#47: Apocalypse Now (1979)

When and how did I watch this?

February 20th, 2017, on Amazon Instant Video.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

Yet another war film on the IMDb Top 250, featuring an ensemble cast (Sheen, Brando included).  I believe this is the top-ranked Vietnam film on the list.

What do I know about it now?

The film takes its time to expose you to the ugliness of the Vietnam conflict. A PTSD-stricken Willard (Sheen) is asked to embark on a special mission to take out a rogue colonel who is now off the grid but is considered dangerous and well-protected. He is sent up the river with minimal arms and a group of oblivious soldiers, encountering a series of strange and grotesque scenarios along the way, eventually reaching the destination which is nothing we could have expected. It turns out that this one isn’t a blood-fest, as war films often lean toward, but a profound psychological treatise on the war’s disorganization, the definition of the enemy, and military death. The first two hours are grueling, featuring several disturbing situations, one being a group of soldiers holed up with no commanding officer, and another involving an outdoor performance for the soldiers going haywire. Half of the ship’s crew is killed before arriving, and they’re met with a multitude of white-faced and heavily armed folks, the majority native, but some who have been sucked into Kurtz’s army. Most of the scenes are gripping and dark in nature, and every line is delivered with great weight and profundity, even if said in a colloquial fashion. The intense final half hour is cinematic gold, both visually ugly and philosophically deep. I haven’t really enjoyed Marlon Brando’s films on the list so far, but this one is my favorite of his. Sheen is an everyman, but manages to rise above in the end; he is merely a lens for the horrors of the Vietnam conflict we didn’t really want to see in the first place.

What are some themes in the film?

Death, war, Vietnam, chain of command

Did this affect me personally?

The film is gruesome in numerous spots.  The entrance to Kurtz’s camp is something surreal and memorable.

Why is this ranked #47?

Intensity.  Again, while most war films lean toward the violence, Apocalypse Now chooses to highlight the mental perspective and explores some uncomfortable psychological themes. Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen represent all that’s right with cinema. Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, and Robert Duvall have prominent roles in the film as well, which turns the film into a casting gem.  The Vietnam War is a magnet for film, and this one might be the finest of them all.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She missed most of it.

Would I watch it again?

Probably not.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

I’m not sure I’d recommend this to anyone, simply based on how difficult it is to watch. The film’s explicit content ranks among some of the more challenging on the list. Nonetheless, it’s certainly an important film.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

In the Book of Judges, there is a recurring theme: everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  According to Apocalypse Now, this appears to be what happened, and the results are likely obvious.  It addresses inconvenient themes of the Vietnam War, and war in general, doing it in an artistic and unsettling fashion. All of the actors’ performances are spectacular, and every scene weighs heavy. There are few films that manage to achieve this cover to cover; once again, Apocalypse Now is among the great movies that refuse to waste a single moment.

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