Apocalypse Now is a 1979 American war film set during the Vietnam War, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The central character is US Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), of MACV-SOG, an assassin sent to kill the renegade and presumed insane Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Coppola’s and John Milius’s script is based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, and also draws from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the film version of Conrad’s Lord Jim (which shares the same character of Marlow with Heart of Darkness), and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
The film drew attention for its lengthy and troubled production. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse documented Brando showing up on the set overweight, Sheen’s heart attack, and extreme weather destroying several expensive sets. The film’s release was postponed several times while Coppola edited millions of feet of footage.
Honored with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, the film was also deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2001.
Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), a seasoned and deeply troubled special operations veteran, has returned to Saigon from deployment in the field. He drinks excessively and has difficulty adjusting to life in the rear-area. Two intelligence officers, Lt. General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford), and a civilian (Jerry Ziesmer) approach him with an assignment: follow the Nung River into the remote Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a member of the US Army Special Forces who has gone insane, and kill him. Their claims are supported by bizarre radio broadcasts and recordings made by Kurtz himself.
Once considered a model officer and future general, Kurtz has gone rogue and is commanding a legion of his own Montagnard troops deep inside neutral Cambodia. Ordered to terminate the Colonel’s command “with extreme prejudice”, Willard joins the crew of a Navy Patrol Boat, Riverine (PBR) composed of boat commander George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), and crewmen Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), and Tyrone “Mr Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne).
Willard and the PBR crew rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), commanding a squadron of Air Cavalry attack helicopters, for escort to the Nung River. Initially scoffing at their request for escort, Kilgore, a keen surfer, learns Johnson is a professional surfer and befriends him. When Willard suggests the coastal mouth of the Nung River for the boat and crew to be taken, Kilgore is reluctant to approach the heavily fortified position held by the Viet Cong, but changes his mind after learning of the excellent surfing conditions there. The beach is taken amid napalm strikes and “Ride of the Valkyries” played over the choppers’ loudspeakers, after which Kilgore orders Lance and other surfers in his command to surf the beach amid enemy fire. While Kilgore nostalgically regales all around him of a previous napalm strike, Willard gathers his men to the PBR, which has been dropped from a helicopter into the river, and they begin their journey.
While navigating upstream, the crew has a run-in with a tiger, watches a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies, and encounters a sampan, mistakenly killing almost all civilians onboard. Willard shoots the one survivor to prevent any delay of his mission. On reaching a US Army outpost at a bridge under constant attack, Willard is informed that an army captain named Colby (Scott Glenn) was sent to find Kurtz and is now missing. The next day, the boat is fired upon by an unseen enemy hiding in trees by the river, killing Mr Clean and causing Chief, who had a close relationship with Clean, to become increasingly hostile toward Willard.
Later, Montagnard warriors begin shooting arrows at them. The crew opens fire and Chief is impaled with a spear. Willard tries to help the dying Chief, who tries to kill Willard by pulling him onto the spear tip protruding from his chest. Willard grapples with Chief, who finally dies. Afterwards, Willard confides in Chef and Lance about his mission, and the two surviving crew of the boat reluctantly agree to continue their journey upriver. As they draw closer to Kurtz’ camp, they see the coastline is littered with bodies. After arriving at Kurtz’ outpost, Willard takes Johnson with him to the village, leaving Chef behind with orders to call in an airstrike on the village if he does not return. In the camp, the two men are met by a manic freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), who explains that Kurtz’ greatness and philosophical skills inspire his people to follow him. As they proceed, they see bodies and severed heads scattered about the nearby Buddhist temple that serves as Kurtz’s living quarters, and encounter the missing Captain Colby, who is nearly catatonic.
Willard is brought before Kurtz in the darkened temple, where Kurtz derides him as “an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill”. Bound to a post, he watches helplessly as Kurtz drops Chef’s severed head into his lap. After some time in captivity, Willard is released and given the freedom of the compound. Knowing that Willard would not leave, Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, humanity, and civilization. As Kurtz explains his motives and philosophy while praising the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong, he asks Willard to tell his son everything about him in the event of his death.
That night, as the villagers ceremonially slaughter a water buffalo, Willard enters Kurtz’ chamber as Kurtz is making a recording, and attacks him with a machete. Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers “The horror … the horror …” before dying. Willard descends the stairs from Kurtz’ chamber and drops his weapon. The villagers do likewise, and silently allow Willard to take Lance by the hand and lead him to the PBR. The two of them sail away as Kurtz’ final words echo.Hmmmm…..what can you say?”I love the smell of Napalm in the morning?”