Film & TV

The Greatest War Movie Ever Made

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (United Artists)
Apocalypse Now, 40 years later.

The second-to-last comment made by Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is this: “Their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘F***’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.” In Apocalypse Now we’ve seen a cavalry officer wipe out a village and call in a napalm strike to make a beach safe for surfing. We’ve seen the hero of the piece fatally shoot a badly wounded woman because he doesn’t want the hassle of bringing her to a hospital. Kurtz lives in an infernal empire of rotting corpses and severed heads. Words are obscene? War is obscene. Maybe one war in particular.

Regardless of whether that assertion is true, Apocalypse Now is a vision of fierce but controlled passion, grotesque and beautiful. If it ended at the 45-minute mark, after Colonel Kilgore extols the fragrance of a.m. napalm, it would still be the dean of all war movies, the sharpest and most haunting.

Apocalypse Now is returning to theaters August 15, exactly 40 years after its original release, and then being reissued in a “final cut” DVD. The original version ran 153 minutes, but after movie nerds started enthusing about the supposedly superior version containing “lost footage,” director Francis Ford Coppola delivered the sprawling Apocalypse Now Redux in 2002. He now says that version was “a little too long” at three hours and 22 minutes. Wrong: it was way too long. The “final cut” version is three hours and three minutes, and although some of the restored material is interesting, none of it is essential. The best cut remains the first theatrical release.

Still, seeing the film on a big screen, with a surround sound system, is an essential cinematic experience. Apocalypse Now builds a vision of war around paradoxes and incongruities and grueling ironies. It interrogates the whole business of war without being reductionist or trite. If anything is cliché about Apocalypse Now — and Coppola’s nephew Jason Schwartzman savagely parodied it as Max Fischer in Rushmore in 1998 — it’s because Coppola’s work created a standard. Along with the propaganda film Hearts and Minds (1974), possibly the most influential documentary ever made, it helped cement America’s sense of what the Vietnam War was, far more so than The Deer Hunter (whose fixation on Russian roulette has nothing to do with Vietnam) or Full Metal Jacket (which revels in caustic ironies but doesn’t go as deep). The moral compromises and blurred lines that attach to making war became especially associated with Vietnam, in large part due to this film and its vision of the conflict as a morass of iniquity through which one assassin chases another. “In Vietnam the s*** piled up so high you needed wings to stay above it,” says Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Willard lacks an angel’s wings. He’s killed at least six people, and those are just the ones who were close enough that he could feel their last breath.

The core of the brief against Kurtz (Marlon Brando’s portrayal is as brilliant as anything he ever did) is that he assassinated four highly placed South Vietnamese, one of them a woman and the other three leading officers for our allies. Yet Willard comes to believe Kurtz was correct to believe all four were double agents working for the Communists. And he has difficulty sorting out justified killing from the unlawful and immoral kind, musing in one of the movie’s many devastating observations that “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” Veteran Vietnam correspondent Michael Herr contributed much of this material (Coppola and John Milius, who never served but became a military obsessive, wrote the rest). Kurtz is insane, but so is much else that we see through Willard’s eyes, from men surfing amid exploding ordnance to peasants getting shot because they reached for a puppy. Amid high-tech killing machines, one man is felled by a spear.

The film is a kind of symphony of clashing chords, opposing signifiers. Just as Jim Morrison’s velvety voice begins singing “The End,” the napalm cloud blossoms, its gorgeous orange masking unspeakable devastation. The sound editor Walter Murch brings us perhaps the cleverest aural pun in cinematic history: those frightening chopper blades turning into the harmless rotation of the ceiling fan, then back again. Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore harmonizes Wagner with bullets. The lush natural beauty of the Communist village, and the serenity of its white-clad schoolteachers, is set off by the ugliness of their hidden arsenal and the ferocity of their resistance, which culminates in a woman blowing up an American chopper. In its final moments the film turns the ritual slaughter of a beast into the ritual slaughter of a man.

Willard learns only when he is about to arrive at the compound where Kurtz is running a nauseatingly evil cult that the previous man sent to kill him became a disciple instead. Kurtz’s logic is seductive, like Satan’s. He wants to persuade Willard, or to be ended by him. To taunt him he throws the head of one of Willard’s soldiers in his lap. A late monologue invokes and accepts evil as the natural outcome of the war. Kurtz’s submission to evil is like a perverted baptism — he describes it as like being shot with a diamond. You have to have men who “kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment,” Kurtz says, because “it’s judgment that defeats us.” Kurtz thinks Willard has the right to kill him, but not to judge him.

Coppola has reversed himself on the film’s ending, then reversed himself again. Apparently the version many viewers recall, with a final spectacle of napalm destruction playing over the closing credits, was not meant to suggest that Willard ordered in the air strike — code-named Almighty — to exterminate the evil of Kurtz’s camp. (The strike was meant to suggest the fury of the war in general or, to be less charitable, simply to use up some cool and very expensively obtained footage Coppola couldn’t squeeze in anywhere else.) The latest version ends simply with Willard leaving the camp and its ranks of hollow men, the savages who have mindlessly transferred their allegiance to the new alpha after the slaughter. The air strike seems to me the perfect ending, though, signaling as it would that Willard’s capacity for violence was much the equal of Kurtz’s — and that the wrath of the Almighty could be contained no longer.

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