Apocalypse Now

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.
Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Very loose adaptation of the classic Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, transporting the events of that book to 1969 Vietnam and Cambodia. Apocalypse Now took three years to complete before its 1979 release. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone mad and set up his own Cult in Cambodia. The captain goes up a river and into the depths of humanity.

Containing many famous scenes and quotes, most notably "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", "Charlie don't surf" and the climax ("The horror... the horror...") involving the slaughter of a real water buffalo, this movie at times feels like what one might imagine a bad acid trip to be like. Considered the definitive anti-war movie by many, Apocalypse Now is also one of the all-time greats. It is also legendary for having what is considered to be one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history. To describe all of the mishaps that occurred on set would require an entire page, but for the sake of brevity, here are the highlights:

  • Marlon Brando showed up to the set morbidly obese, rather than with the muscular build that his character called for (which is why Kurtz is almost never shown below the shoulders during the movie), and having not read either the script or Heart of Darkness like he had been asked.
  • Typhoon Olga destroying most of the sets.
  • Martin Sheen had a heart attack due to the stress of filming, and had to struggle for a quarter-mile to get help.
  • The helicopters that the government of the Philippines lent to Coppola for the famous "air cavalry" scene were frequently taken back during shooting, as the government needed the helicopters to fight communist rebels.
  • Many crewmembers were drunk or stoned while filming. Dennis Hopper got 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne hooked on heroin.
  • Coppola lost 100 pounds, threatened suicide several times, and attempted it once.
  • By the end of production, the film was over nine months behind schedule.
  • The budget was expected to be about $12–14 million, but wound up being well over double that amount ($31.5 million).
  • Coppola shot literally millions of feet of footage, and had to cut it all together to make a coherent motion picture.

This film's nightmarish production was documented by Coppola's wife Eleanor, who would later use footage she shot on set to make the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. It would later be parodied in Ben Stiller's action-comedy Tropic Thunder.

In 2001, Coppola drastically Recut the film, extending the running time by nearly an hour, adding some additional scenes and re-shuffling some existing ones around. The new version was released (to decidedly mixed reviews) as Apocalypse Now Redux.

Features an early role for Laurence Fishburne (credited as "Larry"), who lied about his age to get the role (he was only 14).

Not to be confused with Apocalypse How or Apocalypse Wow.

Tropes used in Apocalypse Now include:
  • Annoying Arrows: Subverted. Villagers (unseen at this point, as in Conrad's book) attack Willard's boat with arrows. Due to the 20th century setting, Willard does not take them seriously. He refers to them as "toy arrows," and in a shout out to Conrad, he says "they're just little sticks, they're trying to scare us!" After the sailors start shooting back, they switch to spears, and one of the sailors dies as a result.
    • Lance at one point breaks an arrow in half and sticks the two halves in his hair.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Kurtz tells a story about the time he was with the Special Forces and they inoculated children:

We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.

  • Bald of Evil: Kurtz.
  • Bilingual Bonus Apparently Cambodian street kids ask foreign soldiers for money in Filipino.
  • Bishonen: Lance, the blonde California surfer whom Willard describes as "Looking like he never held a gun in his life".
  • Black Dude Dies First: To be fair, everyone dies.
    • This is still a particularly cruel example though, considering both black dudes die first.
  • Broken Ace: Kurtz was groomed to become a top military officer but something in him snapped after his first tour of 'Nam.
  • The Cameo: Coppola appears as the Bearded Director making a Documentary.
  • Cat Scare: Quite literally, but with a considerably larger-than-usual cat.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Towards the end of the film Kurtz reads aloud from The Hollow Men (1925), which contains an epigraph quoting from Heart of Darkness (i.e. the basis of the movie), written twenty years earlier. This implies either Eliot's poem doesn't include the epigraph because the book doesn't exist, or the much trippier option, the epigraph does exist, thus the book exists, and Colonel Kurtz exists in a world where a fictional character almost identical to him down to the name coincidentally exists in a book written seventy years before.
    • Worth noting that this paradox would have been averted had the original script been used, where Kurtz was originally called "Col. Leighley" because Brando didn't read the book and couldn't understand the name Kurtz; if watching closely the scene where Willard is sent on his mission, you can see that Harrison Ford saying "Leighley" has been dubbed to say "Kurtz".
  • The Chew Toy: Coppola must have felt like this given how everything went wrong during Filming.
    • Also Martin Sheen, given the heart attack and Coppola not especially caring.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Colonel Kilgore and definitely the Photojournalist. Lance becomes one by the end of the movie.
    • Justified with Lance, since he was on acid at the time.
  • Cold Sniper: Roach is this with a grenade launcher.
  • Colonel Badass: Both Lt. Colonel Kilgore, and Colonel Kurtz. Probably can be considered a Trope Codifier.
  • Colonel Kilgore: The Trope Namer, and possibly the Trope Maker.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Colonel Kurtz praises the tenacity and dedication of the Vietnamese enemy who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, even going so far as to cross the Moral Event Horizon if that is what it takes.
  • Crazy Bird Lady: One of the playmates love birds a little too much.
  • Death From Above: And how! The phrase is also seen written onto the side of one of the helicopters.
  • Decapitation Presentation: This happens to Chief.
  • Dwindling Party: As soon as the squad gets upriver near Kurtz, they start dropping like flies.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Willard is with the 505th of 173rd Airborne Brigade assigned to MACV-SOG, ordered to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who was Operations officer of the 5th Special Forces Group, and is helped by a Patrol Boat, Riverine, crew, and is escorted up the Nung River by Colonel Kilgore of the 1st Squadron of the 9th Air Cavalry.
  • Famous Last Words: "The horror... the horror..."
  • Fatal Family Photo: Well, it was a recording concerning Mr. Clean's family, but it has the same effect.]]
  • Film Noir: You wouldn't think it, but this film actually follows the standard format of a film noir, with Willard as the Hardboiled Detective investigating a case (being sent on a mission). John Hellmann explains it all in "Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now".
    • He has the Chandleresque voiceover, the aloof superiors, the strange tangled plot...
  • The Gunslinger: Roach hits his mark on the other side of a wall with a small grenade launcher, at the first try, aiming only by sound and smell!
  • Hannibal Lecture: "You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks".
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Possibly the Trope Codifier.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: How Chief dies.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Between the Army and the Navy.
    • Kilgore and his Air Cav soldiers tease Capt. Willard for being airborne.
  • Jurisdiction Friction
  • Kill It with Fire: Plenty, with the "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" scene being the most memorable.
  • Madness Mantra: Never get off the boat! Never get off the boat!"
  • Male Gaze: In the director's cut, a Playboy bunny complains that no one sees her as a real person or respects her for her mind...all while the camera is focused on her breasts.
  • Mathematician's Answer:

Willard: Do you know who's in command here?
Roach: Yeah. [Walks off]

  • Mercy Kill: A particularly brutal one when Willard shoots the wounded Vietnamese woman... not because she's dying, but because he doesn't want to take her along with them.

Willard: I told you not to stop.

  • Mighty Whitey: Well and truly Deconstructed.
  • Mind Screw
  • Mister Danger
  • Mood Whiplash: Somewhat deliberately, especially in the expanded version.
  • More Dakka: The boat's machine guns seem to exist solely to spray bullets everywhere.
    • All machineguns exist solely for this purpose, they suck as shovels. Unlike many More Dakka weapons, these are used authentically.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Willard almost has a breakdown after sneaking in and murdering Kurtz.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: The scene where the crew boards the Vietnamese cargo boat. Also, calling in an airstrike with napalm to kill some VC hiding in the jungle.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The massacre of the family on the river sampan, done because the cast wanted a "My Lai" scene.
  • One-Scene Wonder: Marlon Brando has only about ten minutes of screen time as Kurtz. But it is one iconic ten minutes.
    • This could also be said of Roach, who appears only for a moment, but is one of the most Badass characters in the movie.
    • Ditto the Photojournalist - he only has three scenes, but a disproportionate share of the film's actual dialogue. Of course, this is largely due to Dennis Hopper's speeding off his nut during filming.
    • Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) only appears in two scenes, the cleaning up of the beach assault, and the outpost assault, but is perhaps the character everyone remembers best. Robert Duvall won an Oscar for this role.
  • Only Sane Man: Colonel Kurtz believes himself to be this, and is a brutal subversion. Chief and Willard could also count as this.
    • The Photojournalist to some extent - he understands Kurtz better than anyone else, even (at first) Willard.
    • The term "sane" being used loosely.
  • Passing the Torch: Kurtz to Willard, at the end.
  • Playboy Bunny: Cynthia Wood (Miss February 1973, Playmate of the Year 1974) and Linda Carpenter (Miss August 1976). Possibly examples of As Herself, since Wood and Carpenter are both playing Playmates.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: Many lines of this movie are downright legendary, in particular the "I love the smell of napalm" speech, and "The horror, the horror...", the latter taken directly from Heart of Darkness.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Discussed by Kurtz. The Vietcong were willing to commit horrific atrocities, yet were still normal men who loved their families.
  • The Quiet One: Jerry, the CIA officer who silently eats his meal as Willard is being briefed on his mission. He doesn't say anything the entire scene until the end when Willard is told what he must do once he finds Col. Kurtz:

Terminate. With extreme prejudice.

  • Rage Against the Reflection: Yes, Martin Sheen really just punched a mirror. It wasn't staged.
  • Recut: Apocalypse Now Redux and the whole closing credits issue, which is not meant to be part of the movie's plot.
  • River of Insanity: Which was codified by Heart of Darkness.
    • The river is also one of time travel, as the soldiers experience the history of Vietnam backwards.
  • Scenery Gorn
  • Screw the War, We're Partying: Willard concludes that the Viet Cong will be victorious because "Charlie's idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat" during a USO show. Also the scene in the Redux cut where the main characters trade their fuel for some private time with Playboy models.
    • With his insistence on going surfing in the middle a battle, the character of Kilgore definitely exemplifies this trope.
  • Send in the Search Team
  • Shadow Archetype: Is Willard, in the last analysis, any better than Kurtz? Not really.
  • Shirtless Scene: Sheen spends a lot of the time shirtless, and is naked in the beginning. Robert Duvall, too, right in the middle of a battle. Vietnam is hot.
  • Shout-Out: There are several to the Werner Herzog movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which, oddly enough, had a similarly troubled production. One scene (of the natives attacking with arrows) is a shot for shot remake of Aguirre.
    • John Milius, a close friend of Coppola's (and one of the two directors Coppola tapped to finish the movie if he died - the other was George Lucas), makes a fairly convincing case for the film's plot being based on The Odyssey - the analogy works better for Redux than for the original cut.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Kilgore and Kurtz.
  • Soft Glass: Averted. After punching the mirror, Willard is in pain and has a pretty bloody hand wound.
    • You could say Sheen is in pain and has a bloody hand wound, as he did the scene for real...while drunk.
  • The Stoic: Chief, although even he cries when Clean is killed.
  • Taking You with Me: Chief's last-gasp attempt to impale Willard on the spear sticking out of his chest.
  • Talkative Loon: Dennis Hopper's character, an insane hippie journalist.
  • There Are No Therapists: The Army decides it's a good idea to send an emotionally unhinged MACV-SOG agent fresh from a divorce back to Vietnam, instead of recommending him for reintegration therapy. Then after he stays holed up drinking in a hotel room for weeks, they give him a very dangerous and high-priority mission to conduct completely on his own with only Navy sailors providing transportation, accepting his claim that he's fit for service at his word. All this time knowing full well they sent another agent on the exact same mission and he hadn't returned, meaning he was either killed or converted by Kurtz, both implying this was full-stop not the kind of mission to assign to someone without full control of their mental faculties. The movie is pretty much one big TANT when you consider almost every main character after the first ten minutes.
    • Truth in Television here; historically, the Army has a very poor record of providing mental health services to its soldiers.
    • Command had already sent a sane, level-headed man and he wound up becoming Kurtz's second-in-command. By sending Willard, the downright sociopathic cold-blooded assassin, after Kurtz, it was a better chance of success because they were fighting fire with fire...
    • Anybody's who's served in combat with Willard. And Kilgore. And Kurtz.
    • In the workprint of the film, the general informs Willard that the mission is purely voluntary and he can decline it.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Willard sports one right at the end, after he completes his mission.
  • Title Drop: Textually. The words "OUR MOTTO: APOCALYPSE NOW" can be seen painted on a wall behind the Montagnards in the scene outside Kurtz' temple when Chef tries to convince Willard to leave. Supposedly this was to satisfy copyright requirements, since the movie lacked opening credits.
  • The Unfettered: The movie's central concept: exactly how effective a person with no restrictions can be, and how much of a monster. The answer to the latter: a lot.
  • The Vietnam War
  • War Is Hell: One of the most iconic examples ever.
  • Warrior Poet: Or so Kurtz' followers think he is. In reality, he's just insane.
  • We ARE Struggling Together!: Through stories told by Willard's escort, it's clear the South Vietnamese and the Americans are not getting along.
  • What Happened to the Dog: That is still the most asked question to all the actors from the film. Gets lampshaded at one point in the film.
    • Given that it disappeared during the attack that killed Clean, it was most likely shot or jumped off the boat to escape the gunfire.
  • Why Isn't It Attacking?: "Why the fuck aren't they attacking?!"

The horror... the horror...