An Analysis of Apocalypse Now

An Analysis of Apocalypse NowAn Analysis of Apocalypse Now

When Apocalypse Now appeared in theaters in 1979, Hollywood motion pictures had been depicting American soldiers fighting in the various wars for more than half a century.   Apocalypse Now made its public debut at the 1979 International Cannes Film Festival in France. The film entered as a “work in progress,” and shared the top picture honor, the Palme d’ Or, with the West German film The Tin Drum. John Simon in an article entitled: “Apocalypse Without End” published in the National Review pointed out that one reason that Apocalypse Now was so long in production was that Coppola could not come up with an ending to the film (James Reston, 1985). At Cannes, Coppola had hoped to resolve this indecision which led him to film three different endings. Coppola presented an ending at Cannes that he later dropped for the American release (Claude Levi-Strauss, 1986). On October 3, 1979, the decision was made by United Artists, the American distributor, to release the film nationwide after a two month marketing trial in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. Apocalypse Now met with mixed critical response but was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture, direction, adapted screenplay, supporting actor, cinematography, art direction, and sound. The film won two Oscars: sound and cinematography. Apocalypse Now remains a controversial film in two regards: its adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and its depiction of the Vietnam war. Before analyzing Apocalypse Now it may be prudent to synopsize the film’s story.



Apocalypse Now begins with an alcoholic nightmare of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen). Willard is in Saigon waiting for a mission. The year is 1969. His mission, as ordered by Army intelligence, is to “terminate” the renegade Colonel Walter Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) command with “extreme prejudice.” In the view of the General in charge (G. D. Spradlin), Kurtz’s methods have become “unsound.” The General explains that Kurtz has “quite obviously gone insane,” letting “the dark side,” which “everyman” has, win over the “good side.” Willard is ordered to proceed up the Nung River into Cambodia in a “PBR” boat with its captain (Albert Hall) and three crew members, Clean (Larry Fishburne), Lance (Sam Bottoms), and Chef (Frederic Forrest). Once Kurtz is located, Willard is to kill the Colonel using any means necessary.

Willard is assisted to the Nung River through a heavily guarded point that is “owned by Charlie” (the Vietcong). Willard is escorted through this encounter by a surf enthusiast, Major Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Kilgore and his Ninth Air Cavalry agree to escort Willard to the Nung River after learning that the point at Vin Drin Drop, the Vietcong stronghold, is a six-foot peak, perfect for surfing. Coming in behind the sunrise with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blasting through loud speakers the Ninth Air Cavalry attacks the village giving safe passage to Willard and crew into the Nung River.

Once on the river several episodes happen which underscore the insanity of the mission and the war itself. Three of the most notable episodes are the USO show in the middle of the jungle, the accidental killing of a family on a sampan, and the phantasmagoric vision of the battle for the bridge at Do Lung.

After the bridge episode their quest for Kurtz begins to go wrong. The boat is attacked by bullets, sticks, and finally a spear. The bullets kill one member of the crew and the spear kills the captain of the boat. With two crew members left, Willard approaches Kurtz’s stronghold in Cambodia.

Willard is met at Kurtz’s stronghold by a tribe of Montagnard natives, renegade American soldiers, and an eccentric photojournalist (Dennis Hopper). Willard is also met with a sight that emphasizes Kurtz’s insanity and uncivilized methods. The stronghold is littered with dead bodies and decapitated heads of his enemies. After trying to establish the location of Kurtz, Willard is captured and another crew member is killed. Willard is set free after Kurtz tells Willard that he wants him to carry out his mission. During a primordial sacrifice of a cow by the natives, Willard assassinates Kurtz using the same type of knife the natives use to sacrifice the cow in their ritual. Willard then locates the last crew member and leaves the stronghold. As the closing credits begin, an air strike destroys the stronghold.

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In Apocalypse Now, the basic constituent unit found in the environment is that of the binary opposition between controlled/uncontrolled. The opposition between the uncontrolled and controlled environment in Apocalypse Now is more specifically exemplified as city/jungle.

The environmental conflict is introduced in the first sequence of Apocalypse Now. Willard’s alcoholic opening nightmare is of a peaceful lush green jungle immediately bursting into an apocalyptic red explosion of napalm as an air attack is in progress. He awakes from this nightmare only to be confronted with the fact that he is still “only in Saigon.” As he approaches the window, the camera reveals Saigon as an ordered and modern city. Concrete buildings, modern domestic vehicles, and paved streets assure Willard that he is not in the jungles of Vietnam. Willard laments his position by expressing his knowledge that every day he remains in the city he gets “weaker,” while every day that “Charlie” (the Vietcong) “squats in the jungle,” he gets stronger. (This strong/not strong opposition becomes a significant point, later, with the confrontation between Willard and Kurtz.)

There are five separate physical settings that deserve attention in this analysis. They are: 1.) the combination of Saigon and intelligence headquarters at Nha Trang; 2.) the battle for the Vietcong village at Vin Drin Drop; 3.) the episodic experiences while traveling up the Nung River; 4.) the last American outpost at Do Lung Bridge; and 5.) Kurtz’s fortress near Nu Mong Ba in Cambodia.



While there are several constituent units found among the characters of Apocalypse Now, two units that deserve attention in this analysis are the binary opposition between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz, and the relationship between two minor characters, Lance and Chef.

  1. Generals/Kurtz.

The central binary opposition in Apocalypse Now is that between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz. The generals have decided that Kurtz’s methods are unsound and his command must be terminated. In an intercepted taped message, Kurtz says that the Vietcong are animals that are not threatened by the orderly methodical form of combat orchestrated by the controlled environment of the Generals and must be annihilated. The General tells Willard that Kurtz has taken the war into his own hands and is operating an unorderly, nonmethodical war “without any human decency at all.”

Kurtz is full of contradictions himself. He views the war through the binary oppositions of purity of will versus corruption-of-will. The answer for Kurtz lies in the dialectic existence of life and death (the explication of this dialectic existence is also discussed as a thematic opposition under “story-motif”). Kurtz’s view of the war is in direct contrast with the Generals’ view. The Generals want a war with rules and moral decency, while Kurtz feels that the war cannot be fought without the strength of the primordial instincts of survival, no matter what the moral cost. The binary opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is placed in the dichotomy of method/no method of war. Willard is sent by the Generals to resolve the conflict that exists between them. The conflict is resolved for the Generals by the systematic assassination of Kurtz.

Willard serves a distinct function in this conflict. Like the Nung River in the constituent unit of controlled/uncontrolled environment, Willard plays a mediator in the opposition between the characters of Kurtz and the Generals. As discussed earlier, the mediator for Levi-Strauss is that device (in this case character) that is not positioned at either extreme of the continuum. Willard is a mediator because “. . . his mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality — namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.” (Claude Levi-Strauss, 1963).  This is exemplified by Wil1ard’s indecision about the mission. While Willard agrees to take the mission, he describes his concern over killing an American and fellow officer. However, Willard also recalls killing “six people close enough to blow their last breath in [his] face.” The audience realizes that he is not necessarily of the “orderly decent humanitarian world” that was described by the General at Nha Trang. The experience of the Vietnam war has changed him. He is no longer a cultural being, yet his resistance to killing Kurtz implies that he is equally not of the “evil” world that the Generals have proclaimed Kurtz to be a part of. Thus, Willard is ideologically in the middle, binding the two points of view together.

As a true mediator, Willard resolves the conflict between the Generals and Kurtz. He solves the Army’s problem by killing Kurtz. However, he also resolves a problem for Kurtz. Kurtz wanted his view of the war presented to his son. After killing Kurtz, Willard takes a position paper that Kurtz has written (describing the reasons why he fought the war the way he did) which will be read by Kurtz’s son. With the paper in hand, Willard exits the compound leaving both Kurtz and the Generals behind. After his mission is complete, his orders are to call in an air strike to destroy Kurtz’s headquarters. Instead, he shuts off the radio, the only representative of culture left in the film, and begins his trip back down the river. While a later airstrike destroys the compound, the audience is left with the implication that it was not Willard that called it in.

  1. Chef/Lance.

A particular relationship between two crew members of the boat is also indicative of the binary oppositions between culture and nature. The crew members Chef and Lance are representatives of culture and nature respectively. Chef is a New Orleans Saucee who represents, through his profession, a high cultural role. Chef was born and raised to become a professional chef. He has, in essence, a pedigree. He was trained through his early life to become a specialist in sauces and was preparing to study in France when he was drafted. The cultural side of Chef is also underscored by his desire not to kill. This is illustrated when Willard’s men detain a Vietnamese sampan to search for weapons. When a sudden move on board the junk begins a carnage, it is Chef who does not shoot his weapon even though he is directly in danger.

At the other end of the continuum is Lance, a secondary character representing nature. He is a professional surfer. Instead of transforming a raw material into something for use, like Chef, Lance becomes a part of that which he uses. The natural wave of the ocean is his tool and it remains untransformed for Lance’s use. His name alone underscores a natural image. A lance is a native weapon that is used by Kurtz’s warriors. In fact, as the crew gets closer to Kurtz, Lance transforms into a native. By the time the crew finds Kurtz’s compound, Lance has become so like the natives that his face is painted green and he has adapted their dress. Because Lance has accepted this existence, he is spared from the cruel death that awaits Chef at Kurtz’s compound.

The function as secondary – character mediator for Willard is a simple one. He is neither a part of Lance’s nature nor of Chef’s culture. Willard’s mediating role between Lance and Chef is developed early in the journey up the river. It is Willard who goes with Chef to gather mangos and it is Lance who accompanies Willard at Do Lung Bridge. More important, after the other two crew members of the boat are killed the three remaining men become the representatives of the binary oppositions that exist in the story. The boat thus becomes a microcosm for the larger conflict. Willard is again in the mediating position because of his non-acceptance of the extremes of Nature and Culture.


There is one foremost binary opposition between two elements of the story-motif that supports the characters and environment of Apocalypse Now. This conflict is method of war/no method of war.

The underlying theme of Apocalypse Now is Kurtz’s unsound method of warfare versus the Generals’ sound method of war. Kurtz finds war an immoral event that should be fought without judgment and with moral terror. Kurtz’s method has in essence become unsound because the war for Kurtz is not the “conventional war” fought by the Generals of a cultured nation.

Kurtz emphasizes this lack of morality in the Vietnam war when he tells Willard of his experience in the Special Forces. Kurtz was assigned to inoculate the children of a village for polio. After the forces inoculated the children and left, the Vietcong chopped the inoculated arms off of the children to stop the infestation of the American culture. What Kurtz found so ingenious is the purity of will that it took to achieve such an act. He says, “it was as though a diamond bullet went into the center of my forehead and I realized that it was this kind of purity of will that would win the war. If I had ten divisions of men with that kind of will, I knew I could win.” For Kurtz, an Army of men without human compassion would win the war. To the Generals this was no method for fighting a “humanitarian war.” While there are no examples in Apocalypse Now of the type of war each of the extreme opposites embrace, a permutation (transformation) of the story—motif between the binary oppositions of the Genera1’s method of war and Kurtz’s no-method of war is exemplified during the battles of Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge.

Of course, the hypothetical method of war fought by the Generals was never a reality. Apocalypse Now reveals several “methods” that were a permutation between the binary opposition of method/no method. The first was given by surf enthusiast Major Kilgore. Kilgore’s method of war was to attack Vin Drin Drop with helicopters, using the rising sun as a defense. Kilgore has a method of attack. However, his reasoning is flawed. The sole purpose of this attack is to surf on a six-foot wave. His mission to escort Willard into the Nung River is secondary. Kilgore’s “method” is not the “rational” method that is desired by the General who hands Willard his orders.

Another method of war that is a permutation between “method” and “no method” is underscored at the Do Lung Bridge. The “method” for the war at Do Lung is to build the bridge every day and the Vietcong blow it up every night so the “Generals can say the road is open.” As Willard and Lance go ashore to find the commanding officer and gather information about Kurtz, they find that there is no commanding officer, and that the defense of the bridge in fact lacks any method at all. The soldiers fire into the dark without any reason or direct knowledge of enemy encroachment. Both method and reasoning are gone.

The PBR Army boat on the Nung River functions as a mediating device between “method” and “no method.” The crew’s actions on the river boat are methodical in their attempt to take Willard to his mission. However, methods used on the river become distorted when the captain of the boat stops a sampan to hunt for smuggled weapons. The family on board is killed by “accident” and the remainder of the trip begins to lose any sense of the method that was evident in the beginning of the mission.


To discuss the resolutions found in Apocalypse Now the narrative can be broken down into the three specific elements: transformation, opposition and mediating device. The transformation that occurs in Apocalypse Now is Willard’s decision to bring Kurtz’s story back with him after he has killed Kurtz. The major opposition within the story is the Generals’ ideal method of war versus Kurtz’s non-method. The mediating device used to resolve this conflict is Willard and his quest up the Nung River to carry out his mission. The binary opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is one of many in Apocalypse Now. While that particular constituent unit is the focus of the myth, there are other binary units that have an indirect relationship to the Generals/Kurtz opposition and which affect the outcome of the resolution that occurs between the central characters. Using the three levels of analysis (environment, characters, and story-motifs) and the major binary opposition of nature/culture we can chart several examples of constituent units found in the myth within each level.

American brutality, when it happens, frequently occurs I response to enemy activities. At Kurtz’s outpost in Apocalypse Now, the colonel describes his image of ultimate horror to Willard and then informs the captain of his reaction to it. He relates to Willard a story from his early Vietnam Special Forces days.  This tale contains an epiphany that provides Kurtz with his gruesome modus operandi and his Vietnam philosophy.

“I’ve seen the horror,” Kurtz laments. He tells Willard about the NLF’s remedy to the polio vaccinations the Special Forces had given to a village’s children. A crying villager beckons the soldiers the return after they have finished and departed the hamlet. The Special Forces find that “they,” the NLF, had “hacked off every inoculated arm.” The soldiers encounter “a pile of little arms” in the village. The sight convinces Kurtz that “you must make a friend of horror, horror and moral terror are your friends” or else, he reasons, with dialectical simplicity, “they are enemies to be feared.” His subsequent actions – including vivisecting adversaries in a variety of grisly ways – thus appear as replies to the brutality practiced by the NLF.

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