Expresses Antiwar Cynicism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the first films about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now helped to establish the themes and narrative structure that would be employed by later films about that conflict. It also expressed American cynicism and disillusionment with the American military-industrial complex typical of the 1970’s.

Summary of Event

The Vietnam War made it necessary for filmmakers to create a new kind of war film. World War II films assumed that the United States was exceptional—that the United States always won its wars and embodied freedom and virtue. Defeat in Vietnam, charges that the United States acted as an imperialist power there, and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers—burning of villages, torture and assassination of suspected Viet Cong, the massacre of civilians at My Lai—undermined such assumptions. After Vietnam, war films made according to the old formula were not credible, and films that might make audiences feel guilty about Vietnam were financially risky. Given these problems, filmmakers avoided the subject. Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures Coppola, Francis Ford Milius, John Herr, Michael

In 1975, however, Francis Ford Coppola, Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Francis Ford Coppola[Coppola] director of The Godfather (1972) and its sequels, announced that he intended to make a film about the war. A poll commissioned by Coppola had found that Americans would accept a “nondidactic” film about Vietnam.

Coppola had difficulty making his film. The American military refused to assist (Pentagon officials objected to the script), a typhoon hit the Philippines, where the film was being shot, and one of the principal actors suffered a heart attack. The film ran millions of dollars over budget and took four years to complete; Apocalypse Now was released on August 15, 1979.

The film tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Sheen, Martin a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assassin ordered to find Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Brando, Marlon a Green Beret accused of murdering four suspected Viet Cong agents. Kurtz has escaped, gathered a force of natives, and moved into Cambodia, where he is waging a private war, “operating,” an American general says, “without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.” Kurtz’s superiors have concluded that Kurtz is insane, and they order Willard to “terminate” Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” A Navy patrol boat carries Willard upriver into Cambodia. Along the way, he and the crew experience adventures that become more and more surreal: a helicopter assault on a village, an encounter with a tiger in the jungle, a USO (United Service Organizations) show featuring Playboy Bunnies, the killing of civilians in a sampan, a battle at an isolated bridge, and an attack by natives with arrows and spears. Eventually, Willard finds Kurtz and assassinates him.





To appeal to the broadest possible audience, Apocalypse Now takes no moral or political stand; the film is so ambiguous it can be understood as antiwar or prowar. Apocalypse Now does call attention to American atrocities in Vietnam. Kurtz’s crime suggests the actual case of Robert Rheault, Rheault, Robert a Green Beret colonel charged in 1969 with murdering a suspected North Vietnamese spy, and critics have argued that both the helicopter assault on the village and the brutal killing of civilians in the sampan allude to the massacre at My Lai. The film also implies that the United States was engaged in an imperialist adventure in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is based in part on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1902), Heart of Darkness (Conrad) a story of European imperialism in Africa. The film also makes reference to the Philippine “insurrection,” in which the United States brutally suppressed a Filipino independence movement and made the Philippines an American colony. In addition, it contains scenes of Americans imposing themselves on the Vietnamese (as when, for example, waterskiing American sailors swamp a Vietnamese ferry).

These antiwar elements in Apocalypse Now are offset by a prowar message in the film’s narrative. The narrative structure of Apocalypse Now is based on the classical myth of a visit to the underworld; in such a myth, a hero descends into the land of the dead, encounters supernatural marvels, acquires wisdom, and returns to the surface, the living world, to bring what he has learned to his fellow human beings. Willard, at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, waits in a hotel room in Saigon. Soldiers arrive with his orders, but he is too drunk to understand them. One soldier characterizes him as “dead.” The film cuts to a shot of a helicopter, in which Willard rides, descending. The sequence indicates Willard’s descent into the underworld.

As Willard travels upriver (a journey that recalls the crossing of the river of the dead in the underworld), he moves further from the realm of conventional morality represented by the officials who have sent him on his mission and further into the supernatural realm of Kurtz. The film implies that Kurtz is a wise man; he is photographed so as to resemble the Buddha. Kurtz teaches that the United States, hampered by conventional rules of war and conventional morality, lacks the will to do what is necessary to win the war. He asserts that the war must be fought savagely, without restraint. When Willard reaches Kurtz’s stronghold, he is captured but allowed to live because Kurtz wishes Willard to go back and tell Kurtz’s story. After Willard kills Kurtz, Willard picks up a manuscript Kurtz has written that contains Kurtz’s message: “Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all!” Willard takes the manuscript, boards the patrol boat, and heads downriver, beginning his return from the underworld to the surface. The wisdom he brings back is clearly a prowar message, one also found in the film’s title, which reverses the peace movement’s “Peace Now” slogan.

Initial reviews of Apocalypse Now were mixed. Critic Stanley Kauffmann Kauffmann, Stanley hailed the film as the ultimate Vietnam War movie. The motion picture won praise for its cinematography and for individual scenes, especially the helicopter assault (acclaimed as one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed). Some critics, however, charged that the film lacked well-defined characters; some especially disliked the performances of Sheen and Brando. Others criticized the film for its self-contradiction and political emptiness. Almost all regarded as a failure Coppola’s attempt to use myth and allegory. Regardless of the response of critics, however, Apocalypse Now had an important effect on subsequent Vietnam War films.


Even before its release, Apocalypse Now inspired the making of other Vietnam War pictures. When other filmmakers heard that Coppola planned to make a film about the war, they followed his lead and rushed to get their films out first. The result was a series of Vietnam War films that appeared before Apocalypse Now, including Go Tell the Spartans, The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter, all released in 1978. None of those films, however, covered the range of issues covered by Apocalypse Now.

Apocalypse Now helped establish the themes and narrative structure that would appear in the Vietnam War films that came after it. Platoon (1986), Platoon (film) for example, uses the same narrative structure as Apocalypse Now—the story of the adventurer descending to the underworld and bringing back wisdom. Platoon opens with a group of soldiers, including Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Sheen, Charlie emerging from a military transport plane that has just landed. The first things the soldiers see are body bags filled with corpses. This scene establishes the metaphor of Vietnam as the land of the dead, into which the troops have descended (“What are you doing in the underworld, Taylor?” a soldier asks later in the film).

The plot of Platoon is similar to the plot of Apocalypse Now in that it depicts a struggle for Taylor’s soul between two sergeants, Elias (Willem Dafoe), Dafoe, Willem who fights within the prescribed rules of warfare, and Barnes (Tom Berenger), Berenger, Tom who, like Kurtz, fights without restraint. In the end, much as Willard murders Kurtz in a kind of sacrificial killing, Taylor murders Barnes. Taylor then ascends in a helicopter in the film’s final scene, leaving the underworld of Vietnam and beginning his return to the surface. He takes with him the knowledge he has gained from both sergeants (he is “a child born of those two fathers”) and promises to teach what he has learned.

Casualties of War (1989) Casualties of War (film) has a similar narrative structure. The film literally begins underground: Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), Fox, Michael J. a Vietnam veteran, is sleeping on a subway; in his dreams, he relives his Vietnam experience (this scene, too, sets up the metaphor of Vietnam as the underworld). The film tells the story of Eriksson’s squad members, who kidnap and repeatedly rape a Vietnamese girl. Eriksson refuses to participate. There follows the same kind of struggle found in Apocalypse Now between conventional morality, represented by Eriksson, and the morality of Vietnam, where soldiers operate without restraint. At the end of the film, Eriksson returns from the underworld to the surface; he awakes as the subway emerges from underground into the light.

A major theme of Apocalypse Now is Kurtz’s identification with the enemy. Kurtz admires the will of the Viet Cong to do what is necessary without judgment or restraint. He adopts the enemy’s tactics, engaging in guerrilla warfare. This kind of identification with the enemy becomes the major theme in First Blood (1982). First Blood (film) In that film, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Stallone, Sylvester a Vietnam veteran, is unjustly arrested by the sheriff of a small town. Rambo escapes and fights a guerrilla war in the forest against the police and the National Guard. Rambo’s war is a miniature Vietnam War in which Rambo acts as the Viet Cong: He defeats soldiers who have helicopters and superior firepower, he vanishes into a cave that calls to mind the tunnels used by the Viet Cong, and he takes his war from the forest into the town in a way that recalls the Tet Offensive of 1968, in which the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong moved from the jungles to attack the cities of Vietnam.

Apocalypse Now implies that the United States could have won the Vietnam War had it possessed the will and had American power not been restrained by bureaucrats. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Rambo: First Blood Part II (film) develops this theme. Rambo is sent back to Vietnam to search for American prisoners of war left behind when the war ended (“Do we get to win this time?” Rambo asks). The bureaucrat in charge of the operation wants Rambo to fail; it would be politically embarrassing to admit that the United States left soldiers behind. When Rambo finds a prisoner and escapes with him to a rendezvous point, the bureaucrat recalls the helicopter sent to pick them up, leaving them stranded. This scene, in which a bureaucrat arranges for defeat at the moment of victory, calls to mind the conservative interpretation of the Tet Offensive: Tet Offensive (1968) Conservatives argued that the campaign was a great military victory for the United States but that, at that moment when victory in the war was in sight, bureaucrats lost their nerve and began the pullout that led to defeat. In the film, Rambo, through his will, overcomes all obstacles and achieves the victory that eluded the United States on the battlefield.

Another theme in Apocalypse Now emerges in the scene involving the USO show featuring the Playboy Bunnies. The show takes place in an amphitheater decorated with missiles, which appear to be huge phallic symbols. The troops scream obscenities at the women and finally storm the stage, disrupting the show. The scene conveys two messages: that war is a male ritual and excludes women and that there is a connection between war and the domination and humiliation of women by men in American society. That theme is developed further in Full Metal Jacket (1987), Full Metal Jacket (film) which shows U.S. Marine recruits being indoctrinated in hatred of women during basic training (Michael Herr, who wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now, helped write the script for Full Metal Jacket). The theme is also prominent in Casualties of War, in which the rape of the Vietnamese girl is used as a male-bonding ritual to hold members of the squad together.

Francis Ford Coppola has said that when he began working on Apocalypse Now, he wrote down a list of about two hundred things about Vietnam that he wanted to include in his movie. The result was an extraordinarily rich film that did a great deal to establish the way in which American filmmakers have told the story of the Vietnam War. Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auster, Albert, and Leonard Quart. How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1988. History of Vietnam War films critically evaluates the films, classifies them according to type, and places them in the context of the history of the “war movie” genre. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, James West, and Mark Hamilton Lytle. “Where Trouble Comes: History and Myth in the Films of Vietnam.” In After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Essay evaluates the historical authenticity of Vietnam films and the role of motion pictures in creating myths about the Vietnam War. Includes photographs and suggestions for additional reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at Twenty-Four Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of over Four Hundred Films About the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. Provides detailed summaries and analyses of Vietnam War films, presented in chronological order. Includes both alphabetical and chronological filmographies as appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Collection of essays discusses the full range of Vietnam War films, including documentaries. Frank P. Tomasulo contributes an essay on the political ambiguity of Apocalypse Now. Includes photographs, chronology, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herr, Michael. Dispatches. 1977. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Excellent personal memoir of the Vietnam War by a journalist who covered the war for Esquire magazine. Concentrates on events of 1968, including the Tet Offensive and the battle for Khe Sanh, and on the experience of the ordinary soldier. Especially good at capturing the kind of surreal perception of the war also found in Apocalypse Now.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. Excellent study of the Vietnam War uses the career of John Paul Vann, an American military officer, as a starting point from which to explore the entire American experience in Vietnam. Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Includes maps, photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Provides a chronology of the events of the war and examines how literature and film have depicted the “truth” of particular events. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.

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