What Is Apocalypse Now Really About? An Hour-Long Video Analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam Masterpiece

The dis­tort­ed sounds of heli­copter blades. The drunk­en punch that shat­ters the mir­ror. The “Ride of the Valkyries” attack. “I love the smell of napalm in the morn­ing.” The slaugh­ter­ing of the water buf­fa­lo. “The hor­ror… the hor­ror.” In the near­ly three-hour run­time of its orig­i­nal cut, Apoc­a­lypse Now deliv­ers these and many more of the most vivid cin­e­mat­ic moments of the 1970s, the era of “New Hollywood”—when young auteurs like its direc­tor Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la swept in and demol­ished the bound­aries of main­stream Amer­i­can cinema—and that of the Viet­nam War the film depicts as well.

Yet for all its artis­tic and cul­tur­al impact, the film has­n’t received quite as much scruti­ny as you might imag­ine. Or at least that’s how it looked to pro­fes­sion­al cinephile Lewis Bond, known for his work on Chan­nel Criswell, when he first took stock of Apoc­a­lypse Now’s ana­lyt­i­cal video essay land­scape.

Dis­cus­sions of Cop­po­la’s Viet­nam mas­ter­piece tend to focus on its leg­en­dar­i­ly ardu­ous pro­duc­tion and the one mil­lion feet of film famous­ly shot dur­ing it, a prece­dent per­haps set by the 1991 behind-the-scenes doc­u­men­tary Hearts of Dark­ness: A Film­mak­er’s Apoc­a­lypse.

These appraisals shy away from one seem­ing­ly impor­tant ques­tion in par­tic­u­lar: what is the movie about? On one lev­el, the answer to that ques­tion comes eas­i­ly: a mod­ern adap­ta­tion of Joseph Con­rad’s 1899 nov­el Heart of Dark­ness, Apoc­a­lypse Now trans­plants and trans­forms Con­rad’s sto­ry of a jour­ney up the Con­go Riv­er to the strong­hold of an ivory trad­er into the con­text of 1969 Viet­nam. The riv­er jour­ney remains, now led by a Unit­ed States Army cap­tain charged with the “ter­mi­na­tion with extreme prej­u­dice” of an Army Spe­cial Forces colonel gone rogue, and prob­a­bly insane, in Cam­bo­dia, sur­round­ed by ex-sol­diers and natives who report­ed­ly wor­ship him as a “demigod.”

Bond ref­er­ences the stan­dard inter­pre­ta­tion of Apoc­a­lypse Now’s riv­er jour­ney as “a metaphor for descent into mad­ness,” but in his two-part, hour-long video essay ana­lyz­ing the themes of the film, he posits “a more appro­pri­ate descrip­tion of the riv­er” as “a reflec­tion of the char­ac­ters’ inner jour­ney, show­ing us the indoc­tri­na­tion of evil.” Along the way, Cop­po­la and his col­lab­o­ra­tors offer a sin­gu­lar cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence about not one thing but many: “It’s about the destruc­tion of peo­ple’s morals. It’s about the way Amer­i­ca oper­at­ed dur­ing Viet­nam as well as the con­fused val­ues that Amer­i­ca pushed upon the world. It’s about war. It’s about peo­ple” — and every­thing else before which our inter­pre­tive instincts ulti­mate­ly fall pow­er­less.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Mak­ing of Apoc­a­lypse Now Remixed/Revisited

How Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Sev­en Samu­rai Per­fect­ed the Cin­e­mat­ic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

How Stan­ley Kubrick Made His Mas­ter­pieces: An Intro­duc­tion to His Obses­sive Approach to Film­mak­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Oliver says:

    Con­grats for this exhaus­tive, and pas­sion­ate review. “Apoc­a­lypse Now” is my favorite [gen­der ori­ent­ed?] movie — Thin Red Line would be next in your analy­sis, way eas­i­er to get a suf­fi­cient­ly con­sis­ten com­par­i­son — and you did a great job: arrange­ment is clear, scan of con­tent is sound and log­ic.

    There are very lit­tle things I can dis­agree with you. Let’s try this: war is not just mad­ness. Viet­nam may have this qual­i­ty [it is a mod­ern sam­ple, events are dra­mat­i­cal­ly vis­i­ble] but this is what you riped from the whole oper­a­tion, which direc­tor would only par­tial­ly approve.

    When you define pleas­ant and amus­ing the way their job is pur­sued, you are express­ing a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion that stran­gled late six­ties gen­er­a­tion; how is war per­ceived now? Do uni­form mean secu­ri­ty and defence? Is it pos­si­ble to write actu­al­ly the word “end” on war of this kind — mak­ing this job past and com­plete? And being this the case, is the instinct of war root­ed in human nature giv­ing off­springs into invis­i­ble, and cun­ning kind of strug­gle many are unaware of?

    Try­ing to give you stim­u­la, for jig­saws are fun and you got num­bers…

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