Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Oscar Wins: Best Sound (Walter Murch, Mark Berger, Richard Beggs, Nathan Boxer), Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Dean Tavoularis, Angelo P. Graham, George R. Nelson), Best Film Editing (Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, Lisa Fruchtman)
SUMMARY: In 1967, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who is also part of the Studies and Observations Group, is given a classified mission. As explained by his superiors, Willard is to sneak into neutral Cambodia and assassinate Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz, a former prodigy of the Army, has gone rogue, and is believed to be insane: he is living in Cambodia with a group of natives, who worship him as a god. To reach Cambodia, Willard joins a Navy Patrol boat, which is staffed by “Chief” (Albert Hall), famed surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms), “Chef” (Frederic Forrest) and “Mr. Clean” (Larry Fishburne). At first the trip is uneventful, but part of their journey will take them up the Nung River, and they will need outside help to get through this section. They are sent to meet with Lieutenant Clonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who rejects the idea until he learns of Lance’s identity. Upon also learning that the mouth of the river makes for great surfing conditions, Kilgore agrees to attack and clear the area, which is held by the Viet Cong. In the morning, Kilgore’s men and the boat crew attack by helicopter, first bombing and shooting and then using a napalm strike to drive out the enemy. Kilgore then has the boat brought in by another helicopter, and the crew begins their journey upriver. As the mission is classified, none of the boat crew know where in particular they are taking Willard, or why. This particularly rankles Chief, who is in charge of the boat. As the journey continues, he insists on continuing the regular patrol duties, much to the annoyance of Willard. Finally Willard reveals part of his mission, so that Chief will give it priority over patrol. The men soon reach the last U.S. position on the river, at the Do Long bridge. This fight for this bridge is constant, with the U.S. building it during the day and the enemy blowing it up at night. The boat picks up some mail here, and Willard gets new information about his mission. He tries to go ashore and talk to a superior, but is unable to find one; he then orders Chief to continue upriver, even as the bridge is attacked.
Willard’s new information reveals that several months earlier another man, Captain Colby, had been sent on the exact same mission. He has apparently joined Kurtz, but the Army has reported him MIA for the sake of his family. After reading his own letter, Lance decides to have some fun with a purple smoke grenade. Unfortunately, this triggers an attack from the enemy, stationed in the vegetation beside the river. Clean is shot several times, and dies immediately. The subdued others continue on, only to run into another attack. This one comes in the form of arrows, launched by natives from the riverbanks. The men laugh it off once they realize what is happening, but just then one of the natives throws a spear that impales Chief. Willard lays him on the floor of the boat, but Chief grabs onto Willard and tries to pull him onto the spear as well. Fortunately for Willard, Chief dies before he is able to accomplish this. Lance gives Chief a burial at sea (or river, rather), while Willard finally reveals the full scope of his mission to Chef. Chef has mixed feelings about the mission — he does not like that Willard has been sent to kill a fellow American, but he offers himself and Lance as help in completing it. Finally, the three men reach Kurtz’s compound, in the ruins of an old temple. They are greeted by hundreds of members of a native tribe, as well as an American photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), who has also come under Kurtz’s sway. Most of the tribe members — including Captain Colby, who is quickly spotted by Willard — seem to be in a nearly catatonic state, but the photojournalist is much more animated, particularly when singing the praises of Kurtz. His initial visit goes smoothly, and Willard returns to the boat. He takes Lance with him for further investigation and leaves Chef at the boat, telling him to call in a planned airstrike if they do not return by an appointed time. This time, the natives surround Willard, capture him, tie him up and deliver him to Kurtz. Kurtz knows exactly who he is and what his mission is, and has him bound or imprisoned in various ways. During this time, he drops Chef’s severed head in Willard’s lap. Several days later, Willard is freed from his bonds, and spends several days in the temple with Kurtz. He is treated to the various musings and theories of the Colonel, and realizes that the man truly has gone insane. Kurtz does not seem to believe that Willard will attack him, but as the native hold a party one night, Willard slips into the temple and kills Kurtz with a machete. Almost immediately the festive mood of the camp evaporates, and as Willard emerges from the temple (with the machete and Kurtz’s books) the natives drop their weapons and bow. Willard walks past them, takes Lance by the hand (he has seemingly joined the natives) and returns to the boat. The two then begin heading back downriver.
MY TAKE: This movie has become almost as famous for what went on behind the scenes as for what actually happened in the movie. First, for the movie itself: I think that in general, Vietnam war movies are the worst in terms of carnage and brutality. I know that the Vietnam War was exceptionally brutal to be involved in, but I don’t know if it was more or less so than other wars. It does seem like most of the characters in Vietnam movies are questioning the purpose of the war, and are vastly out of their element. Most of the other major wars the U.S. was involved in — the Revolutionary War, both World Wars, and the Civil War — were fought on American or European soil (with the exception of the Pacific theater), which was pretty similar to what they had at home. There aren’t any jungles in the U.S., and the Viet Cong fought in a completely different way, as noted by Kurtz. The result is that most Vietnam movies seem to have a feeling of despair or hopelessness. It’s pretty easy to understand why Kurtz went insane — I’m surprised anybody came out with their head on straight. I actually was a little puzzled about why the Army was so desperate to get rid of Kurtz. Officially he was being charged with murder, but it seems like the brass were more worried that he would rally his native troops and attack the U.S. forces. Whether or not this would happen seems questionable, as Kurtz appears to be sick, and rather contented to live in his own isolated world. Maybe the real reason they wanted him dead is because they didn’t want him revealing what was really going on in Nam. Now, for the behind-the-scenes fun. You might notice that “Larry” Fishburne looks really, really young in this movie, and that’s because he was. When he was cast, he was only 14, and lied to get the part. However, Coppola took so long to complete the part that when the film was released, Fishburne was 17, the same age Clean was supposed to be. The movie was notoriously difficult to make: in May of 1976, a typhoon hit the filming location in Manila, and totally destroyed the sets that had been built. Most of the cast and crew went back to the States for two months while they were rebuilt. Even though there were bodyguards, the payroll for the film was once stolen; by this time, the film was approximately six weeks and $2 million overdue. When the actors did return, Marlon Brando showed up hugely overweight (and reportedly completely unprepared). You can tell he’s fat in the movie, but you might also notice that you don’t ever see a whole body shot in good lighting — that was Coppola’s attempt to hide the weight, in addition to having Brando wear black. By the end of ’76, Coppola still didn’t have an ending to the film, and went back to the Philippines in early ’77 to start filming again. In March, Martin Sheen had a heart attack at the age of 37 (he admitted he was in bad shape and had been drinking a lot), and had to crawl a quarter-mile to get help; his younger brother actually ended up standing in for some long shots and voice-overs. In addition to the lack of ending, Coppola frequently changed the script, and ended up cutting a scene that had cost several hundred thousand dollars. Filming wrapped in May of 1977, but Coppola wouldn’t release it until April of 1979. Originally, filming was scheduled for six weeks: it would go on for nearly a year and a half. When it ended, Coppola had almost two hundred hours of film to work from. The fact that this movie ever made it to theaters is astounding, and the fact that it became a classic is a tribute to the immense talent of its cast and crew, particularly Francis Ford Coppola.
RATING: Dark, but classic.