Apocalypse Now is the best of the Vietnam movies. It works on several levels and has survived the test of the decades in ways that many of the other movies have not. It's an episodic story, tied together by the boat and the river. Based in part on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, it is a series of events, each one more mad than the previous, as the boat moves through Vietnam and then over the border into Cambodia.
This is the opening, overlaid by the Doors. It is one of the most powerful opening scenes in any movie.
I watched it, as I mentioned, for the first time at the base theater in Iwakuni, Japan in 1983. I was young. The intervening years have given me a greater appreciation of what Coppola created. Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, seems like the protagonist. You meet him first, raging drunk in a Saigon hotel, and will seemingly follow him throughout the movie.
But Willard cannot be the protagonist because he is unchanged by the journey. His journey into darkness is already complete. He is the observer, we see the events through his eyes, but he is almost disengaged, unemotional, just passively going along to the end. I think it is Lance, the surfer, that is the protagonist, although it could be the entire crew, with Lance standing in for all of them as the survivor at the end. Each of of the crew is changed far more than Willard and each one dies in their turn by increasingly primitive means. At the beginning, Lance is the untouched young man, a surfer out of California, just a member of a small boat crew, looking to get high and unconcerned with the events of the war around him. He is transformed by his journey, his former life washed away.
The river serves as the river of time, they move upriver, away from the veneer of civilization. Each stop taking them further away. What are they moving toward? The lies of the generals and the politicians are also something they start with and they move away from that as well.
Each stop is more primitive, more violent, and in some ways more honest at the same time it is more insane.
Kurtz is honest and mad. He's even right about a number of key things and Willard recognizes both that honesty and the madness. The question of why Willard carries out the orders and kills Kurtz and also why Kurtz permitted him to do so remains ambiguous. The assumption must be that Kurtz saw something in Willard that he did not see in the others. But I am still not sure.
In the Redux version, there is only one scene I wish they had left in the original. That is the French rubber plantation scene. Willard gets off the boat and has an evening with the family at the plantation. I think it fits with the journey upriver and the unraveling of things. It is a window into a way of life whose time had passed. They should have left long ago and here they were, still pretending, as the war consumed the country. It connects and reinforces the scene with the USO show and the Playboy bunnies and how quickly the veneer comes off.
There is no reasoning with the darkness. There is only the journey into it. And it doesn't matter where you start from, just how far there is to go.
This movie plays in a series of loosely connected short chapters, almost like Pulp Fiction and I have thought that you could remix it the same way, cut it into scenes and splice it back together and make it only come together when you get to the last scene and you realize where you are. The opening scene of Willard punching the mirror as he dances ties directly to Lance dancing on the bow of the boat while tripping. The "never get out of the boat" scene with the tiger bookends with them getting out of the boat at Kurtz's compound.
I don't have any conclusions. Just the observation of the impact of the film.
This one goes on my personal top 10 war movies.