, has never seen a single movie depicting this war. He ” lived it “.

  • Vann Morrison

    I watched Apocalypse Now at the post theatre on Ft. Bragg when it first came out. The admission at that time was $1.00. After seeing it the first time all the way through me and some buddies went back every night that it played on post. We watched it up until the helicopter assault on the village and then leave. That was the best part of the movie.

  • jimmcdonl

    This past fall a former Green Beret colonel named Robert Rheault passed away. Anyone interested in the reality behind Colonel Kurtz should read up on him.