AFI #30: Apocalypse Now

“This is the end…this is the end, my friend.” — Jim Morrison

We’re really getting into this countdown now as we crack into the top 30 films of all time according to AFI. I suppose I may have some disagreements with AFI as we get closer to the top, but this is not one of them. Apocalypse Now is an amazing film that holds up well today even after 33 years. It is one of my favorites and it consistently ranks among the top films ever on nearly every significant countdown.

Apocalypse Now is the story of Captain Benjamin Willard, played by Martin Sheen, who is sent up the river in Vietnam to track down and “terminate” Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Kurtz has gone insane and has created a cult of sorts and has taken the war into his own hands. The journey up river into Cambodia is dangerous and deadly but the trip itself helps set the mood for what Willard finds when he gets to Kurtz’ compound. The film, loosely based on the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

I suppose one could prattle on here about the major themes of the film such as the nature of war, the inner darkness of man, right and wrong, the Vietnam War itself, etc. I’ll pass on that and just say that the film is full things worth pondering. For me it’s mostly memorable for its incredible cinematography and a handful of scenes that are truly some of the most memorable ever shot.


My favorite scene takes place as Willard enlists the help of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore to clear a path for their boat to head up river. Played by Robert Duvall, Kilgore and his team storm into a village at the base of the river blaring Wagner from their helicopters and blowing the village to kingdom come…and then of course they go surfing. Duvall delivers two classic lines in this scene — “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach it’s safe to surf this beach!” I can watch this scene a million times and it always makes me smile. Bombs are going off in all directions and Duvall never flinches while his troops are diving for cover.

The images of “Vietnam” are beautiful and the battle scenes are marvelously shot. The places the gang runs into up river are like something out of a science fiction film, none more otherworldly than Kurtz’ compound with dead bodies strewn all over and native ritual dances taking place. Awe inspiring stuff.

There are several other memorable performances in the film — Lawrence Fishburne as Clean, Dennis Hopper as a crazy photojournalist who has fallen under Kurtz’ spell, of course Brando and Sheen were brilliant. Even Harrison Ford and Scott Glenn have small roles early in their careers.

Apocalypse Now won a lot of critical acclaim but it did not clean up at the Academy Awards, winning only for sound and cinematography. Only Duvall was nominated for acting (Sheen was robbed) and Coppola did get nominated for best director, losing to Robert Benton for Kramer vs Kramer which also won best picture that year. It was a good year for films, and Apocalypse Now was nominated for best picture along with All That Jazz, Breaking Away and Norma Rae. Being There was also from 1979 and it didn’t even get nominated! Still, for my money Apocalypse Now should have won.

Next up: Double Indemnity

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