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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