“The Horror…The Horror!” Apocalypse Now and the Complexities of War
Warning: the following article contains major spoilers and some disturbing content.
No dialogue can be heard, nor do any credits or titles appear. The film fades in from black to a simple image of a primeval forest. Helicopter blades whir distantly. A brief billow of smoke appears. “This is the End” by Jim Morrison (The Doors) begins to play. Black landing skids enter the frame. The entire forest erupts into an orange glob of fire. Black smoke fills the frame. The sky is hazy, dark, and hellish. Helicopters float back and forth…their blades now whirring very loudly. The dissipated, upside-down face of a man appears through double exposure.
The man is Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen). The fire is napalm. The conflict is the Vietnamese War. The scene transitions. Willard stares up blankly. The whirring of helicopter blades is replaced by that of a hotel ceiling fan. This genius graphic match opens one of Hollywood’s most famous and (at the time) controversial war movies, Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now– which Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II) directed and John Milius wrote the screenplay for- is based on Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). Heart of Darkness tells the fictional story of Charles Marlow, an English steamboat captain who travels up the Congo River to investigate Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a Belgian ivory trader. He has allegedly gone off the rails, and the natives worship him as a demigod of sorts. As Marlow travels further down the river he confronts deeper and deeper levels of human cruelty.
Apocalypse Now transplants the story to Vietnam. Willard is given a military assignment to travel up the Nung River to investigate U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz—located at an outpost in Cambodia– has allegedly gone mad and initiated a brutal, unsanctioned guerrilla war with NVA and PLAF forces. Willard’s orders: “Terminate Kurtz’s command…with extreme prejudice.” The ambivalent, reluctant captain joins other crewmembers on a U.S. Navy River Patrol Boat (PBR).
These crewmembers include Engineman 3rd Class Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Chief Petty Officer George Philips (Albert Hall), Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson (Sam Hall), and Gunner’s Mate Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne). Along their journey, the five men encounter numerous obstacles and strange occurrences. A gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel storms a coastal village to go surfing. A wild tiger nearly attacks one of the crewmembers. The men get lost at a chaotic outpost with no commanders, soldiers lose control of themselves at a USO show, and one crewmember is killed by a spear. Finally, Willard confronts his target.
The film suffered a notoriously difficult production/shoot. In 1991, a documentary (Hearts of Darkness- A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse) covered that experience. Sheen (a heavy drinker, smoker) suffered an on-set heart attack. The Philippine Islands (where the film was shot) was embroiled in a civil war. A hurricane nearly destroyed all the crew’s equipment. The filmmakers were over budget, and the script went through numerous revisions. And, to top it all off, Marlon Brando (a larger-than-life method actor in his day) showed up unprepared. Marlon Brando was notoriously difficult to work with. Not only did he not read the script, he also didn’t read the novella that inspired it. He squabbled with the cast and crew (especially Dennis Hopper) and insisted on improvising his lines. All these challenges paid off though as the film became a masterpiece of cinema!
Let’s start with the sequence everyone knows best- the helicopter raid. Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall) leads the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment. Willard and his men rendezvous with him and his regiment at the mouth of the Nung River. Kilgore is quite an unaffected and uncooperative commander. He is reluctant to discuss Willard’s mission with him until he learns that Lance Johnson- a young man from coastal California- is an avid surfer. Willard and his crew join Kilgore and his men on a helicopter assault of a coastal village. The place is allegedly overrun by the Viet Cong.
The regiment(s) appear on the horizon like dragonflies and blast Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from their speakers. They begin tearing the shoreline apart with missiles and bullets, and it totally pumps up the soldiers. That is…until their helicopters land. Then things quickly get messy! One soldier loses his leg, and one helicopter blows up. The crew hustles along the beach as a camera-rolling reporter tells the soldiers to “just go by like we’re not here” (Coppola makes a cameo as that reporter). Meanwhile, Kilgore nonchalantly sidesteps grenades that explode all around him. The helicopter pilots still in flight then light up the horizon with napalm. As the fiery, orange mist fills the backdrop, Kilgore kneels amongst his men and proudly delivers one of cinema’s most famous lines:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like…victory!”
He quietly gets up and walks off (never to be seen again).
Why is this sequence so iconic? Well, let’s start with the famous song it uses- “Ride of Valkyries.” German composer Richard Wagner wrote it as part of Act 3 of Die Walküre. Die Walküre was the second of four epic music dramas that constitute Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The song is nearly 8 minutes long. The stage curtain opens. A mountain top appears. Four of eight Valkyrie sisters of Brunhilde on that mountain top ride horses through the sky. They transport the souls of fallen war heroes to Valhalla. The “ride” becomes their battle-hymn. The score oozes with hawkish energy (remember, one of Wagner’s greatest admirers was Adolf Hitler, who certainly had a taste and a bloodlust for war).
The whole “helicopter” scene is also famous because- despite all its spectacular imagery- it ironically expresses strong anti-war sentiment. Kilgore and his men don’t treat their coastal raid as serious or grave. They treat it as a casual, consequence-free game…as though they were just leveling up at “Fortnight” or “Call of Duty.” The film drives home the moral dilemma that occurs when war is conducted from a distance. This dilemma is a recent one (mid-20th century onwards). Historical examples (e.g., the atom bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the missile strikes in Afghanistan) beg the question- how desensitized can people become when killing happens “out of sight, out of mind”? Warfare is psychologically complex, but it certainly hits much harder when you see the “whites in [other people’s] eyes.”
“Sticks, little sticks, were flying about– thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilothouse. All this time the river, the shore, the woods, were very quiet—perfectly quiet. I could only hear the heavy splashing thump of the sternwheel and the patter of these things. We cleared the snag clumsily. Arrows, by Jove!”
-Heart of Darkness (Part II), Joseph Conrad
In one of Apocalypse Now‘s later scenes, the crewmen aboard the PBR are bored, and so they set off colored smoke for fun. The pink smoke alerts the enemy. The enemy open fires, killing one of the men. This devastates Phillips. Later, as they get closer to Kurtz’s compound, riverside natives toss arrows at them. The arrows are toys, used just to scare the men off, but since they respond with machine-gun fire, one native hurl a spear that completely impales Phillips. In his final moments, he simply utters: “A spear!” The realization that even the simplest of weapons carries the same deadly weight as bullets and bombs is haunting!
Then there is the final reel of the film. Arguably, the movie’s last half hour is its crown achievement. The men reach the compound. Bodies are strewn everywhere. Heads are perched on wooden posts. All the stone-faced people are painted white. They don’t greet anyone. They don’t speak. An earlier allusion to Charles Manson prefigures all of Kurtz’s disciples. They are mindless, cultish worshippers who do nothing but execute Kurtz’s orders.
Willard meets a talkative American journalist (Dennis Hopper). His thoughts are strange and scattershot. He prattles on about Kurtz and his supernatural influence. He carries numerous cameras with him (none of which contain any film). In addition to the Russian trader in Heart of Darkness, it is believed that Sean Flynn, a famous news correspondent who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, as well as British-American journalist, Tim Page, inspired Hopper’s character.1 Willard is placed in a tiger cage, and he then meets his mysterious target.
Inside the abandoned (Angkor Empire) stone temple, Kurtz appears through the darkness. Kurtz is enormous and bald. He ritualistically washes his head with a basin of water. He reflects on gardenias and then interrogates Willard about his place of birth. Finally, when Willard explains his reason for being there, Kurtz dramatically proclaims that he’s an “errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill!”
Then Kurtz delivers his haunting monologue.
“I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.
He relates a story in which his Special Forces were sent to inoculate children in a small Vietnamese village. After doing so, though, the Viet Cong raided the village and mutilated the children. Kurtz continues…
“…I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God… the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than us. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”
At the core of Kurtz’s philosophy is his affinity for horror. He views it as the basic premise both for war and life, and even utters it twice (“the horror…the horror”) before dying. One of the broadest ethical enigmas people confront is the “duality of man.” The “duality of man” is the reality that those who appear gentle, loving, and compassionate can also be capable of brutality and evil (especially during wartime). It’s an age-old conundrum, and one that Hannah Arendt highlighted in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s work covers the trial of high-ranking Nazi official Adolph Eichmann.
We’d like to imagine that the Holocaust perpetrators had horns and tails…that they cackled, twirled their mustaches, and delighted in sadistic behavior. The chilling reality is that most committed heinous atrocities in a “routine” sort of way. Their violence was emotionless and procedural…like fixing a car engine, and they operated via “in-group, out-group” thinking. They treated those in their “in-group” with love and compassion. They treated those in their “out-group(s)” with dehumanizing indifference and/or contempt. That is also often the case with many civilian criminals. Sexual assailants, serial killers, and the like inflict all sorts of cruelty on others as casually as most of us would brush our teeth. And, like high-ranking Nazi officials, they then go back to kissing their wives and coddling their babies like nothing ever happened.
Carl Jung had a famous concept that explains Kurtz’s psychology. He believed in the “shadow,” all the parts of a person that remain hidden from the world that easily emerge under the right circumstances. People may regard themselves as “nice” or “harmless.” Then suddenly they find themselves in an angry, violent mob and participate in all its mayhem. Afterwards they are shocked at what they did. “That wasn’t me!!” they lament. Kurtz discovers his “shadow” when he witnesses what the Viet Cong did to the village children. Instead of rising above his “shadow,” though, he “breaks.” Or…as Willard puts it…”He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.”
In an earlier scene, Willard and several officers listen to an intercepted radio message of Kurtz. The renegade colonel reflects: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.” In the depths of his violent madness, the line between good and evil can literally be razor thin. A modern example occurs in Game of Thrones‘ penultimate episode (“The Bells”). The “Targaryen coin” is flipped, and Daenerys (perched atop her dragon; King’s Landing at her mercy) decides to scorch the entire city (immolating hundreds of thousands of people). Meanwhile, her foot-soldiers march through its streets, butchering and violating civilians!
The Vietnam War
How did the Vietnam War all begin? The Vietnam War was both a civil and proxy war, and the conflict originated in the late 1940s. Nationalist forces attempted to unify the country under a communist government. During World War II, Japan invaded and occupied Vietnam (which had been under French administration since the late 19th century).2 Ho Chi Minh found communist inspiration in China and the Soviet Union, and so he formed the Viet Minh to fight both Japanese and French colonial administration.2 Japan withdrew in 1945.2 French-educated Emperor Bao Dai controlled an independent Vietnam until Ho’s Viet Minh forces rose up and seized the northern city of Hanoi.2 Ho declared the nation the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and made himself president.2 In return, Bao established the state of Vietnam in July 1949, and made Saigon its capital.2
Armed conflict continued until the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 ended French occupation.2 The Geneva Convention created a subsequent treaty that split the country along the 17th parallel.2 Nationwide elections were expected in a few years (1956), but Ngo Dinh Diem and his anti-communist forces pushed aside Bao. They then created the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN) in the south.2 In 1960, Diem’s opponents within South Vietnam formed the National Liberation Front (NFL) to combat the communistic North Vietnamese.2
Soon the U.S. became involved. Their beef wasn’t with Vietnam per se but the “domino theory”-inspired communist threat it allegedly presented. Many Americans weren’t feeling it, though. Barely a decade had passed since World War II ended, and World War II wiped out nearly 30-60 million people. This conflict was too controversial, the Korean War was still occurring, and, for many, there simply wasn’t enough justification to be there. President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged firm support for South Vietnam in 1955.2
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy sent a contingent of military forces into Vietnam to report on conditions there.2 They advised a build-up of American military, economic, and technical aid to confront the Viet Cong.2 By 1962, 9,000+ troops had been sent (there was a maximum of 800 soldiers there in the 1950s).2 A coup in South Vietnam (overthrowing Diem and his brother) took place weeks before Kennedy’s assassination.2
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson increased the number of troops that the U.S. sent over.2 The Vietnamese conflict became a “war of attrition.” In August 1964, DRV torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.2 In response, Johnson ordered the bombings of military targets in North Vietnam (using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave him the war-making powers to do so).2 U.S. planes began regular bombing raids in February of 1965 (the mission was codenamed “Operation Rolling Thunder”).2 The U.S. and North Vietnam concluded a final peace agreement in 1973.2 On April 30, 1975, though, the DRV forces captured Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.2 Over 68,000 American lives had been lost.
On both the battlefront and the home-front the conflict was a nightmare. Between July 1966 and December 1973, over 503,000 U.S. military personnel deserted their posts.2 Vigorous anti-war movements spawned mass incarcerations of military personnel, violent protests, and killings (both in the U.S. and abroad).2. As the years stretched on, many soldiers (both volunteers and draftees) began to deteriorate (both physically and psychologically).2. They distrusted the government’s reasons for being there and its claims that the U.S. was winning, and they even mutinied against their superiors. Many succumbed to PTSD and drug use. In March 1968, news revealed that American troops had slaughtered at least 400 unarmed civilians in the small village of My Lai.2
“The My Lai Massacre” sparked massive protests across the U.S. for the next year or two. When soldiers returned home civilians spat on them as “baby killers.” Apocalypse Now nods to the incident in one scene where Willard’s crew guns down people in a sampan. Oliver Stone’s Platoon pays more disturbing homage to the massacre, and, in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods (2020), several characters explicitly reference it (graphic, real-life photos flash on screen as they do).
Back home, heated protests erupted on college campuses. On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen infamously shot and killed four students at Kent State University.2 10 days later, Jacksonville, Mississippi police killed two students.2
John Milius came up with the idea of adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while working as an assistant to Francis Ford Coppola on his 1967 film, The Rain People.3 He read the book as a teenager and was reminded by one of his college English professors that “no screenwriter has ever perfected a film adaptation of [it].”4. Coppola gave him $15,000 to write the script and promised him an additional $10,000 if production ensued.5 Milius partially based both Willard and Kurtz on one of his military friends, and he realized the perfect title for the movie after seeing a hippie’s button badge that read “Nirvana Now.”6. Milius didn’t want to direct the movie and thought George Lucas would be the man for the job. Lucas initially considered the project and approached it as a black comedy, but the reins eventually passed to Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola not only based the story on Heart of Darkness, but also incorporated elements of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land.”
The film initially received mixed reviews. Over time, though, it became near-universally acclaimed. As a war film, its inventive and experimental approach highlighted the complexities and atrocities of war in ways that other films like it hadn’t. Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) swept the Oscars, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with soldiers recovering at home, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) provided an interested take on the Vietnam War. But Apocalypse Now was arguably one of cinema’s most daring and successful achievements. The film’s final words encapsulate its entire thematic message: “The horror…the horror!”
 Gaby Wood, ‘“Mourning Vietnam”, The Observer, September 23, 2001.
 Vietnam War: Causes, Facts & Impact (history.com)
 Pollock, Dale (May 23, 1979). “An Archival Detailing Of UA’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ Since 1967 Start”. Variety.
 DeadBySense, Apocalypse Now – Interview with John Milius, archived from the original on May 29, 2019, retrieved December 9, 2018
 Medavoy, Mike with Josh Young, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One, Astria, 2002 p 8
 “17 Facts About Apocalypse Now On Its 40th Anniversary”. Mental Floss. August 15, 2019. Archived from the original on August 6, 2020. Retrieved August 9, 2020