Filmsite Movie 

Review 100 Greatest 

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Special Services Captain Willard is ferried down the coast to the Nung River on an unobtrusive Navy PBR "plastic patrol boat" crewed by a young group of draftees, representing a cross-section of America. Since the story is told almost entirely through Willard's eyes and point of view, he introduces the boat's demographically-diverse crew: "The crew were mostly just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves":

  • Jay "Chef" Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Engineman 2nd Class, the dope-smoking boat's machinist and hippie gourmet cook from New Orleans: "He was wrapped too tight for Vietnam, probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans"

  • "Lance" B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Gunner's Mate Third Class, a famous blonde, tanned Southern California surfer champion who water-skis behind the boat and works on his tan with reflectors: "To look at him, you wouldn't believe he'd ever fired a weapon in his life"

  • Mr. "Clean" (Laurence Fishburne, credited as Larry Fishburne, aged 14!), another Gunner's Mate Third Class, actually Tyrone Miller, a 17-year-old jive-talking South Bronx ghetto youth who often listens to rock music on his tape player: "I think the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head"

  • Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), the Chief Quartermaster - the boat's efficient, experienced, black tough commander/NCO: "It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was the Chief's boat"

Ominously, Chief Phillips recalls that on a previous trip six months earlier, he took another "regular Army" officer up the river for Special Ops - but tragically, "heard he shot himself in the head."

[Transposed to about an hour later in the Redux version: The PBR crew entertain themselves to Armed Forces Radio playing the Rolling Stones' 60's hit: "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." The grunts crew dances to the radio and gets stoned - with a strange sense of normalcy. Lance even water-skies behind the boat - the rough wake of the boat disrupts peasants in a simple boat, an apt metaphor for the intrusion of Americans into a foreign country.]

As they proceed, Willard leisurely studies the dossier materials, thumbs through the documents, and ponders the absurdity of his assignment. He wonders how he must murder an American officer while leading his own forces in senseless murder:

(Williard - in a flat voice-over) At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Etcetera, etcetera. I had heard his voice on the tape and it really put the hook in me. But I couldn't connect up that voice with this man. Like they said, he had an impressive career, maybe too impressive, I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots in the corporation: General, Chief of Staff, anything. In 1964, he returned from a tour with advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. His report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson was restricted. It seems they didn't dig what he had to tell 'em. During the next few months, he made three requests for transfer to Airborne training, Ft. Benning, Georgia and was finally accepted. Airborne? He was thirty-eight years old. Why the f--k would he do that? 1966: Joined Special Forces, returns Vietnam.

As they near their rendezvous point for an escort (to the mouth of the Nung River), they see and hear an impressive B-52 bomber strike, code-worded "Arc Light" ("Charlie will never see 'em or hear 'em"). With some of the film's fabulous cinematography, they encounter the Huey helicopters of the notorious Ninth Air Cavalry that are just mopping up after a destructive assault by the Viet Cong: "It was the Air Cav., first of the Ninth....our escorts to the mouth of the Nung River. But they were supposed to be waiting for us another thirty kilometers ahead. Well, Air Mobile, those boys just couldn't stay put."

Bloodied civilians are victims of the damaging attack, visible through the smoky remains and carnage on the beachfront. "The first of the Ninth was an old cavalry division that had cashed in its horses for choppers and gone tear-assing around 'Nam lookin' for the s--t. They had given Charlie a few surprises in their time here. What they were mopping up now hadn't even happened yet an hour ago."

After they disembark and look for their contact, they first encounter a TV news crew getting mock footage for the evening US news [the crew is led by director Coppola himself in a reflexive cameo]. They are shouted at:

Don't look at the camera! Just go by like you're fighting. Like you're fighting. Don't look at the camera! This is for television. Just go through, go through.

At the start of the film's most memorable, greatest set of sequences, Willard seeks the CO in charge of the attack. He encounters the commanding officer of the Air Cavalry as an American military archetype. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore [Kill-Gore] (Robert Duvall) is a hawkish, lunatic, flamboyant commander, who wears a black horse soldier's Stetson cavalry hat with a cavalry sword emblem, sunglasses, and a yellow dickey (in the mode of Gen. George A. Custer and Gen. George S. Patton). The idiosyncratic, unflinching, war-loving Kilgore places signature cards ("death cards") over the bodies of the civilian (or VC) dead: "Let's Charlie know who did this." A soldier announces on a loudspeaker to the stunned Vietnamese: "We are here to help you."

Obsessed with surfing in a 'Dr. Strangelove'-like style, Kilgore breaks away from the operation (after generously offering water to a dying VC) to meet Lance Johnson, admire the surfer, and congratulate him on his ability to nose-ride and cut back: "It's an honor to meet you, Lance...None of us are anywhere near your class, though...We do a lot of surfing around here, Lance." In the meantime, the injured and women and children are being taken away. A helpless and frightened calf in a massive net is hauled away by a helicopter - an apt symbol of what is occurring.

That night, Kilgore presides over a nocturnal beach party on the China Sea for the troops - with imported beer and T-bone steaks. He "turned the LZ into a beach party." Willard questions making Vietnam like home: "The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it." Kilgore strums unconcernedly on his guitar. Willard describes "Wild Bill":

Well, he wasn't a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys and you felt safe with him. He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here.

Unsure about securing a Vietcong beachhead at a N. Vietnamese village so that Willard's mission can "get into the river," Kilgore balks: "That village you're pointing out's kinda hairy, Willard," but then changes his mind after learning from the California surfer that the surfing is fantastic there: "It's unbelievable, it's just tube city." He reconsiders an attack at "Charlie's point" since it has a "six foot peak" and is one of the Vietcong's best surfing areas in "Charlie's" territory. He is unperturbed about interference during the liberation of the beach area the next day: "Charlie don't surf!"

At dawn, after a trumpet cavalry charge is sounded on a bugle, Kilgore orders a massive helicopter air attack on an unsuspecting, seemingly innocent, quiet, peaceful Vietnamese village. The armada of choppers glide silently through the breaking dawn like a harmless flock of birds - it is one of the film's most impressive, memorable sequences. The crazed Kilgore has ordered the music: "We'll come in low out of the rising sun, and about a mile out, we'll put on the music...Yeah, use Wagner. Scares the hell out of the slopes. My boys love it." Chef reflexively imitates other soldiers by removing his helmet and sitting on it - to avoid having his "balls blown off." [Castration anxiety and fear is constantly on the men's minds.] Kilgore commands: "Shall we dance?" as the music is piped out from the swarm of helicopters - the front of his copter is painted with the motto adorned with crossed swords: "Death from Above." The choppers become menacing as rockets and gunfire spew out along with Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries (from Die Walkure) blasting over the helicopter-mounted loudspeakers to scare the enemy. Surfboards are loaded on the side of the command helicopter.

Innocent, uniformed schoolchildren who are attending school and other villagers are caught as peaceful non-combatants during Kilgore's senseless attack and amphibious landing. Some run for cover while others prepare for battle. Concealed Viet Cong counter-attack with their own weapons and shoot at the helicopters. Kilgore promises a reward for a direct hit: "Outstanding, Red Team, outstanding. Get you a case of beer for that." Kilgore barks orders: "Ripple the shit out of 'em," and wonders at the VC's resilience: "Don't these people ever give up?" The helicopters land and scores of soldiers hit the ground for the assault. One screaming black soldier has been seriously and painfully wounded in the leg, and is being treated with morphine by medics before evacuation. A young peasant Vietnamese woman in civilian dress throws a bomb concealed in her straw hat into the Medevac Huey that has landed to evacuate the wounded American soldier - it kills all onboard. Kilgore exclaims: "The f--king savages!" The fleeing woman is vengefully pursued by a chopper and shot down with strafing machine-gun fire. One seemingly-invincible OH-6 helicopter is blown out of the sky above the jungle.

After devastating the waterfront Vietcong-controlled coastal village with the pyrotechnic helicopter strike, Kilgore is intent on one thing - surfing the "six foot swells." The oblivious (or immune) commander doesn't duck when warned: "Incoming," casually unaware of the dangers around him. Kilgore gives one soldier a clear choice: "You want to surf soldier?...That's good soldier, 'cause you either surf or fight, is that clear?" Kilgore encourages Lance to get excited about the unusually great surfing conditions ("one guy can break right, one left simultaneous"). Willard thinks the gung-ho, zealous surf-lover Kilgore is crazy:

Willard: Don't you think it's a little risky for R and R?
Kilgore: If I say it's safe to surf this beach, Captain, it's safe to surf this beach. I'm not afraid to surf this place...(He rips off his own shirt.)

To make the surfing beach even safer from sniper fire, he orders an additional air strike with napalm along the tree line ("Bomb it to the Stone Age, son"). [Apocalypse Now Redux: A restored scene shows Kilgore helping to save a Vietnamese child brought to him by the distraught mother.]

With the jungle leveled and engulfed in flames behind him, he smells the napalm, squats on the beach, becomes rhapsodic, and exclaims to Willard - in a now-famous line of dialogue about the thrill of senseless murder:

You smell that? Do you smell that?...Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smells (or smelled) like - victory. [A bomb explodes behind him.] Some day, this war's gonna end.

Kilgore's last line in the film is uncharacteristically delivered in a matter-of-fact tone as he laments the war's end. The scene fades to black as Willard watches Kilgore walk off.

[Apocalypse Now Redux: Additional footage is also inserted of surfin' amidst the attack. The perfect waves are adversely affected by the wind pattern created by the napalm assault. Kilgore profusely apologizes to Lance for the poor surfing conditions. After the assault, Willard and his crew decide to rapidly evacuate the beach area and board their patrol boat. Just before leaving, they show lighthearted camaraderie as Willard playfully steals Kilgore's surfboard for Lance, demonstrating that they still haven't accepted the harsh reality of the war. And slightly later, they hide under jungle growth by the river's edge as Kilgore vainly pursues them upriver by helicopter with recorded loudspeaker entreaties: "I will not hurt or harm you. Just give me back the board, Lance. It was a good board - and I like it. You know how hard it is to find a board you like."]

Finally, the journey upriver on the Nung begins for Willard and his patrol boat crew. In a myriad series of episodes, their journey is an hallucinatory odyssey and metaphor for an apocalyptic descent into the horrors of Hell. Willard knows that he can't go backwards, only forwards:

Someday this war's gonna end. That would be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren't looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I've been back there, and I knew that it just didn't exist anymore.

Kilgore, the 'respectable' side of the Vietnam experience, is ironically contrasted to the other side of the same coin - Kurtz, the 'barbaric' character who is the object of the mission. Willard questions what the real reason might be for the orders to assassinate Kurtz:

If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone.

Clean asks Willard about the journey upriver, "Is it gonna be hairy?," and learns: "I don't know, kid. Yeah, probably." Chef ("raised to be a saucier") and Willard leave the boat at night, in a stunningly-visual sequence, to search for fruit (mangoes). Dwarfed by the eerieness of nature all around and the trees above them, Chef and Willard (on guard against VC) are attacked by a ferocious but beautiful Asian tiger. Chef is terrified and becomes unglued after retreating to the safety of the boat. Willard vows (in voice-over) that they must not "get out of the boat" [a statement of US foreign policy and involvement in SE Asia during the war]:

Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin' all the way.

As they proceed farther into the wild jungle by boat, Willard becomes more and more fascinated by Kurtz' dossier of press clippings, photographs, and letters (both official and personal) and compares himself to the self-appointed leader. He reads about his family, his career, and his rise from being a decorated officer to an embarrassment to the establishment, musing:

Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f---ing program. How did that happen? What did he see here that first tour? 38 f---ing years old. If he joined the Green Berets, there was no way you'd ever get above Colonel. Kurtz knew what he was giving up. The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired him. His family and friends couldn't understand it, and they couldn't talk him out of it. He had to apply three times and he put up with a ton of s--t, but when he threatened to resign, they gave it to him. The next youngest guy in his class was half his age. They must have thought he was some far-out old man humping it over that course. I did it when I was 19 and it damn near wasted me. A tough motherf---er. He finished. He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead...October 1967, on special assignment..., Kurtz staged Operation Archangel with combined local forces. Rated a major success. He received no official clearance. He just thought it up and did it. What balls! They were gonna nail his ass to the floorboards for that one, but after the press got ahold of it, they promoted him to Full Colonel instead. Ah man, the bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.

Previous Page Next Page