Apocalypse Now stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford in a loose retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella “Heart of Darkness” set against the Vietnam War.
The story tracks the journey of Captain Willard (Sheen), a U.S. Army intelligence officer sent on a hazardous mission up river into Cambodia to terminate “with extreme prejudice” an American renegade colonel named Kurtz (Brando) who has spun out of control and out of his mind. Kurtz’s massive, enigmatic, Buddha-like figure lords over a group of Montagnard tribesmen in a remote jungle compound replete with severed heads and hanging, rotting bodies.
Captain Willard’s journey up river introduces him to Colonel Kilgore (Duvall), who leads his squadron of helicopters into battle to the tune of Wagner’s “Die Walkure” and who commands a California surfing champion into the waves even as the enemy continues to shell the beach.
It also puts Willard on a Navy patrol boat with a crew of four men who serve as a microcosm of the American fighting force: the boat’s African American Chief (Albert Hall), a former taxi driver trying to keep his ship afloat and his young, drug-crazed charges in line; Chef, a New Orleans gourmet cook who joined the Navy because he thought they’d have better food than the Army (Frederic Forrest); Clean, a black teenager from the Bronx (played by 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne); and Lance, a California surfer cast adrift by the war (Sam Bottoms). As the boat makes its way deeper into Cambodia, it also seems to surge deeper and deeper into a realm of illusory truth and total madness . . . and into the darkest shadows of the human heart.
Coppola sought “to create a film experience that would let audiences feel what Vietnam was like: the immediacy, the insanity, the exhilaration, the horror, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma of America’s most surreal and nightmarish war.”