Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.
—Francis Ford Coppala
It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!Apocalypse Now
is a very loose adaptation of the classic Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness
, transporting the events of that book to 1969 Vietnam and Cambodia. The film took three years to complete before its 1979 release. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola
at the height of his career
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen
) is sent to kill Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando
), a Green Beret Colonel who has gone mad and formed a personality cult
in Cambodia. After Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall
) clears off his initial path, the captain and his crew - including a 14 years old Laurence Fishburne
- go up a river and into the depths of humanity.
Containing many famous scenes and quotes, most notably "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", "Charlie don't surf" and the climax ("The horror... the horror...") involving the slaughter of a real water buffalo, this movie at times feels like what one might imagine a bad acid trip to be like. Considered the definitive anti-war movie by many, Apocalypse Now
is also one of the all-time greats. The AFI placed it #28 and #30 on the 1998 and 2007 versions of their 100 Years...100 Movies list, and #12 on their 100 Quotes list (for "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."). It is also legendary for having what is considered to be one of the most troubled productions
in Hollywood history. To describe all of the mishaps that occurred on set would require an entire page, to the point where the film's nightmarish production was documented by Coppola's wife Eleanor, who would later use footage she shot on set to make the 90 minutes long documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.
The highlights can be read on the Trivia section
In 2001, Coppola drastically Re Cut
the film, extending the running time by nearly an hour, adding some additional scenes and re-shuffling some existing ones around. The new version was released (to slightly lower reviews) as Apocalypse Now Redux
Not to be confused with Apocalypse How
or Apocalypse Wow
, which deal with destruction apocalypses. It should be noted that the original meaning of Apocalypse was, "a revealing of the truth.", which is why the Book of Revelation is sometimes rendered as the Apocalypse of John. Under this definition someone who has been through an Apocalypse has had the truth revealed to them. The original definition definitely fits better with the themes of Apocalypse Now rather than the destruction definition.
I love the smell of tropes in the morning:
- Above Good and Evil: In a deleted scene Kurtz visits Willard while he is in captivity, bringing up the subject of how he thinks the Vietnam War could be won. A lecture ensues about how Americans care too much about their public image and how the rest of the world views them, it is a mistake to let public opinion prevent victory in a war. If war wasn't a popularity contest then America could do whatever was necessary to win. Willard calls Kurtz cruel and that his methods destroy all moral standards of right and wrong in appropriate conduct of warfare. Kurtz responds simply, "It is 'right' to win. And it is 'wrong' to lose."
- Annoying Arrows:
- Subverted. Villagers (unseen at this point, as in Conrad's book) attack Willard's boat with arrows. Due to the 20th century setting, Willard does not take them seriously. He refers to them as "toy arrows," and in a shout out to Conrad, he says "they're just little sticks, they're trying to scare us!" After the sailors start shooting back, they switch to spears, and one of the sailors dies as a result.
- Lance, at one point in the same scene, breaks an arrow in half and sticks the two halves in his hair.
- An Arm and a Leg: Kurtz tells a story about the time he was with the Special Forces and they inoculated children:
Kurtz: We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.''
- Badass: Willard's prowess is shown early on in Redux when he beats some sense into a military orderly who is red-taping fuel supplies.
- Bald of Awesome/Bald of Evil: Brando shaved his head to play Kurtz.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted. Lance, the blond surfer boy and arguably the handsomest man on Willard's strike team, smears lots of dark camouflage makeup on his face and leaves it on for the entire film.
- Bilingual Bonus: Apparently Cambodian street kids ask foreign soldiers for money in Filipino.
- Billing Displacement:
- It's flat-out amazing how little Marlon Brando there actually is in this movie. Not to mention that Robert Duvall gets second billing despite not getting much more screentime than Brando.
- On most DVD covers (for the Redux version at least) it lists off the cast members who became famous after the fact such as Lawrence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford, despite Ford's role being a very brief bit-part at the start.
- Book Ends/Motif: The End, performed by The Doors, is featured in the introduction and during Colonel Kurtz's murder to establish and reinforce the movie's underlying surreality.
- Black Dude Dies First: To be fair, everyone dies. This is still a particularly cruel example though, considering both black crew members die first. Way before that, a black soldier dies in the helicopter explosion in the village.
- Breaking Speech: When Willard is captured by Kurtz the Colonel asks a simple question, "Are you an assassin?" Willard's response is that he is a soldier. Kurtz mocks Willard by saying the following, "You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks".
- Broken Ace: Kurtz was groomed to become a top military officer but something in him snapped after his first tour of 'Nam. Willard discovers by reading Kurtz' dossier that the Broken aspect was intentionally self inflicted by Kurtz. Kurtz was going to be a high ranking General in the "corporation" one day, but he was dissatisfied with being a desk jockey and decided to join the Special Forces. As a Lieutenant Colonel at the time Kurtz could have been anything he wanted, but being a Special Forces operative would put a nail in his career's coffin so deep that he would never go above Colonel. Willard is astonished that such a gifted officer would screw his own career over like that.
- California Doubling: The Philippines for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
- Calling Card: Colonel Kilgore throws "Death cards" with the emblem of his Air Cavalry Regiment around corpses to let Charlie know who killed them.
- Cat Scare: Quite literally, but with a considerably larger-than-usual cat. Hell, even the actors were scared!
Chef: Fuckin' tiger!
- Celebrity Paradox: Kurtz reads aloud from The Hollow Men (1925), which contains an epigraph quoting from Heart of Darkness (i.e. the basis of the movie), written twenty years earlier. The paradox was not present in the orignal script, where Kurtz was originally called "Col. Leighley". A scene with Harrison Ford has the original name redubbed.
- Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys/Vestigial Empire: In Redux, the declining might of the French Empire is discussed by the French plantation owner, who is ready to defy the defeat streak with a Last Stand at his home, if it comes to that.
- Chekhov's Skill: Chef's francophone background comes in handy when the party comes across a plantation full of wary Frenchmen.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Colonel Kilgore and definitely the Photojournalist. Lance becomes one by the end of the movie, when he's on acid.
- Cluster F-Bomb: It is one of the very earliest films to have frequent usage of the f-word throughout its entire duration.
- Cold Sniper: Roach is this with a grenade launcher.
- Colonel Badass:
- Both Lt. Colonel Kilgore, and Colonel Kurtz. Probably can be considered a Trope Codifier. Kilgore loses some badassery in Redux; He's pitiful when Willard steals his surfboard and his attempts to retrieve it are mocked.
- Averted with Col. Lucas (Harrison Ford) who is a meek Desk Jockey.
- Colonel Kilgore: The Trope Namer is introduced casually Strolling Through the Chaos of a vicious battle. He later speaks poetically about his love of napalm, which "smells like victory." He seems to share equal enthusiasm for combat as he does for his hobby, surfing. He attempts to indulge both pastimes at once, ordering his men to surf in a warzone despite their discomfort (and the bullets whizzing past them into the water). He looks downright sad when he says to Captain Willard and Private Lance that "someday this war is gonna end." Kilgore loves war as much as he loves life itself.
- Combat Pragmatist: Colonel Kurtz praises the tenacity and dedication of the Vietnamese enemy who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, even going so far as to cross the Moral Event Horizon if that is what it takes.
- Crazy Bird Lady: One of the playmates love birds a little too much.
- Cool Hat: Colonel Kilgore's cavalry hat serves to enhance his mystique.
- Creator Cameo: Coppola appears◊ as the Bearded Director making a Documentary and is aided by key crew members Dean Tavoularis and Vittorio Storaro.
- Death from Above:
- And how!. Behold. Kilgore orders and leads an attack by the Air-Cavalry and then a napalm strike on the jungle. The phrase is also seen written in the front of Kilgore's helicopter.
- Willard tells Chef to call an air strike in case he doesn't make it. Coppola had to alter the end credits because the Stuff Blowing Up was interpreted by audiences as the air strike happening.
- Decapitation Presentation: This happens to Chef.
- Despair Event Horizon: Kurtz is a war hero who resigned from the officer class to keep his boots on the ground. From the very beginning of his tour, he was intent on insubordination. He believed his ex-colleagues were impeding the war effort. Then he lost his marbles after seeing horrors like the VietCong mutilating and killing a group of children who were being treated by Western doctors.
- Dramatically Missing the Point: The French plantation owner poignantly accuses the Americans of this; He believes that North Vietnam is not fighting for Communism but for national independence, and the Vietnamese hate the Russians and the Chinese more than they hate the Americans:
If tomorrow the Vietnamese are communists, they will be Vietnamese communists [...] You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.
- The Dreaded: Our first glimpses of "Walt" Kurtz come from second-hand accounts, grainy photographs, and a rambling, steam-of-consciousness cassette tape of Kurtz trying to document his delirium. When Willard is finally hauled off to see the Colonel, he's dragged into a blackened room, where the frame centers on a majestic, glowing doorway through which Kurtz is expected to pass through. —But Kurtz is already in the room with Willard, seated on the floor and rinsing his face, almost like a fellow prisoner.
- Dwindling Party: As soon as the squad gets upriver near Kurtz, they start dropping like flies.
- The Eighties: While Apocalypse Now is considered by many to be the ultimate '70s film, it inspired a very important '80s movie trope: synthesizer scores. Although synths had been used in Hollywood films before, Apocalypse Now started the trend of not just incorporating synths into the soundtrack but seamlessly integrating them as well, making them a "normal" part of the background instead of exploiting them as "science-fiction" gimmicks.
- Elites Are More Glamorous: Willard is with the 505th of 173rd Airborne Brigade assigned to MACV-SOG, ordered to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who was Operations officer of the 5th Special Forces Group, and is helped by a Patrol Boat, Riverine, crew, and is escorted up the Nung River by Colonel Kilgore of the 1st Squadron of the 9th Air Cavalry.
- Elite Army: Colonel Kurtz points out in his dossier that an Elite American Army could win the Vietnam War easily if the Commanders were willing to put in the resources to train them. He scoffs at the idea that the drug addicts and the party animals, and the soldiers that just plain don't want to be there, are going to help attain an American victory. Kurtz recommends that the American military downsize to approximately 200,000 or 300,000 highly trained soldiers and turn them lose on the Vietnamese enemy, that we could win with quality over quantity.
- Emerging from the Shadows: Colonel Kurtz. It goes a great deal into establishing an aura of mystery and subtle evil about Kurtz's character.
- Erudite Stoner: Dennis Hopper's character, a half-crazed, stoned, hyperactive ex-hippie. (What a stretch for Mr. Hopper!)
- Face Framed in Shadow:
- Kurtz throughout his appearances. It was assumed that it was because Brando was obese but set photos show that this was not the case, and research into his papers shows that this was for aesthetic effect.
- There's also a shot of Martin Sheen with his face half-covered in shadow and half in light while another character is talking about how every man has both good and evil in them.
- Facepalm: Kurtz does an iconic one◊.
- Famous Last Words: "The horror... the horror..."
- Fan Disservice: The Redux version has a sequence where the Playmates, whose helicopter has gone down, are whored out to Willard's men in exchange for aviation fuel. Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp, two spectacularly gorgeous women, appear topless.
- Fatal Family Photo: A recording concerning Mr. Clean's family, but it has the same effect.
- Fighting for a Homeland: The vestigial French view their situation as this, because they arrived in Vietnam and set up a rubber plantation with the Vietnamese as labor, which they held for generations. As a result, they consider Indochina as their true home, as opposed to France.
- Film Noir: In a sneaky case of Genre-Busting, the film follows the standard format of a film noir, with Willard as the Hardboiled Detective investigating a case (being sent on a mission). John Hellmann explains it all in "Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now". It has the Chandleresque voiceover, the aloof superiors, the strange tangled plot...
- From Bad to Worse: Both in-universe, as well as the film production itself, where things just got worse and worse and worse.
- General Ripper: Deconstructed with Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated officer (one scene has Captain Willard going over his dossier and marveling at Kurtz's accomplishments) who one day just snapped and went native, becoming as much a cult leader as a soldier, taking his orders from only the jungle as Willard says. However, Kurtz is a unique example, being quite aware that he is in fact a General Ripper. He thinks that if America wants to win the Vietnam War, it cannot afford to "play fair" - it needs "Rippers" to do the dirty work and is acting hypocritically by pretending that the war can be won "cleanly" with nothing but a technological advantage over the enemy (and history tells us he was right, too). He basically gives his superiors two choices: either get the hell out of 'Nam, or to embrace their savagery like he has. His final actions indicate that he prefers they choose the first option, or at least doesn't believe they can afford to choose the second.
Willard: "Never get out of the boat." Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin' all the way.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Kurtz refers to it as "a diamond bullet right through [his] forehead", his epiphany that rules and morality had no place in war, and indeed, the fewer the better. Once he realized his special forces were no match for the VC killer instinct, he abandoned his principles and cobbled together his own, unique "unit" out of the worst of the worst.
- Good Morning, Crono: We first meet Willard in a dingy apartment in Saigon. He tidies himself up before meeting with the Generals who are operating out of Nha Trang.
- The Gunslinger: Roach hits his mark on the other side of a wall with a small grenade launcher, at the first try, aiming only by sound and smell!
- Heroic BSOD: Chef has one after the tiger incident.
- History Repeats:
- It's discussed in Redux that the Americans are following the same path of the French, despite their superior might.
- Kurtz makes a point by showing Willard two almost identical and over-optimistic - if not Blatant Lies - reports in the media about the "improving" situation of the Vietnam War. The first one was written under LBJ and the second one years later, now with Nixon in power.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Discussed in the plantation. The French patriarch accuses the Americans of creating the Viet Minh to undermine French imperialism, and now its offshoot is giving the Americans hell.
- Colonel Kurtz goes out of his way to call the Commanders running the Vietnam War this. He detests how they refuse to do what is necessary to win and then lie to everyone about how everything they are doing is adequate, multiple points in the movie have Willard reading excerpts from Kurtz' dossier where it was recorded he had criticized the way the war was being run. Willard eventually comes to agree with Kurtz and wonders why the hell he is even meant to kill this man. This comes to a head in the ending where it is shown that Kurtz' records his philosophy on war as a sort of auto-biography where he famously states this:
Colonel Kurtz: We train young men to drop fire on people... and yet their commanders won't let them write, "Fuck!", on their airplanes because it's obscene!
- Willard realizes that his superiors are full of it when he's assigned the mission to terminate Kurtz:
Willard: Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: How Chief dies.
- Improv: Entire scenes rely on it:
- Coppola granted Brando a lot of creative liberty out of necessity. Brando had experience writing dialogues for films before but was skeptical about Coppola depending on him. He did write a lot of material for the film, basing it on his reading of Hannah Arendt and other authors, all of which Coppola put to good use.
- Similarly, Dennis Hopper was allowed to forget the script (in the odd case he had learnt it) because his quirky character worked better that way.
- Interservice Rivalry:
- Between the Army and the Navy.
- Kilgore and his Air Cav soldiers tease Capt. Willard for being airborne.note
- Jurisdiction Friction
- Kill It with Fire: Plenty, with the "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" scene being the most memorable.
- Klingon Promotion: Willard predicts he'll be fast-tracked to Major for offing the renegade Kurtz. For a brief moment, he sits at Kurtz' desk, contemplating the opportunity to take the Colonel's place as a new god-king. The throng of natives lay down their weapons and bow as he leaves the compound.
- Large and In Charge: Kurtz, chieftain of the Montagnards, looks like a juggernaut. Angled camera shots and some body doubles reinforce this appearance. Brando weighed more than 210 pounds at the moment of filming.
- Large Ham: Colonel Kilgore is not exactly low-key.
- Madness Mantra: ''Never get off the boat! Never get off the boat!"
- Male Gaze: In the director's cut, a Playboy bunny complains that no one sees her as a real person or respects her for her mind...all while Lance, and the camera, is focused on her breasts.
- Mathematician's Answer:
Willard: Do you know who's in command here?
Roach: Yeah. [Walks off]
- Meaningful Name: The entire crew of the PBR have ones, especially when you consider the order they die in. Clean is the most innocent of the crew, and the first to die (right after killing the people on the sampan, no less). Next is Chief, the one who kept order, and finally Chef, the one who made their food. It might be seen as a metaphor for aspects of civilization slowly chipping away during their journey down the River of Insanity. And the only who survives, to be led back into the world after the climatic meeting with Kurtz, is called Lance.
- Mercy Kill:
- A particularly brutal one when Willard shoots the wounded Vietnamese woman... not because she's dying, but because he doesn't want to take her along with them, most likely to prevent interfering with his real, but [still kept] secret, mission.
Willard: I told you not to stop.
- By the end of the story Willard views killing Kurtz as a mercy on his part. Willard realizes that the mission to kill Kurtz is bogus because the Colonel isn't really any more insane than the commanders that want him dead. However Kurtz is a thorn in the side of the American war machine and they will inevitably send someone else after Kurtz if he doesn't do the deed. Furthermore Willard feels that Kurtz is very broken up over what the war has turned him into, and that he actually wants the death that he has been marked for, he would rather go out like a warrior by the hand of someone who can understand him (Willard being that person) then by some faceless, passionless assassin.
Willard: Everyone wanted me to do it, probably him most of all. I felt as if he was waiting for me, waiting for me to take all the pain away. He wanted to go out like a soldier, not like some poor, wasted, rag-ass renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's where he took his orders from anyway.
- Mighty Whitey: Well and truly deconstructed.
- Mind Screw
- Mood Whiplash: Somewhat deliberately, especially in the expanded version.
- More Dakka: The boat's machine guns exists to spray bullets everywhere.
- Motive Rant: Kurtz's monologue suggests he suffered a breakdown after Vietcong guerrillas came into a native village and hacked off the left arms of South Vietnamese children who had been inoculated against polio by Kurtz's special forces. This epitomized everything that was going wrong (in Kurtz's point of view) with the American war effort: over-reliance on science; cultural ignorance; blundering efforts at "humanitarianism" to win over the Vietnamese, which has the exact opposite effect. Nothing short of total destruction will work.
- Music to Invade Poland to: The helicopter attack scene. The usage of the Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" was intended to invoke the Nazis, but since the scene is cinematographically awesome the carnage tends to be overlooked and much misaimed fandom ensued.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Willard almost has a breakdown after sneaking in and murdering Kurtz
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Kil-gore.
- New Meat: Willard comments that the members of the boat are "mostly just kids. Rock 'n' rollers with one foot in their graves"
- No Animals Were Harmed: Averted with the ox. However, in that case it was a Real Life sacrifice that Copolla filmed and took no part in.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The photographer shows up looking like Charles Manson, which is probably intentional, but the character is also based upon legendary (and eccentric) war photographer Tim Page, author of the photobook Nam.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Willard gives one to Kurtz in the climax while using a machete.
- Noodle Incident: In his narration, Willard mentioned that he'd killed six different people, and all of them had been "close enough to blow their last breath in my face." No further details are given.
- Nuke 'em: Once Willard completes his assignment — killing Kurtz — his eye catches one of Kurtz' type-written memos, where he reads "Drop the Bomb - Exterminate Them All!" scrawled in red ink.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene: The massacre of the family on the river sampan, done because the cast wanted a "My Lai" scene.
- Old Soldier: Kurtz's backstory. He was able to hack it at airborne training. At 38 years old, he was twice the age of the next graduate. An impressive feat.
- Only Sane Man: Played with, in tandem with Dysfunction Junction.
- Colonel Kurtz believes himself to be this, and is a subversion.
- Chief and Willard could also count as this.
- The Photojournalist to some extent - he understands Kurtz better than anyone else, even (at first) Willard.
- The Paragon Always Rebels: Remarked with awe by Willard, who keeps pouring through Kurtz's file in search of some sign of madness. Willard says that before he went off the reservation, Kurtz's record was flawless — a little too flawless, for his money.
- Passing the Torch: Kurtz to Willard, at the end.
- Pet the Dog: When he's not killing people or distracted by the surfing, Kilgore cares for his men and for civilians; he is concerned about them receiving medical treatment as soon as possible.
- Playboy Bunny: Cynthia Wood (Miss February 1973, Playmate of the Year 1974) and Linda Carpenter (Miss August 1976). Possibly examples of As Herself, since Wood and Carpenter are both playing Playmates.
- Popcultural Osmosis: Many lines of this movie are downright legendary, in particular the "I love the smell of napalm" speech, and "The horror, the horror...", the latter taken directly from Heart of Darkness.
- Pretty Boy: Lance, the blonde California surfer whom Willard describes as "Looking like he never held a gun in his life".
- Professional Killer: Willard's shtick in the military. He has a history of at least three assassinations, but is uneasy about having to terminate an American, an unprecedented task.
- Punch Clock Villain: Discussed by Kurtz. Kurtz recommends that you find men of strong moral fiber and who are loving and kind to their friends and family, but when push comes to shove are capable of putting that aside and killing for the greater good. A soldier has to realize his job is to win, once he has won then he can go back to being a good person. Kurtz praises the Vietcong for getting it right for they were willing to commit horrific atrocities to demoralize their enemies, yet were still normal men who loved their friends and family after all was said and done.
- The Quiet One: Jerry, the CIA officer who silently eats his meal as Willard is being briefed on his mission. He doesn't say anything the entire scene until the end when Willard is told what he must do once he finds Col. Kurtz:
Terminate. With extreme prejudice.
- Rage Against the Reflection: Yes, Martin Sheen really just punched a mirror, and it's not the kind made from Soft Glass. It wasn't staged as he was drunk at the time. Martin Sheen actually noted in later interviews about his involvement with the movie that he was struggling with personal demons at the time, so you could say that Willard's insanity/despair is actually Sheen's being imposed on the character. An unplanned Anger Montage is used for continuity issues because Sheen injured himself.
- Rated M for Manly
- Re Cut: The Redux has no credits, adds almost an hour of footage and alters the order or pace of some scenes. Notably it puts back the French plantation scene, a contextual encounter that Coppola grudgingly had to cut due to problems with the illumination.
- River of Insanity: Which was codified by Heart of Darkness. The river is also one of time travel, as the soldiers experience the history of Vietnam backwards.
- Sanity Slippage: The horror of the Vietnam War churns out sociopaths. Combine it with the apparent lack of mental treatment given by the American military and it's a World Gone Mad.
- Scenery Gorn mixed with Scenery Porn as well - the jungle in the tiger scene is something to behold.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Kurtz was earmarked for a big promotion, possibly even to the Pentagon, but hit a wall when he slammed the U.S. Military's inefficient and counter-productive tactics in Asia. In protest, he transferred to the Green Berets and, later, launched a wildly successful counter-insurgency op without letting his superiors in on his plans. They were forced to make him a full Colonel out of embarrassment, but the White House was beginning to tire of him even then.
- Screw the War, We're Partying!:
- Willard concludes that the Viet Cong will be victorious because "Charlie's idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat" during a USO show.
- The scene in the Redux cut where the main characters trade their fuel for some private time with Playboy models.
- With his insistence on going surfing in the middle of a battle, the character of Kilgore definitely exemplifies this trope.
- Colonel Kurtz comments on this in his dossier. Kurtz expresses his concern to his commanders that having too many delinquent military personnel in Vietnam is going to compromise the war effort and that they should only utilize the very best trained men they can find.
- Secretly Dying: The photojournalist hints that this may be Kurtz's case. A nod to the the original source left ambiguous in the film and discussed by Coppola during interviews.
- Send in the Search Team: More like send in the assassination team. The American Command has decided that Colonel Kurtz's continued operations in Laos and Cambodia are a threat to the war effort and want Willard to terminate Kurtz's command by any means necessary.
- Shadow Archetype: Used in combination with Not So Different. Is Willard, in the last analysis, any better than Kurtz? Probably not. Kurtz points this out during his haunting monologue to Willard. Can Willard judge Kurtz when he is basically the same as him?
Kurtz: I have seen horrors, horrors that you have seen. You have a right to kill me, you have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me.
- Much of Willard's ongoing monologue is echoed, in so many words, by the Colonel once they finally meet (and vice-versa).
- Shirtless Scene: Sheen spends a lot of the time shirtless, and is naked in the beginning. Robert Duvall, too, right in the middle of a battle. Vietnam is hot.
- There are several to the Werner Herzog movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also based on Heart of Darkness and which, oddly enough, had a similarly troubled production. One scene (of the natives attacking with arrows) is a shot for shot remake of Aguirre.
- John Milius, a close friend of Coppola's (and one of the two directors Coppola tapped to finish the movie if he died - the other was George Lucas), makes a fairly convincing case for the film's plot being based on The Odyssey - the analogy works better for Redux than for the original cut.
- General Corman's name is an homage to Roger Corman, Coppola's mentor. Colonel Lucas is named after George, Coppola's close friend.
- The finale with Kurtz's murder intercut with the tribesmen slaughtering a buffalo is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Strike.
- Apocalypse Now in itself has been referenced and parodied many times. The Clash named one of their songs Charlie Don't Surf from Sandinista! after a famous quote from this movie.
- Signature Line: The film spawned quite a few:
- Skewed Priorities: Colonel Kilgore is annoyed with Charlie (who don't surf) because the VC are occupying a terrific beach that should be used for surfing. His Death from Above air-strikes are meant to clear the zone so he can exercise his hobby, the military importance is not the issue. In fact Kilgore never would have escorted Willard and his crew there if he hadn't gotten word of a nice beach being there alongside Willard's destination.
- Sociopathic Soldier: Willard is a rather soft Type 3 and Kurtz a definite Type 4.
- The Stoic: Chief, although even he cries when Clean is killed.
- Surreal Horror
- Sycophantic Servant: Dennis Hopper's photojournalist character. He comes and goes with no rhyme or reason; apparently he was chronicling the Colonel's work for posterity. But even he knows the world won't listen to a burnout like him, and demands that Willard return and tell everyone the truth.
- Taking You with Me: Chief's last-gasp attempt to impale Willard on the spear sticking out of his chest.
- Tell Me About My Father: Inverted, Kurtz asks Willard to tell the true story to the Colonel's son.
- There Are No Therapists: It is quite troubling to see the mental state many of the characters are in. The plot of the entire movie could have been avoided had someone simply sat down with Kurtz and helped him deal with the trauma of the deeply horrific things he had to deal with during his tour in Vietnam. Even more troubling is that they send Willard, a recently divorced soldier who is clearly traumatized by his time in Vietnam, to get rid of Kurtz. That alone right off the bat should show you how badly the mental healthcare of soldiers was handled during that time period.
- There Is No Kill Like Overkill:
- The scene where the crew boards the Vietnamese cargo boat.
- Calling in an airstrike with napalm to kill some VC hiding in the jungle. A staple of the Vietnam War.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Willard sports one right at the end, after he completes his mission.
- Title Drop: Textually. The words "OUR MOTTO: APOCALYPSE NOW" can be seen painted on a wall behind the Montagnards in the scene outside Kurtz' temple when Chef tries to convince Willard to leave. Supposedly this was to satisfy copyright requirements, since the movie lacked opening credits.
- Too Dumb to Live: Lance foolishly and pointlessly making smoke signals in a hostile zone immediately costs the life of Clean. Ironically Lance is the only grunt to survive the movie.
- The Unfettered: The movie's central concept: exactly how effective a person with no restrictions can be, and how much of a monster. The answer to the latter: a lot.
- The Vietnam War: The Trope Codifier for the cynical take on the war.
- Visual Pun: Invoked by the young hot-blooded Frenchman in the plantation by breaking an egg: "The white leaves, the yellow stays".
- War Is Glorious: Colonel Kilgore's take on the subject, which manages to permeate the initial segment of the movie through sheer coolness.
- War Is Hell: One of the most iconic examples ever. A surreal experience full of horrors that transform sane men into madmen.
- Warrior Poet: Or so Kurtz' followers think he is (the Photojournalist calls him "a poet warrior in the classic sense"). The reality is that while he does have some poetic flair to his words and he is a good soldier, he has gone insane and has lost all decent sense of restraint.
- We ARE Struggling Together:
- Through stories told by Willard's escort, it's clear the South Vietnamese and the Americans are not getting along.
- The boat crew are not entirely thrilled with the assignment of escorting Willard up river; the Chief in particular. And when the Chief is dying with a spear through his chest, he tries to impale Willard on it before finally succumbing.
- The troops at the USO show riot amongst themselves to try and get at the Playboy Bunnies.
- The U.S military is sending their own assassin to kill one of their own Colonels gone rogue. The movie has Americans killing each other while trying to fight this damned war. It isn't like those resources couldn't be used fighting the Vietnamese enemy, talk about skewed priorities.
- We Have Become Complacent: Kurtz can be viewed as a rational, if brutal, character; he realizes how the war can be won but his commanders refuse to see things the way he does. His job as a soldier is winning the war, not being nice. Naturally the film leaves plenty of room for other interpretations such as The Unfettered and Knight Templar.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don't see any "method" at all, Sir.
- We Used to Be Friends: When General Corman is relating how the brilliant Kurtz felt from grace, the tone of his voice and the sadness in his face indicate that they were close.
- What Happened to the Dog?: That is still the most asked question to all the actors from the film. Gets lampshaded at one point in the film. Given that it disappeared during the attack that killed Clean, it was most likely shot or jumped off the boat to escape the gunfire.
- "What Now?" Ending: Right after Willard kills Kurtz, he has a Thousand-Yard Stare, he makes his way back to the army, and the movie just... ends.
- Why Isn't It Attacking?: "Why the fuck aren't they attacking?!"
- Worthy Opponent:
The horror... the horror...