Filmsite Movie 

Review 100 Greatest 

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

Chef reads outloud a newspaper article sent from home about Charles Manson and the slaying of Sharon Tate, and how his girlfriend Eva "pictures me at home having a beer watching TV." Clean listens to a cassette tape sent from his Mama while Lance lights a "Purple Haze" flare (that he calls "rainbow reality"). [Purple Haze was both a type of LSD, and a popular Jimi Hendrix drug song.] Suddenly, the patrol boat is surprised by an enemy Vietcong attack from the river banks. Lance's puppy is lost, and Clean is killed in the sniper assault before he is able to hear the final ironic wishes of his mother's voice on the tape:

I'm so glad you decided to join the Navy. That's much more than I can say for some of your friends. If this tape is any good, I will have Dad and the family send you a tape of their own...(The assault commences.)...And so I'm hoping that -- pretty soon -- not too soon -- but pretty soon I'll have a lot of grandchildren to love and spoil. And then when your wife get 'em back, she'll be mad with me. Ha, ha, ha. Even Aunt Jessie and Mama will come to celebrate your coming home. Granny and Dad are trying to get enough money to get you a car, but don't tell 'em, because that's our secret. Anyhow, do the right thing. Stay out of the way of the bullets. And bring your heinie home all in one piece. Because we love you very much. Love, Mom.

[Apocalypse Now Redux: In an additional disorienting, dream-like (almost narcotic and gauzy) 20-minute segment or interlude, the boat comes upon a battered and devastated French colonial settlement - it emerges from the smoke on the river bank almost as if from a time warp. The entire journey is one that parallels Vietnam's own historical background - from the American outpost, to the French settlement, and finally to the natives themselves in a primal state. The mood is eerie and tense as the patrol boat pulls up to a broken-down wharf. Shortly after disembarking, the blowing smoke dissipates and reveals that they are confronted by a gun-toting squadron of Frenchmen. The French planter Hubert de Marias (Christian Marquand) welcomes them after learning that they lost one of their men. He explains that generations of his family have been at the plantation site in Cambodia for 70 years. He also asserts: "And it will be such until we are all dead."

In a ceremony accompanied by the French militia, (and within view of the two-story plantation partially hidden by the jungle), Clean is given a respectful burial - his body is momentarily draped by a tattered American flag (before his canvas-wrapped corpse is lowered into the ground, along with his tape player). A bugle plays during the final rites.

Afterwards, the crew are invited to an extravagant French, white-tablecloth (with napkins and crystal glasses) dinner (of wine, sauces) with the extended family of the patriarch/planter - four generations of the plantation-owning family clinging to their past. Waiters (and the chef) are Vietnamese servants. Two of the planter family's youngest members, Gilles and Francis (Coppola's own sons Gian-Carlo and Roman) recite Baudelaire at the dinner table, as Hubert later explains:

It's a very cruel poem for children. But they need it, 'cause life sometimes is very cruel.

The planter vows to stay in Cambodia forever - it's his family's home soil, he bangs the table and argues, even though his country has a long colonial history of losses there and worldwide (in WWII, Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, Indochina): "But here, we don't lose. This piece of earth, we keep it. We will never lose it, never!" Soon, there is further disagreement over the purpose of the present war and American involvement in Indochina ("The Vietcong were invented by the Americans"), and now that the Americans have taken the place of the French, they must fight the Vietminh. The French planter (and his uncle) foretell the American fate in the war effort:

And what can you do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Vietnamese are very intelligent. You never know what they think.

During the heated dialogue, one of the younger, upset de Marias family members asks Willard why Americans have lost their will to fight in Vietnam: "Why don't you Americans learn from us, from our mistakes? Mon Dieux, with your Army, your strength, your power, you could win if you want to!...You can win." The planter concludes the conversation by recounting why they are dedicated to remain there, while the Americans are not:

...the Vietnamese, (we) worked with them, make something - something out of nothing...We want to stay here because it's ours - it belongs to us. It keeps our family together. (Ironically, almost everyone has left the table by this time). I mean, we fought for that. While you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.

The golden-hued sunlight fades and darkness falls over the room as the dinner scene ends.

The beautiful, chiffon-wearing, delicate-faced and blue-eyed French widow, Madame Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clement), who has been 'making eyes' with Willard during the entire dinner conversation, notes that he looks "tired of the war." She recollects: "'Twas the same in the eyes of the soldiers of our war. We called them 'Les Soldats Perdus' - The Lost Soldiers." She invites (and convinces) him to share a cognac drink rather than attend to the boat and his men: "The war will be still here tomorrow," she reminds him. They also prepare to smoke opium in her bedroom, lying on her canopy bed. [She used to prepare an opium pipe for her husband, using the addictive pain-killer as morphine for his war wound.] As she is about to place the pipe into Willard's mouth, she tells him about something she once said to her husband (her "lost soldier"):

There are two of you. Don't you see? One that kills and one that loves.

Her former husband responded: "I don't know whether I'm an animal or a god." In contrast, she sees Willard as having both evil and god-like qualities:

But you are both....All that matters is that you are alive. You are alive, Captain. That's the truth.

In a poignant, ethereal, and tender seduction scene, she strips naked and gracefully unties the gauzy curtains that drape down from the canopy over the four sides of the bed. He reaches up to caress her face through the semi-transparent mosquito netting, as her words are repeated on the soundtrack: "There are two of you. Don't you see? One that kills and one that loves."]

The journey recommences as the previous scene dissolves into the next foggy dawn's mist. As the smoke, wreckage, and carnage increase along their watery route, the grief-stricken, crazed crew are fearful of what is coming. Fog drifts over the boat, as they pass the wreckage of an airplane. Willard feels Kurtz's ominous presence closeby:

He was close, real close. I couldn't see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the boat were being sucked upriver and the water was flowing back into the jungle. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn't gonna be the way they call it back in Nha Trang.

In another surprise attack, this time with primitive arrows and spears presumably from native tribesmen (some of Kurtz' Montagnard warriors), Chief Phillips is impaled and killed by a spear from behind as they attempt to retreat. On his back with his last bit of strength, Chief struggles to pull Willard onto the same spear sticking out of his chest.

As Lance (with an arrow playfully sticking through his head) gives Chief a watery burial, Willard tells an outraged Chef his real mission:

Willard: My mission is to make it up into Cambodia. There's a Green Beret Colonel up there who's gone insane. I'm supposed to kill him.
Chef: That's f--kin' typical. S--t. F--kin' Vietnam mission. I'm short and we gotta go up there so you can kill one of our own guys? That's f--kin' great! That's just f--kin' great, man. S--t. That's f--kin' crazy. I mean, I thought you were goin' in there to blow up a bridge, or some f---in' railroad tracks or somethin'.

Chef recommends that they should keep together on the security of the boat and all go together. Willard narrates (in voice-over) about his fears as they get closer to their destination. The scenery is bathed in bright flaming red and golden hues: "Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him." Willard rips up his dossier materials and tosses them in the river.

In dugout canoes, the native tribesmen (covered with white ash and wearing loincloths), [a perverted version of the landing of a whaling ship in sun-drenched Tahiti], the guerrilla Montagnards and other ragtag mercenaries await Willard, Lance, and Chef at Kurtz's strange jungle outpost - a decaying Angkor Wat-style, ancient Cambodian temple. Hanging, mutilated corpses and decapitated heads on posts (of enemies or dissenters?) decorate the approach to Kurtz's camp compound. [The Montagnard tribesmen were portrayed by the Ifugao people of Banaue of the Philippine Islands.]

In Kurtz' camp, a site of primitive evil, they are greeted by a crazed, hyperactive, fast-talking, spaced-out, free lance, American photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper looking like Charles Manson), who loudly announces: "It's all been approved." [The character was reportedly based upon legendary photographer Tim Page, author of Nam and Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden.] The babbling, deranged combat photographer, garlanded by his camera equipment, hopes for their sake, that they haven't come to take "him" away - Colonel Kurtz. He describes the great awe all the natives have for their jungle lord: "Out here, we're all his children." The photojournalist appears to be a fanatical follower of Kurtz. He worships the enigmatic, genius "poet-warrior" Kurtz as a personal god and expounds Kurtz's cause:

Hey, man, you don't, uh, you don't talk to the Colonel. Uh, uh, well, you listen to him. Uh, the man's enlarged my mind. Uh, uh, he's a poet warrior in the classic sense, uh. I mean sometimes he'll... uh... well, you'll say 'hello' to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you and he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab ya, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, 'Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you'... I mean I'm... no, I can't... I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's... he's a great man! Uh, uh, I should have been a pair of ragged claws, uh, scuttling across floors of silent seas. [These lines were taken from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.] I mean...He can be terrible and he can be mean and he can be right. He's fighting the war. He's a great man.

[Notice the graffiti title to the film on the temple's stone blocks, the only unspoken mention of the film's title.]

He offers first-hand advice from his own experience: "So, ya just lay it cool, lay cool, laid back, dig it...You don't judge the Colonel." Willard is impressed by Kurtz's power over the people. He notices Captain Richard Colby (Scott Glenn) holding his weapon (with a bloody hand) among the natives tribesmen. Leading them on a short tour of the island, the photo-journalist also describes the compound, cluttered with bloodied bodies:

The heads. You're lookin' at the heads. Eh, uh-sometimes he goes too far, you know, and he's the first one to admit it.

The photo-journalist vows that Kurtz isn't crazy, and becomes ecstatic: "If you could have heard the man just two days ago. If you could have heard him then, God - ."

Chef, nervous about being off the boat, suggests that the crew return to the boat to wait until Willard can talk to Kurtz. He fears that the Colonel is the master of an eternally-evil place:

This Colonel guy, he's wacko, man. He's worse than crazy. He's evil...It's f--kin' pagan idolatry. Look around you. S--t. He's loco...I ain't afraid of all them f--kin' skulls and altars and s--t. I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn't be able to make it to Heaven. But now, f--k! I mean, I don't care where it goes, as long as it ain't here. So whaddya wanna do? I'll kill the f--k.

Willard leaves with Lance to "scrounge" around and try to find the Colonel, keeping Chef on the boat and instructing him to radio for help if necessary: "If I don't get back by 2200 hours, you call in the airstrike...The code is Almighty - coordinates 09264712." During their scouting trip in a drenching rain, Willard sees hundreds of bodies - proving Kurtz' insanity, and his power over life and death:

Everything I saw told me that Kurtz had gone insane. The place was full of bodies. North Vietnamese, Vietcong, Cambodians. If I was still alive, it was because he wanted me that way.

Willard is dragged in the mud and eventually taken to Kurtz's location to meet his prey:

It smelled like slow death in there, malaria, and nightmares. This was the end of the river, all right.

He is granted an audience with Kurtz, seen in dramatic dark shadows in his inner sanctum. The baffling, unbalanced, overweight, and decaying Kurtz is shaved bald. [Brando weighs almost 300 pounds, although in Conrad's original book Heart of Darkness, Kurtz was gaunt and emaciated - the other extreme.] He questions Willard about his past, and his Ohio (Toledo) background. Kurtz is reminded of a childhood experience of traveling down the Ohio River and coming upon a gardenia or flower plantation where "you'd think that heaven just fell on the earth in the form of gardenias."

Slow-speaking and slightly deranged, Kurtz knows Willard's mission is to kill him. While sprinkling cool water on his bald head from a bucket, Kurtz asks: "Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinion of others? Even the opinions of yourself? Did they say why, Willard? Why they want to terminate my command?" After a long pause, Willard responds coldly: "I was sent on a classified mission, sir." "It's no longer classified, is it?" is Kurtz' response. Willard must confess his mission and knowledge of Kurtz's brutality and insanity:

Kurtz: What did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound. (Kurtz clenches his fist.)
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.
Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
Willard: I'm a soldier.
Kurtz: (disdainfully, with his face in full view) You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.

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