I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's
my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight... razor...
The film, which opens with no title or credits, is centered on US Army Captain Benjamin Willard, a former covert operative who has been inactive for several weeks in Saigon. Intellegence officers send him on a mission deep into the remote Cambodian jungle to find a missing US Army Special Forces colonel. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a decorated officer, is said to have gone insane and is commanding a legion of his own Montagnard troops deep inside the forest in neutral Cambodia. Willard is ordered to undertake a mission to find Kurtz and "terminate his command ... with extreme prejudice." There, Willard learns that Kurtz has assumed the role of a warlord and is worshipped by the natives and his own loyal men. Another officer named Colby, sent earlier with the same orders, has become one of his lieutenants.
Willard begins his trip up the fictional Nung River on a PBR (Patrol Boat River) named Erebus, with an eclectic crew composed of by-the-book Chief Phillips, a Navy boat commander; GM3 Lance B. Johnson, a tanned all-American California surfer, the Cajun Engineman, Jay "Chef" Hicks, and GM3 Bubba Tyrone, also known as "Mr. Clean", a 17-year-old.
The movie begins with Willard at his bed, voice over narrating about his experience and why he chose to return to Vietnam after going home, how he has been there for a week. Two soldiers knock at his door, they come to escort him to Com Sec Intelligence. They forcefully give him a cold shower because he is drunk and unwilling to move himself. They take him to Com Sec Intelligence where he is ordered to go upriver into Cambodia, Listens to some audio recordings of Kurtz, and is told that Kurtz is wanted dead for unsound strategy and for murdering South Vietnamese Intelligence officers. He meets with the patrol boat crew that is supposed to take him to his destination and they leave.
The PBR arrives at a landing zone (LZ) where Willard and the crew meet up with Lt. Colonel William Kilgore, following a massive and hectic mopping-up operation of a conquered enemy town. Kilgore, an avid surfer, learns from one of his men that the beach which marks the opening to the Nung River is perfect for surfing, and thus orders his men to capture the village and the beach. At this point the film starts to elucidate moral questions and contrasts the peace of the village with the brash and hi-tech U.S assault. Children are seen ushered to safety from a school yard with the distant helicopters in the background. Later a Vietnamese woman destroys a landed helicopter in the yard using a hidden grenade. This enrages Kilgore, whose helicopter is shown gunning down the escaping woman with Kilgore exclaiming "f**king savages!".
Coppola cameos with a media news crew landing with the troops. He exhorts Willard to keep moving and not to look at the camera, as if on the set of a real film. The scene highlights the blurring of the 'war experience', the surreal nature of Vietnam for many of its American participants and of course the deep involvement of the media and entertainment industry in the war. This last theme runs right through Apocalypse Now culminating in Hopper's 'crazed' photojournalist character at Kurtz's lair.
The village invasion ends with the soldiers surfing the barely claimed beach amidst sporadic mortar round bursts from the VC. After helicopters swoop over the village and demolish all visible signs of resistance, a giant napalm strike in the nearby jungle dramatically marks the climax of the battle.
After moving upriver, the boat stops at a USO outpost where GIs watch a show for Military R&R featuring three Playboy Playmates. The playmates enter in a chopper, and dance briefly before the men rush the stage and attempt to grab them. They have to be rushed back onto the chopper, which flies away with two men still clinging to its runner. The crew rogue field hospital where the playmates are being prostituted among the bodies. They pay for time with the playmates with two hours of fuel.
Moving upriver, chief looks at a sampam. Since it is policy that patrol boats must inspect all sampam's paper and cargo, Chief orders that it be done. Willard complains, saying that his mission has priority, but he is ignored. In the process of an inspection, a woman moves quickly, the men fire. All die except for one, the woman, who is gravely injured. Chief says they will take her to South Vietnamese hospital, but Willard shoots her dead instead and says: "I told you not to stop. Now let's go."
Moving upriver they find a lone French"plantation" still manned and intact from the French Indochina which ended in 1954.
In the process of moving upriver they are attacked twice. Clean dies in a shoot out and Chief Philips dies later on by a spear after the boat is showered with toy arrows.
Willard, Johnson, and Chef eventually arrive at Kurtz's compound: rotting bodies and the stench of blood and decay are everywhere, yet Kurtz's followers seem oblivious to the horrors around them. Willard is met by a burned-out hippie freelance photographer (Hopper) who defends Kurtz, arguing that he is a great man with profound philosophical insight. Willard leaves Chef behind with orders to call in an air strike on the village if he does not return. Chef remains on the PBR while Johnson mingles with the natives, eventually blending in with them. While Willard initially walks freely among Kurtz's men and followers, they eventually seize him and bring him to Kurtz. It is apparent that Kurtz fully expected someone like Willard to be sent again (telling Willard, "you are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill") and he accuses him of being an assassin. Kurtz also lectures him on his theories of war, humanity, and civilization.
Willard is imprisoned and bound roughly in a bamboo tiger cage. That night, Kurtz comes to the still-bound Willard and places the severed head of Chef in his lap. Soon thereafter Willard is released from the cage and brought back to Kurtz's temple. There he remains for days, still watched, but essentially unguarded. Willard sits and listens to Kurtz read poetry and speak of war. Previously in the movie, while on the river, the audience is fed pieces of information about Kurtz via the narration of a dossier on Kurtz provided by US Army Intelligence which was being read by Willard. The picture that emerged was of a brilliant soldier who was being groomed to be a general, but who became mentally unbalanced and brutal. The cause of Kurtz's eventual break from reality is revealed: the nature of how the Vietnam conflict was fought caused Kurtz to become disillusioned with the military. Kurtz reveals that years earlier, while he was still following orders, he had taken his battalion to a South Vietnamese village to inoculate the local children for polio. Soon after they left, the battalion was called back by a crying old man from the village. What had happened was horrifying: the VC had come and cut off the inoculated arm of every inoculated child. But after crying, Kurtz, already mentally unstable, finally broke. He admired the will and brutality of the VC troops (calling the act genius and brilliant) and realized that the Americans could never win the war against this kind of enemy unless they became equally brutal.
The finale involves juxtaposed scenes of a ceremonial slaughtering of a water buffalo, while Willard kills Kurtz with a machete. Dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers "The horror... the horror," (a quote taken directly from Conrad's novella). Willard walks through the now-silent crowd of natives, all of whom know he has killed their "god" and who begin to kneel before him as Kurtz's replacement. However, he finds Johnson, who has since joined the natives, and boards the PBR. As they float away Kurtz's final words "The Horror, the horror" echo and the screen fades to black.
Copyright(c) 2007 -- 2020. All rights reserved.