Original release date: August 5th, 1979
Running time: 153 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper
“Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!” ~ General William T. Sherman, 1880
For all the hell that war is, there are still rules it must abide by, the importance of which becomes all too clear when watching a film like Apocalypse Now or reading news reports about US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 story, Heart of Darkness, as well as drawing on Michael Herr’s 1977 memoirs, Dispatches, we see a total disregard for Jus In Bello (the law of war) and as a result it helps us understand something about the nature of war, least of all the madness and absurdity of it.
Set in 1968, it tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who’s sent on a mission to Cambodia to assassinate Green Beret, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War. Kurtz has gone insane and has barricaded himself in a remote outpost, setting himself up as a God among a local tribe and committing atrocious acts of enslavement, torture and murder. Kurtz’s tactics were at first approved by the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) who saw no problem with him killing women and children as he raised an army in and around the Vietnamese–Cambodian border to take down the Viet Cong and N.V.A. (Vietnam People’s Army).
This soon changed when Kurtz allowed images of his atrocities to be revealed to the world and then refused to step down after orders from the MACV. Willard joins the crew of a Navy Patrol Boat and they venture deep into the jungle to make their way to Kurtz’s base. The visions of war, suffering and the stench of death they see along the way is nothing compared to the apocalypse Kurtz will rain down on them once they arrive…if they survive.
Kurtz throws out the rules in war in favour of his own just war theories; he shows no discrimination between the innocent and non-innocents, he uses maximum force and takes away the rights of soldiers, including Willard’s as he breaks him down. Kurtz firmly believes that his actions are justified if they are to prevail in this war.
The disregard for the rules in war is not limited to him though. We see it throughout the movie; Willard shows it when they stop to inspect a sampan, Kilgore shows it when he launches an attack on the beach to the sound of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, after which he remarks to Willard “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… The smell, you know that gasoline smell… Smells like … victory”, recalling a battle where hill was bombarded with napalm for over twelve hours.
This bloodlust for war, as experienced and acted on by the soldiers, still occurs today and for the atrocities carried out by them, there’s little to no justice in their wake. This is apparent when we read Der Spiegel reporting on the “kill team”, accused of killing civilians for pure fun and degrading their victims by taking trophy photos. Another report told us about video images of four US Marines, urinating on the dead bodies of three Taliban fighters. CNN reported the “kill team” case was dismissed and charges dropped “in the interest of justice”.
Why have rules for war and in the conduct of war when even American criminal courts dismiss charges of such violations of human rights? Does war bring out our very worst or is this our natural state, how we really are?
No one ever wants war, yet we seem to be a species constantly engaged in it. Apocalypse Now tells a story that’s still happening in the world today. In the wake of such atrocities, Col. Kurtz’s war crimes are pale in comparison and should leave us asking serious questions about the conduct in war and what’s gained from it.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .