This is a film that needs no introduction. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, the legendarily troubled production history of this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, documented in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, features the second star leading performance of Martin Sheen (after Badlands (1973)) while also including known commodities such as Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. It’s a lush piece of episodic cinema (shot by Vittorio Storaro) that ends in a world even more surreal than the build-up, or even the novel, could prepare us for. Captain Willard (Sheen) takes on a mission to find and kill supersoldier Colonel Kurtz (Brando) deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, and his numerous and wide-ranging but almost always antagonistic encounters along the way show him and us the true face of the Vietnam War. In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch released an extended and re-edited version called Apocalypse Now Redux, and that’s what I saw.
It struck me about midway through the film that, in contrast to most war films, which either glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge (2016)), Apocalypse Now (1979/2001) isn’t actually about war per se. It’s about the absurd tragedies that occur when a rational strategy or cultural institution is guided by humans and their inherent irrationalities. War is but the most extreme case.
By rational I don’t mean reason, that elusive ideal espoused by Enlightenment types and, later, colonial types. I’m referring to instrumentality, or instrumental reason, the type of reasoning required to get a job done, regardless of the job’s merits—which characterizes war precisely: a massive, collective, supposedly organized undertaking of questionable merit. The heightened clash of Platonic-ideal war plans with their imperfect execution often results in absurdist humor, as seen in spades in the book behind Catch-22 (1970), a film that also includes Sheen and is decidedly darker in tone. (Funny story: In a serious academic discussion of a gruesome scene from Heller’s novel as quoted in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, the professor was drawing our attention to how it depicts the traumas of war, while I and the classmate next to me were trying our damnedest not to laugh—and failing.) Indeed, the absurd clash between reason and irrationality is the source of most of the humor here, too: Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s (Duvall) fixation on surfing, given a lengthier treatment in this version; the fact that Willard, wandering the jungle and already paranoid about the Vietcong and indigenous hostiles, runs into a goddamn tiger; the hypersexualizing of the Playmates (if that’s possible) in the R&R scene and how ill-prepared they and the organizers are for it; and so on. I’m tempted to add the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene to this list, but despite its absurdist intentions, I think it actually manages to pull off the music, and we see exactly what Willard means when he says that Kilgore’s cavalry unit basically just “cashed in its horses for choppers,” because holy shit that’s a completely bonkers number of choppers for a single scene.
All this gallows humor is undergirded by the excruciating notion that the war could’ve been won, if we’d actually tried. That oppressive ideal is what Kurtz represents with his ruthless efficiency. Willard reads a letter from Kurtz in which he writes that the American GI would fight much better if deprived of his sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; it’s the reason Kurtz uses indigenous warriors. Willard makes the same observation when watching the Playmates strut around on stage: The Vietcong’s “idea of great R&R is cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.” Redux adds a scene at a French legacy plantation, where Willard listens to the family talk politics at the dinner table. Their sentiments about the American invasion can be summed up in this one line: “Why don’t you Americans learn from us, from our mistakes? Mon Dieu, with your army, your strength, your power, you could win if you want to!” Instead, the Americans rebuild a bridge every day that the Vietcong blow up every night, just so they can claim that the road is open. They fuck around when they lose their CO, in both the bridge scene and, in a restored scene, at the base gone nuts where Willard and co. trade fuel for a second meeting with the now-traumatized Playmates. And they order Willard to up and murder the best and most efficient soldier of the entire war.
The military brass has to have Kurtz eliminated, of course, because if it didn’t—if it implicitly authorized Kurtz’s actions and tactics—then it’d be admitting the impossible paradox that war requires, as Kurtz describes the Vietcong, “men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordal [sic] instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment—without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” As Sun Tzu observed all the way back in the 5th century BCE in The Art of War, the point of waging war is to win the motherfucker as fast as you can (I’m paraphrasing).
Everything else is just the smell of napalm in the morning.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published in revised form at Critics at Large.