Apocalypse Now: Crash Course Film Criticism #8

Apocalypse Now: Crash Course Film Criticism #8

There are war movies, and then there’s Apocalypse
Now. In the late 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola hauled
a film crew into the jungles of the Philippines and barely emerged with his sanity intact. And, he emerged with a film that – after
two years of work in the editing room – is as much about one soldier’s journey into
his own mind, as it is about the American war in Vietnam. It’s an ambitious film that, on its face,
shouldn’t work. And yet it does, on so many levels. [Intro Music Plays] Director Francis Ford Coppola was riding a wave of success when he went off into the
jungle to make Apocalypse Now. Over the previous seven years he’d made
three bona fide classics: The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather: Part II. He’d proven he could tell intensely personal
stories with the scope and scale of myths. His fascination with rituals, his daring camerawork,
and his ability to put viewers into the heads of his characters had made him very successful. Critically, commercially, and artistically. As the 1970s drew to a close, the major Hollywood
studios were being gobbled up by multinational corporations. So executives were becoming more hesitant
to gamble on the personal, ambitious visions of filmmakers like William Friedkin, Martin
Scorsese, and especially Francis Ford Coppola. Nevertheless, Coppola leveraged all the clout
he had, threw in a bunch of his own money, and headed off to the Philippines to make
his dream film. He planned to use the Joseph Conrad novella
Heart of Darkness as the basis for a story about the American war in Vietnam. Conrad’s book follows its narrator Charles
Marlow up the Congo River in search of an enigmatic ivory trader named Kurtz. It’s the tale of Marlow’s growing obsession
with Kurtz, as well as a broader critique of colonialism, and especially British imperialism. In Apocalypse Now, an American Army captain
named Willard is dispatched by a shadowy group of senior military officers (including Harrison Ford)to find a Colonel Kurtz and kill him. Kurtz, we’re told, has gone insane. He’s surrounded himself with an army of
Montagnard troops and fled upriver into Cambodia. When we first meet Willard, played by Martin
Sheen, he’s suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress dream in a Saigon hotel. It’s a stunning opening – dissolving from
a lush jungle ravaged by napalm, to thumping military helicopters, to Willard’s violent
outbursts in the hotel – all scored to “The End” by the Doors. This reveals Willard’s damaged psyche, but
also what caused it: the horrors of war. Then, Willard begins his journey upriver,
traveling on a Navy patrol boat manned by a motley crew. There’s the earnest captain known as Chief,
played by Albert Hall. Sam Bottoms plays the California surf dude
Lance. Chef, played by Frederic Forrest, is a saucier
from New Orleans who gets wound tighter as the film continues. And a baby-faced Lawrence Fishburne plays
Clean, the youngest member of the crew. Together, these guys ferry Willard deeper
into Vietnam, encountering everything from a USO show starring Playboy Playmates to a
surf-loving, Wagner-playing Air Cavalry officer played with gusto by Robert Duvall. Killgore: If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain… It’s safe to surf this beach!!! The sights and sounds of their voyage grow
increasingly absurd. And the ship’s crew becomes more unbalanced,
as they all look for ways to cope with the madness of war. When they finally reach Kurtz’s compound,
they discover macabre temples decorated with hanging corpses, heads on spikes, and thousands
of silent Montagnard warriors in white paint. With them is a manic American photojournalist
played by Dennis Hopper who warns Willard that Kurtz has plans for him. Photojournalist: He’s got something in mind for you. Aren’t you curious about that? Kurtz himself, played by Marlon Brando, remains
an enigma right to the end. Part warrior, part philosopher, and part tormented
soul, he’s mostly kept in shadows, looming over Willard. Kurtz: Are my methods unsound? Willard: I don’t see… any method… at all, sir. Kurtz beheads Chef before he can call in an
airstrike, but keeps Willard alive, reading him poetry and attempting to justify his actions
in whispered monologues. Eventually, Willard decides to take action. And as the Montagnards slaughter a water buffalo
in an elaborate ceremony, Willard uses the same kind of machete to kill Kurtz. Willard then emerges from the temple to face
the warriors, who kneel before him as he takes Lance by the arm and pulls him back to the
boat. THE END! Now, the production of Apocalypse Now was
in serious trouble from the start. Coppola was behind schedule and over budget
almost immediately. He fired his lead actor within the first months
of filming. And the replacement, Martin Sheen, was in
the midst of his own alcoholic breakdown at the time. Not to mention, he suffered a heart attack
in the middle of the shoot. The crew, who was scrambling to keep up with
Coppola rewriting the movie as it was being shot, returned to the hotel each night for
drug-fueled parties. Much of the military hardware used in the
film, including the helicopters of the Air Cavalry Unit, were on loan from the Filipino
military. More than once, the real army needed them
back to fight their own war. And partway through production, a typhoon
struck and wiped out nearly all of the sets and equipment. The stress of it all became so intense that
Coppola threatened to commit suicide more than once and even suffered an epileptic seizure. You know, just your average film shoot… Except not. It wasn’t. Like, at all. In the end, Coppola shot an unprecedented
one-and-a-half million feet of film, which comes out to about 240 hours of footage. It took a team of four editors more than two
years of work to cut the film together, tear it apart, and reconstruct it. War journalist Michael Herr was brought in
to co-write Willard’s terse voice over after test audiences couldn’t understand the story. But, after all that, the film finally debuted
at the Cannes Film Festival – a year late – and took home the top prize, the Palme
d’Or. Apocalypse Now is a movie that emerged out
of a really complicated production process. And it’s not a film that’s going to be
satisfied with a single interpretation. One way to look at films is through the lens
of genre. And the most obvious way to think about Apocalypse
Now is as a war movie. But what if we look a little deeper? American scholar B. Ruby Rich makes a compelling
case that Coppola’s film actually moves through several different genres as it unfolds. She sees the first part of the film as a western. Willard is our silent, stoic white man, venturing
into the wilderness because so-called civilized superiors don’t want to get their hands
dirty. Rich writes, “There remaining no frontier
for today’s cowboys in the USA, men like Kilgore must turn instead to Vietnam… The eastern bankers and railroad tycoons of
yore become here military brass, those shrimp-eating creatures far from [the] action.” In place of Native American warriors fighting
to protect their homeland, the American soldiers in Coppola’s film do battle with a largely
faceless North Vietnamese army. The military fights with machine guns and
napalm, rather than rifles and small pox, but the game plan is the same: slaughter the
dehumanized enemy and take their land. This first part of the film even culminates
in an actual cavalry charge, led by Robert Duvall’s Kilgore character in his ten-gallon
hat. It’s even complete with a real life bugle
call. Rich identifies the second section as a traditional
war film. And it’s during this section that Willard
fires his only gunshot of the whole movie. The patrol crew pulls over a passing Vietnamese
sampan, a flat-bottomed wooden boat. In a tense stand off, Chief orders Chef to
board the boat to inspect its cargo. Chef: There’s nothing on it, man!
Chief: Get on it! Chef: Alright!!! Chef finds no contraband, but the stress of
the encounter starts to break him. The confrontation escalates until a Vietnamese
woman rushes toward Chef. Before it’s clear she’s only worried about
a puppy hidden in a basket, Clean opens fire. The high-strung Americans spray the boat with
bullets, killing most of the Vietnamese crew, and leaving the woman barely alive. Chief orders her to be brought aboard and
sets a course for the nearest field hospital, when Willard fires a single shot with his
pistol, killing her. He shows no emotion other than annoyance. His mission is Kurtz, and everything else
is a distraction. Rich identifies this as a central turning
point for Willard’s character: “Fed up with a code of honor that could
massacre a boat and then feed on its remorse, Willard remarks [in voice over] that … in
this moment … he has begun to feel close to the mysterious Kurtz whose fate lies in
his hands.” In this scene, Coppola also abandons the special
effects, the darkly funny absurdist touches, and the rock-and-roll songs that play under
much of the action. Instead, he presents war in direct, unsentimental
terms. As senseless, barbaric, and arbitrary. These soldiers aren’t portrayed as heroic,
like in some war movies. Instead, they’re weary – losing hope,
mental stability, and, in many cases, their lives. But that’s just one way to view the film. Seen through a psychoanalytic lens, Apocalypse
Now is the story of one man’s journey into the depths of his own troubled mind, a mind
ravaged by war. In this reading, the opening of the film dissolves
the boundaries between time and space, as seen from Willard’s damaged point of view. As writer Maruerite Valentine puts it, “Willard’s
mind … has lost all capacity to differentiate between the inside of his head, and the external
– the room, the hotel, Saigon. Fantasy and reality have become one.” The other characters Willard encounters on
his trip up the river, then, can be read as reflections of himself. The boat crew might represent other coping
strategies he’s tried while in the military, while Kilgore could be a projection of his
war-loving feelings. Even the commanding officers who send him
on the mission display the same calculated dispassion that Willard shows through the
film. Which means Kurtz could be a reflection of
Willard’s psyche too. Kurtz is depicted in mostly darkness, as if
seeing him fully would be too much for Willard to handle. And he speaks in whispered, fragmented monologues
with unclear meanings. In a way, he’s what Willard could – and
maybe does – become: pure ruthlessness, entirely untroubled by morality. This way of looking at a film is fairly common,
especially in the Slasher genre. The prolific horror director Wes Craven once
posited, “…I even think the characters that are
around the hero are elements of an uber personality. And in this sense it’s like a Folk Tale
that says, ‘Okay, the part of you that’s going to
have sex when something really dangerous is around? That part is gonna be killed off…’” Apocalypse Now’s ending has always divided
critics, some of whom believe the movie loses its way in the last half hour. But if we take this psychoanalytic reading
to its logical conclusion, the climax makes sense. When Willard gets to the end of his mission,
he recognizes himself in Kurtz, and he isn’t sure he can go through with the kill. That hesitance doesn’t make much sense in
a western, a war movie, or even a myth. But if the story is of a man trying to root
out his worst impulses, to slay the dark, powerful dragon in his own mind, the final
moments of the movie fit. Because how do you destroy a piece of yourself,
however terrifying it might be? As he’s dying, Kurtz utters his famous last
words. Kurtz: The horror… the horror… But maybe he’s not talking about the horrors
of Vietnam, or even his own death. Instead, maybe he’s speaking as part of
a deeply troubled mind at war with itself, fractured by his particular experience of
post traumatic stress. Whether you choose to read Apocalypse Now
as an exercise in multi-genre filmmaking, a journey into a damaged mind, or through
some other lens, one thing is clear: This is a film that invites multiple interpretations. It’s a bold, messy masterpiece that nearly
broke its crew, star, and director. And it remains as relevant today as it did
the day it was released…sadly. Next time, we’ll trade the jungle of Vietnam
for the Spanish countryside as a little girl unlocks a fantasy world that just might help
her escape the brutal aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s
Labyrinth. Crash Course Film Criticism is produced in
association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Origin of Everything, Physics Girl, and
ACS Reactions. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these [nice people] and our
amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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  1. 1:57 – "…to find Colonel Kurtz and kill him." No, to "terminate the Colonel's command", and then after Willard questions them, "terminate with extreme prejudice". Come on, that's one of the best lines in the whole movie!

  2. Is the "Kilgore" referenced in Willard's monologues related to the Kilgore Trout character featured in some of Kurt Vonnegut's books?

  3. I really don't think this movie is "messy'. I think it's a very cool adventure, the exciting and iconic entrance into the river, the long, meandering voyage up the river with bizarre stops along the way, a surreal prolonged battle of wits/ideals by Kurtz and Willard, and finally the most fantastic exit and ending in movie history. I first saw this on via a Quasar VHS player in 1984 on a very small TV and it still was mesmerizing.

  4. My only gripe in this commentary is the lack of recognition of Milius's contribution. His imprints are all over the film.

  5. Erm well Heart of Darkness is in Congo, so its more directly Belgian imperialism (& Vietnam was an ex-French colony, before the US barged in), but if you (or Conrad, for that matter) want it to be about British imperialism then OK…

    Plenty of voices in Britain were critical of imperialism from the 18th century onwards. One problem was that everyone else was doing the same, and if Britain didn't, we'd have been swallowed up by the other European powers, who were doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING – when not trying to invade Britain every 2 years.

    I guess Britain was more successful than everyone else at it, became more powerful, had more responsibility, and therefore got blamed for more. (The US has been in that situation for a while)

    But oversimplified historical guff about "British imperialism" is rife, so I thought I'd treat you to some counterpoint

  6. Very good interpretation I think because these are points I would overlook . I would watch a movie to relax and enjoy it. Not to psychoanalyze and interpret the symbolism….at least not at first

  7. Never in my life have I seen, nor think I will ever see, a better opening to any movie than that of Apocalypse Now. Perfect song choice, stunning visuals and effects coming together to say… welcome to hell. Brilliant.

  8. Untroubled by morality? yet Kurtz's perfect soldier was someone "Who is moral, yet can utilise there primordial instinct to kill without fear, without compassion, without judgment". I think you missed the point there bud.

  9. Has anyone actually read the book Heart of Darkness? At least watch The Cliff Notes version on YouTube. This movie is about traveling back in time from Modern Man to primal state the further they go down the river the farther they go back in time. the question is are we really that different from our primitive forefathers. It's set in Vietnam but it's not about Vietnam at all.

  10. The beginning of the movie is the end of the movie! Anyone watch redux? That was the final airstrike on kurts because they thought the mission failed. You missed out on this it was one of the coolest things about the movie. It starts at the end.

  11. That's exactly how i viewed the ending as well,Kurtz reflecting back on his time in Vietnam and the vicious nature and out of control manner which it had become with no ending in sight except for his final solution for victory which entailed parting ways from the traditional order of battle,thus uttering his final words,The Horror,The Horror.

  12. I know Apocalypse Now is Not a Music video, but the Stone's Gimme Shelter and Hendrick's All Along the Watchtower belonged in that Movie. Listen to the words of Watertower it fits where the U.S. soldier is trying to kill the wounded sniper also when Willard meets the reporter (Dennis Hopper) and looks over Kurtz's camp/followers. Gimme Shelter during the village attack. Wagner might be more cinematic, but the Stones much more poignant.

  13. so glad to see a young guy appreciating this film… My god it effected this old dudes life in a big way…

  14. Great Great film …Just wished they went for the ending where Kurtz and willard team up to repel a viet Kong attack on the compound Kurtz is killed but goes out a noble warrior I always thought that would be a more fitting ending .

  15. Love that little Easter egg @4:05! It’s cool how crash course uses every single gosh darn opportunity to sell John Greens YA garbage.

  16. In order to understand this movie, you need to start with its sources: Heart of Darkness, Eliot's "The Wasteland," the grail myth and the fisher king myth, the Nibelungenlied, and to understand the ending, The Golden Bough.

  17. If you're really into this film, you need to watch the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary about how it was made. It's full of interesting details and also indispensable for understanding what's going on with Brando being in the shadows, among other things.

  18. Do yourself a favor and run this video at .75 speed. You will be able to follow the dialogue without having to rewind every minute.

  19. Just saw the 40th anniversary version Apocalypse Now : Final Cut in the cinema. Amazing experience seeing it on the big screen with Dolby surround sound. I recommend seeing if you get the chance.

  20. For me this movie gets better with age, but the Redux version was disappointing in my opinion, the forthcoming Final version might be promising, but for now, the theatrical version is better paced and justifies the movie as a classic


  22. I'm surprised you make no mention that this film was also based on another book besides the Heart of Darkness; that being the Golden Bough by Fraser. Most important in this work was the "slaying of the old king" ritual. The correlation is unmistakeable. In the film on Colonel Kurtz' desk is a quick pan of some books one of which is clearly titled, "the Golden Bough". Martin Sheen, the CIA assassin, represented the challenger to the old king and is given permission to slay Kurtz. Even Kurtz himself allowed for his own execution bcz he knew he had to give up his power to a newer younger king.

    In regards to the Door's song being played this is reference to the Greek myth whereby Oedipus killed his own father and had sex with his mother. Coppola and Jim Morrison attended UCLA film school together in 1964. Morrison also studied the Golden Bough and later had a Wiccan wedding ceremony with his long-time girlfriend.

  23. "Even the jungle wanted him dead."

    The Montegards felt enslaved by their own beliefs, so Kurtz had to become their scapegoat, but then they were ready to worship Willard as their new god.

    His throwing down of the machete finally released them.

    The climax had very strong mythological and religious overtones.

  24. This was one of those movies that went over my head. I was expecting a “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan”. Needless to say, I’m not a fan lol. I can definitely see how it would appeal to people that like to pick movies apart.

  25. I think what often is overlooked is that williard had deep admiration for Kurtz early on since he read his dossier and also felt that he himself and the army are hypocrites. Willard also took the job because he absolutely had no purpose anymore. He said so in the beginning that he feels not at home either in the jungle or out of it, well he basically said when he is in the jungle he doesn't want to be there but when he is off duty he wants to be back in the jungle which seems sort of logical when you suffer from severe PTSD. I never saw Willard as an evil guy or someone who is losing it, well not more than he already did. All through out he made pragmatic choices. when he killed the woman on the boat it wasn't because of annoyance or spite it was out of necessity. They didn't have the means to save her, since she was already bleeding to death and his mission took priority. He made also very clear that they shouldn't have checked the boat and warned against it before. I just would call him an extreme pragmatist. When he is kept prisoner at kurtz s compound he gets to understand Kurtz a bit better and is a bit more sympathetic towards what he has become but ultimately since chef got beheaded and because of the mission he was waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Redux is also bit different in that explores more facets of Willard that makes him a bit less ruthless and calculating. And for me personally apocalypse now despite its dream like quality is not so much an anti war movie but essentially a very surreal but realistic spy movie.

  26. The ending is the worst in all of movie history: Coppola sets its up perfectly, then flubs it. He originally intended the aesthetically more logical ending — Kurz converts Willard to his way of thinking — and then betrayed himself (and us) by not pulling it off. It would have required some brilliant writing from Coppola and brilliant acting from Brando. They both failed miserably . . .

  27. kurts being in the dark means nothing it was just to hide the fact brando was fat when the book calls for a sickly skinny dude

  28. Chef succeeded in calling for an airstrike. The original theatrical release plays the closing credits over slow-motion footage of the temple complex being destroyed by the bombing. That was also the only ending people knew of for over a decade, due to it being the only version shown on television in the Eighties.

  29. This movie is a great psychological horror film set in the ending of the Vietnam War. The best Vietnam War film is Platoon

  30. "Kurts is depicted in mostly darkness, as if seeing him fully would be too much for Willis to handle"

    Incorrect. The actor who played him got incredibly fat and the director used the shadows to hide it.

  31. Here's my take on Willard and Kurtz. A lot of people believe that Kurtz wasn't insane but enlightened. Some kind of damaged genius. I think they are wrong and here is why. Kurtz was definitely insane but he was also enlightened at the same time. The reason why I think he is insane because he kills pretty indiscriminately, like the part where the reporter says that he threatened to kill him for taking his picture. And the grotesque hanging naked bodies etc etc. See, the River was the journey – almost like a long obstacle course – and Kurtz made it through it. He achieved enlightenment were he saw the absurdity of it all and he also embraces the horror as his friend, just like he described in the monologue about the Cadres. The problem is that it broke him and he embraced it to the point that he lost all sense of right and wrong. Willard, went down the same River journey, achieved the same enlightened understanding as Kurtz, embraced horror as a friend, but did not break as Kurtz did. He was the perfect soldier that Kurtz described. For this reason, Kurtz recognized that Willard was the greater man than himself and determined that he was worthy enough to allow him to end his life. After Willard kills him, he is greeted with the same worship from the followers as Kurtz received, which further shows that Willard was greater. And when Willard rejects it, grabs Lance and leaves, he shows my earlier point: He was strong enough to endure all of that, embraced horror as a friend etc, but still come back from the edge that Kurtz went over. Willard was the perfect soldier.

  32. kurtz is based on the real life Barry Peterson an australian soldier sent into vietnam by the cia his story is fascinatingly documented in the book the tiger man of vietnam its a realy good read.

  33. Depending on the print you see, Apolypse Now ends either with a black screen or the explosion of Kurtz's camp…indicating an air strike was launched.

  34. i am not trying to troll, but your analysis is completely of. if you are a psychiatrist you should watch
    scientific documentaries, (there are no books in my language for that) and especially the comments
    undernith them. but anyway just saw that it's a 2018 vid.

  35. he's saying that the western front of the Vietnam war were just as bad as the Spanish in the americas… yeah right if you look at all the awful things the Viet con did (not saying the Americans weren't bad either) you couldn't justify it as them doing the right thing and he is also saying that the white Americans intentionally used small pox as a weapon against native Americans when bacteria wasn't even discovered to cause diseases until the late 1800 hundreds. he is also saying that the Americans took their land (the west already owned a majority of Vietnam) when honestly the Vietnamese way Preferred the western non-Communist owned land where they had equal rights (not saying they weren't discriminated against but the Viet con killed and raped a lot of Vietnamese natives for no justifiable reason). The Americans and the west weren't fighting the Vietnamese they were fighting the Communist owned parts of Vietnam supported by the soviet union.

  36. Wait a second! Who is the host? I don't mean to be insensitive! I just stumbled across this channel, and this guy seems really familiar! Was he on scishow or =3 ? I feel like I'm having a stroke trying to place this face.

  37. This well crafted introspective may be the segway needed for the next generations renewed interest in this epic film. Well done

  38. The more I am listening to you, talking along about Apocalypse now, the more I am thinking about Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, which seems to make references to the filming of Apocalypse now.

  39. How is anything to do with Vietnam anything to do with British imperialism, when Vietnam was a part of the French empire, not Britain.

  40. The moment where Willard shoots the wounded girl… that's illustrative of a dangerous state of mind that every one of us need to watch out for.
    Every last one of us. 😣

  41. Apocalypse now felt like it was trying to show me clips puppies getting brutally kicked for three hours straight to make an argument about how terrible animal cruelty is.

  42. I well tell you how Apocalypse Now is, its one of the best films ever made. It gets so haunting after starting, its a favorite of mine man

  43. This movie is loosely based of the book titled "The Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, but it take place in Congo

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