Apocalypse Now - War and Ethics
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Showing the horror and moral dilemmas of the Vietnam War (1959-75) between:
- communist North Vietnam (with its guerrilla army, the Viet Cong,
supported by China) and
- capitalist South Vietnam (supported by the Americans who often used
napalm, a fire bomb).
56,000 Americans and at least 750,000 North Vietnamese were killed.
1968 when 40,000 young Americans were conscripted every month.
Other famous Vietnam films...
- The Deer Hunter (1978), starring Robert de Niro and Meryl Streep (pictured
- Platoon (1986), starring Charlie Sheen.
Francis Ford Coppola (also director of The Godfather movies)
Two (best cinematography and best sound)
Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), special forces assassin (pictured
Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), brilliant but evil army officer.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), commander of the Ninth Air Cavalry
It is 1968 in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
Captain Benjamin Willard is:
- dehumanized and psychologically disturbed by war.
- just divorced.
- ordered to kill Colonel Walter Kurtz (the American leader of an army of natives in
Kurtz (Marlon Brando, pictured right) is charged with murdering four Vietnamese double
Willard goes up river to Cambodia in a river patrol boat, whose crew consists of:
- two young soldiers (Lance and Clean).
They are escorted by the Ninth Air Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgare, which:
- makes a dawn raid on a Viet Cong village.
- blasts out Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in the attack.
Then some jets drop the devastating fire bomb, nepalm.
Chef’s craving for mangoes results in him and Willard exploring the jungle to find some. They flee back to the
boat after being lunged at by a tiger, giving Chef a nervous breakdown.
Further up river, the boat crew join a sexy army cabaret show by three Playboy Playmates. It
has to be abandoned (and the girls evacuated), when some soldiers run onto the stage in a
Chief (Albert Hall, pictured right) :
- stops a Vietnamese sampan (a small boat) carrying Vietnamese peasants and supplies.
- orders Chef to search a rusty can a woman is sitting on.
She makes a sudden move towards it, prompting Clean to panic and kill all the civilians except her. Chef looks
inside the can and finds only a small puppy.
Chief promises the woman they will take her to a hospital nearby, but Willard kills her, so
that his mission can proceed without delay.
Horrified by this murder, the crew continue their journey to near the Cambodian
The Viet Cong:
- attack the boat.
- kill Clean (while he is listening to an audiotape letter from his mother).
(Clean, Laurence Fishburne, is pictured right)
Then Chief is also killed in an arrow attack by primitive natives.
They finally arrive at Kurtz’s camp, strewn with dead bodies and severed heads.
Lance and Willard:
- leave Chef with instructions to get air support (if they are not back at the boat at a
The natives (under Kurtz’s control) drag Willard through the mud to Kurtz who imprisons him in a small
During the night, Kurtz throws Chef’s severed head into the lap of Willard who is freed the
For several days Willard:
- freely roams Kurtz’s camp.
- kills him with a machete.
- refuses to be the natives’ new leader (returning to the boat with Lance).
Kurtz’s last dying words (“The horror! The horror!”, pictured right) are repeated as the
Lessons on war and ethics
1. Life is a battle between good and evil
War has turned Kurtz, Willard and Kilgare (Robert Duvall, pictured right) into dehumanized killing
However, Willard’s refusal to replace Kurtz as the natives’ leader shows that he still has some goodness left in
Kurtz welcomes him, because he sees death as the only escape from his all consuming
Willard observes that the troops are:
- not fighting for the war’s original ideals of freedom and democracy.
- only motivated by the material pleasures of drugs, rock music and sex (shown by the
frenzied reaction to the Playboy Playmates).
2. Character must accompany charisma and
Kurtz is a charismatic and ruthlessly effective leader, but his
evil leads to his downfall.
He writes to his son that leadership in war is a mixture of:
- compassion (“tender action”).
- ruthlessness (“seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it”) .
3. Hypocrisy is horrible
The American army demonizes Kurtz, even though his atrocities are no worse than its own.
- has a great military record.
- is unjustifiably charged with killing four Vietnamese spies (after proving they were
Willard also observes that the war kills and maims the people of Vietnam in the name of helping it.
“We would cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band Aid”, he says.
4. War is horrific
The horrors of war are evident throughout the whole film
The murder of Vietnamese civilians is particularly horrific (like the lady with the puppy).
Kurtz is traumatized by the enemy cutting off some children's arms that had been inoculated against
Despite admiring him, Willard knows he must carry out his orders and kill him.
5. Speed isn’t always sacrosanct
People must come before time management.
This is shown when Willard callously kills the woman with the puppy, so that he won’t be delayed by taking her
6. Family comes first
The boat crew yearn for their families, and Clean is killed listening to a letter from his
Kurtz loves his son, although his marriage and family (like Willard’s) are destroyed by the war. This
led Willard to observe that:
“I'd never seen a man so broken up, ripped apart”.
Kurtz asks Willard to honestly tell his son about everything he's done, so that he can understand him
Key quotes on war and ethics
I love the smell of napalm in the morning, Kilgare.
The horror! The horror!, Kurtz’s dying words.
Terminate with extreme prejudice, Willard's order to kill Kurtz (from a civilian, probably
a CIA agent).
Because it's judgement that defeats us, Kurtz (on needing men who can kill without
There is nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies, Kurtz
Key quote on happiness
Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life?, Photojournalist
Two film websites to recommend
1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).
2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)