Apocalypse Now’s “Ride of the Valkyries” Attack: The Anatomy of a Classic Scene

“I love the smell of napalm in the morn­ing.” There we have undoubt­ed­ly the most famous quote of what must count as one of Robert Duval­l’s finest per­for­mances, and sure­ly his most sur­pris­ing: that of Lieu­tenant Colonel Bill Kil­go­re in Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la’s Apoc­a­lypse Now. As you’ll no doubt recall — and if you don’t recall it, min­i­mize your brows­er for a few hours and make your way to a screen­ing, or at least watch it online — Cap­tain Ben­jamin Willard’s Con­ra­di­an boat jour­ney into the Viet­nam War’s dark heart hits a snag fair­ly ear­ly in the pic­ture: they need to pass through a coastal area under tight Viet Cong con­trol.

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Kil­go­re, ini­tial­ly reluc­tant to call in his heli­copters to back up Willard’s dubi­ous mis­sion, changes his mind when he real­izes that Willard counts among his own small crew famed pro­fes­sion­al surfer Lance B. John­son. The Lieu­tenant Colonel, it turns out, loves to surf. He also loves to blast Richard Wag­n­er’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from heli­copter-mount­ed speak­ers. “It scares the hell out of the slopes,” he explains. “My boys love it.”

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At the top, you can watch the fruits of Willard and Kil­go­re’s coop­er­a­tion, an oper­at­ic napalm airstrike that takes the entire beach: not an easy thing to accom­plish, and cer­tain­ly not an easy thing to film. As any­one acquaint­ed with the mak­ing of Apoc­a­lypse Now has heard, the pro­duc­tion tend­ed to turn as com­pli­cat­ed, con­fus­ing, and per­ilous as the Viet­nam War itself, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly for lack of plan­ning.

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At Empire, you can view the scene’s orig­i­nal sto­ry­boards and read along­side them a brief inter­view with Doug Clay­bourne, who on the film had the envi­able title of Heli­copter Wran­gler. Arriv­ing to the Philip­pines-based shoot (in “the mid­dle of nowhere”), Clay­bourne found Cop­po­la on the beach with a bull­horn, Mar­tin Sheen just replac­ing Har­vey Kei­t­el in the role of Willard, chop­pers bor­rowed from Pres­i­dent Fer­di­nand Mar­cos (who peri­od­i­cal­ly took them back to use against insur­rec­tions else­where), a com­ing typhoon, and “a lot of chaos.”

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But Cop­po­la, Clay­bourne, and the rest of the team saw it through, achiev­ing results even more strik­ing, in moments, than these sto­ry­boards sug­gest. As for the unflap­pable Kil­go­re, well, we all remem­ber him rush­ing to catch a tan­ta­liz­ing wave even before the fight­ing sub­sides. After all, to quote his sec­ond-most famous line, “Char­lie don’t surf!”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la Star in Japan­ese Whisky Com­mer­cials (1980)

Demen­tia 13: The Film That Took Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la From Schlock­ster to Auteur

Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Hand­writ­ten Cast­ing Notes for The God­fa­ther

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Ellie K says:

    The sketched Images are amaz­ing! I love heli­copters, Black Hawks or any­thing else made by Siko­rsky. nnMi­nor prob­lem: The post title is con­fus­ing. Unlike 99% of the world, I nev­er saw Apoc­a­lypse Now, but I am famil­iar with “Ride of the Valkyries”. I want­ed to be a valkyrie as a child. I still do! I doubt­ed that Wag­n­er’s Ring cycle was trend­ing on Digg, but I clicked, as this is the Open Cul­ture blog. More rel­e­vant: Most peo­ple that I know aren’t famil­iar with “Ride of the Valkyries”, despite rec­og­niz­ing the music. But they do like Apoc­a­lypse Now, and would enjoy your post a lot! If it isn’t too late, maybe empha­size war and heli­copters, not opera.

  • BDUB says:

    u201cI love the smell of napalm in the morning.u201d There we have nun­doubt­ed­ly the most famous quote of what must count as one of Robert Duvallu2019s finest performances…“nnMore impor­tant­ly it is one, among many, of the most famous lines of dia­logue penned by John Mil­ius. Mil­ius, the man that gave us, “I say we do it my way. That’s an order!”, “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”, “Crush your ene­mies, see them dri­ven before you…”, “WOLVERINES!”, “Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.”, and on and on..nnMilius is tha man!”

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