Imagine a film that has a theme so deep, so intimate, so potentially devastating to the human psyche, that it’s mere creation tests the production staff’s very souls. The very actors themselves must come to grips with the conflict between men, gods, and kings, metaphorically at least. Then, to cap off the entire experience, your extras and vehicles used for filming are drafted to fight in a local war.
This is Apocalypse Now, a thrilling story based on a gripping novella that can admittedly be rather dense to read.
The movie is about a Vietnam Special Forces squad sent to assassinate a former US Army officer whose gone off the deep end and styled themselves as a god amongst local natives. This oft-repeated motif is directly inspired by Heart of Darkness, a novella about an ivory dealer in the Congo who goes mad with power and becomes the wrathful god of a local tribe. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling explores similar themes in different ways, and is also easier to read.
As for the film itself, it and Platoon are two of the best examples of the clusterfrak that was Vietnam. The incompetence of command and rampant racism of the American forces are on full display, as is the sorry state of a generation forced to fight a war they didn’t understand in a country they didn’t understand.
The film proved a massive success, but, as mentioned earlier, it’s filming turned into a nightmare almost as grueling as the films very themes. Managing to create the masterpiece of filmmaking turned out to be an uglier mess than making Caligula. The movie’s creation was so horrific –how horrific was it?- that the near farcical romp of madness and tragedy was made into a documentary in its own right.
The effort seemed to have been worth all the pain, however, as Apocalypse Now is a visceral, gritty foray into the darkest depths of humanity as its worst. The story is a gripping tale of war and the toll it plays on men’s minds and bodies, while also demonstrating the evils of racism and notions of superiority over so-called savages.
The film embodies many classic themes of literature, such as man against God, man against nature, and, of course, man against man. These themes drive to the very hearts of human identity and struggle, and, as the men sent on their mission putter upriver to their goal, the viewers are brought along for the ride into the darkness within all of us.
Apocalypse Now is both psychological thriller and a war movie. It is the sort of story that merely watching can try men’s souls, but, if they are to grow and overcome the darkness within, they must watch, and learn to combat the evils residing within us at our worst and most alone. What humanity achieves is not measured by what we do amongst our peers, but by who we are in the dark.