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.
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.