#079–What’s the Big Deal about the film “Apocalypse Now” (1979)?

I’ve seen it probably a couple dozen times by now. Hell, for some reason I’ve watched Apocalypse Now every night for a week, I’m guessing as some morbid therapy to show me some people arguably having a far worse month than I.

Except for Kilgore (Robert Duvall), of course.


He loves the smell of napalm in the morning, after all…

I know I like the film, but I’m not entirely sure why. I haven’t seen the documentary Hearts of Darkness, made about the film production among other things, so I don’t have those other revelations or insights to really look at.

I have been reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the correspondent memoir about Vietnam that I remember glancing through in school, which has got me thinking about it (he also helped write some of the voice over and dialogue).

I’ve seen featurettes about the sound and the film editing and whatnot from my “complete dossier” DVD set, but that’s about it.

And the film. I’ve put that in the DVD player (original version, not redux lately) every night for a week.

But why?

I’m a history buff and took a class on Vietnam and film (we didn’t use anything but the beginning in the class, probably because our professor didn’t wanna read 30 thesis papers on the film, and I forgot why). I thought it was a fantastic beginning and it made me wanna watch the rest.

It really hooked me in and I bought the DVD a few years later.

But what is it about the film? I found it interesting that some ornery guy I work with, easily twice my age, can’t understand the flick and groused about how “it’s not Vietnam, and I don’t know what the hell it is.”

Strange, because he would’ve been about MY age now when it came out. Maybe he fought, I dunno.

But even I know the film’s not about Vietnam. Not really.

It’s got the look of it, but it’s beyond that.

I just can’t pinpoint what makes this Vietnam film so good, or considered so good.

But perhaps that’s why–it’s beyond a “war film.” Strangely, it’s very much a war film while being an anti-war film in many respects (perhaps not as obviously as Kubrick’s Paths of Glory–on my watch list the next time the Criterion Collection goes on sale at B&N).

But I think I’ve figured out why this film seems to resonate, though the synthesized music, the contradictory scenes of words and deeds, the odd colored smoke in different moments when there was no fighting as if to lend a dream/nightmare-like quality, the strange imagery and character actions.

And by the way: how long did an acid trip last, because Lance was totally bonkers the whole second half of the film, which translates to weeks in the term of the story?

And then there’s Kurtz in the end. Yikes, I wouldn’t wanna be anywhere near that guy. I think they created a very effective air of mystery and menace with this character.

By the way, I couldn’t help laughing at Dennis Hopper in this film, being all coked-up and crazy. Now I finally get what the crazy guy in the studio was making fun of in Animaniacs all those years ago (seriously, he’s credited as “Mr. Crazy Person” by Dot).


From the “Hearts of Twilight” skit. The character is an accountant driven nuts who becomes a mad follower of “the Director”

And I can’t help but feel Martin Sheen got shafted for not even being nominated for best actor…but I can’t figure why I think that (beyond him getting a heart attack in the process). You get the feeling for what he’s thinking (voice over, thank you), but also his expressions, or lack thereof. He’s actually quite expressive in the film, and it carries out. Then there’s that iconic beginning sequence, with him listless, then drunk and itching for a mission, something–anything–to get him out of there is pretty “wow”).

But why? Why do I think that?

Why does Apocalypse Now stick in my noggin as a great movie when I can barely understand it.

I think I finally got it, though…at least a little.

Why Apocalypse Now has such a lifespan is that it’s more than a movie…it’s an experience.

I can’t think of it any other way. It feels confusing as hell, confusing the way a quickly flashing nightmare is confusing, when you have a sense of dread you can’t put your finger on, or keep waking up with bits and pieces floating away in space.

It’s got a very basic plot: an army soldier’s sent on a mission upriver to kill a commander who’s gone insane. The journey aspect is lifted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which I still haven’t read yet, but it’s only a matter of time before I pull that book out, too).

With the music that puts you in a somewhat tangible place and then retreats into something else entirely the further down river you go, I think they did a helluva job trying to create a transcendent experience on celluloid.

Maybe that’s why it resonates so much, because other than a handful of moments or quotes, or particular scenes you could write a whole books dissecting (or film classes, even)… it’s a hard to place movie. But you can be absorbed in it and then still wonder what the hell you were watching.

I still didn’t entirely get the ending, and never seem to. I wondered about how anticlimactic it was in one way, and very climactic in another…but I really wanted to know what was going on through Willard’s mind when he got on the boat and pulled away at the end…I would’ve loved to know that.

Any takers on why Apocalypse Now is so good (or why you love it, hate it, don’t get it, etc.)? Floor’s yours…

P.S.–The famous “bombing” that some people say played over the end credits symbolizing the air strike weren’t meant to be in the film, which might’ve confused some people. It was footage of the set being destroyed that they took film of pretty much for the hell of it (and maybe for b-roll back-stock footage for another production, like the burning sets that became the burning of Atlanta in the background of Gone With the Wind). That was because there were no credit sequences at first. This snippet from IMDB can summarize why that footage disappeared better than I can.

5 thoughts on “#079–What’s the Big Deal about the film “Apocalypse Now” (1979)?

  1. bobcabkings says:

    I’ve only seen Apocalypse Now once, a long time ago. The movie made a lot more sense to me, I think, having read “Heart Of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, on which the film is based. My English teacher in Senior year of High School was a Conrad fan. The book is set on a journey up the Congo River in the Belgian colonial period in which the Marlow character (captain of river steamer) encounters Kurtz and his madness.

    I think the success of the book and the film is in the moral ambiguity of all the characters and their relationships and situation (in one case colonial exploitation, and the other, asymmetrical war). Even Kurtz, who began trying to honorably do an impossible mission and fell in both versions deep into that heart of darkness, utterly losing his way and, perhaps, his soul, has enough of his old self left to utter those iconic words, “The horror, the horror.” He is conscious of what has become of him and what he had become. There is the real horror.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. JAMES F. O'NEIL says:

    Good review. I read Dispatches long ago, in my Art of War (Loving) day or days, among many others. More recently, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is so relevant. But now we have Afghan-Land accounts, and on and on. I have a section of my DVD collection set aside for my “favorite” war tales: Apocalypse-Darkness is there in its rightful place.
    Here’s my blog presentation; take a look when you can. Thanks again. https://memoriesofatime.blog/2015/07/04/the-art-of-war-loving/


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