Film Review: Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, artistically rendered.
A Francis Ford Coppola classic.

I love war movies. Truly and sincerely. This might come as a surprise to those who know how much I hate war. As a woman, I have never been draft material, but I suspect that I might have been able to make conscientious objector status had I ever been in a position to make the argument. I’m the sort of person who, to the argument that WWII and fighting the horrors of Hitler was just, will reply that Hitler would never have risen to power without WWI. I hate war, truly and sincerely… yet I love war movies. The only war movie I’ve ever started that I didn’t love was Enemy at the Gates, I couldn’t abide its stereotyped, no-nuance portrayal of Communism. That one, I didn’t finish. Apocalypse Now is much more my style.

Use of Color

golds and greens and tans, reds and black for accent and shadow
This shot exemplifies the film’s color palette.

The color palette of Apocalypse Now is very limited. Gold and green and tan dominate. Red shows up for accent (usually in the form of blood), white is used for highlight and contrast, and dark brown or black makes the shadows come alive. The only real notable exception to this palette is the diegetic (film term: pertaining and relevant to the world of the characters) use of purple smoke by the soldiers, and let me tell you, after taking in so much of the same information in slightly different permutations for so long, those swaths of purple smoke are almost a relief to the eye. At the start of the film I was enjoying how completely the color was controlled while seeming to remain natural and diegetic. Even the sky is somehow gold all the time! But by the end of the film I was dying to see something blue. The color control seemed not just forced, but suffocating. That may have been the intent. The film as it stands definitely conveys the heat and mugginess of Vietnam. There were some shots in which beads of sweat were captured in such exquisite detail that I felt slimed by them.


Marlon Brando, doing what he does best.
Very intense.

Apocalypse Now is wonderfully cast. Marlon Brando is at the top of his game as the megalomaniac Kurtz, and Dennis Hopper seems even more disconnected from reality as the photojournalist playing into Kurtz’s cult of personality. Harrison Ford’s leading man charisma gets dampened down perfectly in his supporting role as a staff officer during Willard’s briefing, and I doff my hat to him for managing that, I’m sure it was harder than it looked. Laurence Fishburne’s talent is evident in his portrayal of unripened youth faced with terror. And regarding the character of Willard, our narrator – I haven’t seen much of Martin Sheen’s work but he conveys the stark horror and hypervigilance of PTSD without chewing the scenery. Really, there’s not a single performance here that’s flawed, and with the ensemble working together as well as they do, if there were a flawed performance it would be noticeable. Coppola drew out the best in these men.


Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.
Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.

This film has become best known for Kurtz’s dying half-whisper of the phrase, “The horror, the horror.” Yet despite the carnage Willard wades through and at times participates in, it is not a grisly show of horrors we as viewers have been invited to here. Make no mistake, gore is present (at one point, the Cambodians ritually slaughter a large animal, and the killing blow is shown). But it’s not the point. There are no cheap thrills, no edge-of-the-seat jumping at a sudden noise after silent tension. This is far from a slasher film. The pace of the film is slow – agonizingly so, at times. Apocalypse Now is an exploration of what it means to be evil, what it means to be mad, what it means to be human and ultimately what it means to have honor. If this film is to be believed, in the Vietnam War humanity had to take a backseat to honor. Kurtz loses his humanity but retains his honor and an argument can be made that he is more the film’s hero than Willard. Apparently there is a fine line between honor and horror, and not just linguistically.

I’m sure that Apocalypse Now is not for everyone. The first time I saw it, more than a decade ago, I was bored long before the end, most likely due to the slow pacing. But for someone who likes war movies, appreciates good acting from a professional cast, and wants to see what tight directorial control can really produce, Apocalypse Now is a film to watch with the lights off.

Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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