(This review will contain the story of the film, so if you feel that your surprise of the movie is being spoiled, feel free to stop reading at any point of time)
There have been many movies made on the Vietnam War, covering a wide spectrum from comedies to gritty to outright patriotic, and many of them cover the angst and the horror of war; however, if you want to see a movie that does not cover the war as much as takes a look into what the horror of war can do to the human mind and spirit, Apocalypse Now is the movie to watch.
This movie is a movie that almost made the director, Francis Ford Coppola (director of the Godfather series), into a mad person. In fact, there is a documentary by his wife, Eleanor Coppola, called Heart of Darknessthat describes the struggles in shooting this movie on location in the Philippines, and makes for a good companion to the movie DVD.
For Francis Ford Coppola, this movie was a mission for him, to the extent that when the financing for this movie dried up, he used the money he made from the Godfather movies as well as a loan in order to complete the movie. The movie was derived from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899), as well as drawing elements from Herr's "Dispatches" (1977). The movie starred 3 people in great roles along with a number of upcoming actors, with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. Coppola had to struggle with both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, with Martin being out of shape, and Marlon not even reading the novel that Coppola wanted him to read.
The movie went way over budget, with a cost of $ 31 million vs a budget of $13 million (and overcoming a typhoon and a near-fatal heart attack for Martin Sheen). The movie finally made good for Coppola, earning over $100 million, and earning respect at the Oscars as well. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing, but the film won only two awards: Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound.
Enough about the circumstances. What was the movie about ? The movie took a army officer, smart, witty, decorated and a war hero, and now a deranged renegade Colonel named Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). In an shock to his system, he had administered vaccination to the children of a village, and then got called back when he was told that the VietCong had cut off the arm of every such child (that war was this brutal). This incident pushed him over the edge, and he moved out of the normal military chain, believing that the war has to be fought at this level. He sets up a small compound in a temple in the jungle, and sets up his own army that treats him like a god, and kills VietCong intelligence agents without mercy. It is decided that he needs to be taken out, executed, and the man who is selected to do it is also decided.
It is Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), a man who has been inactive for several weeks now in Saigon, whiling away the time and at the starting point of a depression. He is informed by intelligence operatives that he will have to cross the border into Cambodia, and take Kurtz out. He is given a boat to go upstream into the river (representing the actual Mekong) and armed with a squad of 4 ill-fated soldiers, by-the-book Chief Phillips, a Navy boat commander; GM3 Lance B. Johnson, a tanned all-American California surfer, the Cajun Engineman, Jay "Chef" Hicks, and GM3 Bubba Tyrone, also known as "Mr. Clean", a 17-year-old from "some South Bronx shithole".
The PBR (Patrol Boat, River) has a landing zone from where they have to start, and it is here that they meet the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (Aerial Reconnaissance) commanded by the eccentric Lt. Colonel William Kilgore (Robert Duvall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor role). The Cavalry has just completed a mission over a target, and when they meet, Kilgore realizes that the starting point has a great beach with 6 foot waves ideal for surfing. It is estimated that they need to make the zone more friendly for starting the mission as well, and hence the Cavalry decides to attack the village located over there.
In an incredible scene, the helicopters attack with advance broadcasting of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' in order to weaken the villagers and the VC over there. The helicopters defeat the village causing mass mayhem, and then a giant napalm strike is used to destroy a forest just for greater safety. At this point, Kilgore goes from the scene, but not before uttering these dialogues, very famous indeed:
"Smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know one time we had a hill bombed...for twelve hours. And when it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em. Not one stinkin' dink body. The smell. You know that gasoline smell. The whole hill. It smelled like...victory. Some day this war's gonna end."
And the boat starts upriver, with a number of incidents including a stop where there are 3 Playboy Playmates, an incident with a tiger, and on. The crew also loses 2 of their men as they approach the compound, and see sights of people who had attempted to get close to Kurtz. As they approach the compound, one of the crew stays back and is eventually killed, another mingles with the natives and Willard is caught and imprisoned. Kurtz lectures Willard (you get a feeling of the horror that must have been witnessed to hear him speak); Willard watches what happens over a number of days, essentially free.
In the final scene (somewhat controversial since a water buffalo was killed for this scene), Willard kills Kurtz with a machete and walks away. Kurtz utters his final words, "The horror... the horror," as he lies dying and these are the words that are repeated as the screen turns black. Coppola so wanted to make this film a black description of the brutalities of war that even the credits of the film are not scrolled.