“Some folks inherit star spangled eyes/ Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord/ And when you ask them, “How much should we give?/ Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!” 50 years later, John Fogerty’s powerful voice vehemently opposing the Vietnam War still gives us goosebumps. During the 1960s, while America was engaged in battle with the guerrilla armies of Vietnam, the government was facing severe opposition at home. A new counterculture was brewing in the country. A culture led by the youth from the frontline. And they demanded answers. They wanted to know why thousands of their peers were being drafted into the army against their will and made to fight in a country of poor farmers thousands of miles away. Later, when The Washington Post released the Pentagon Papers, it was clear that America kept on fighting just because of their pride.
As the war in Vietnam claimed lives by the thousands each week, the American youth expressed their disgust through poetry, songs, protests, and petitions. The director of ‘Apocalypse Now‘, Francis Ford Coppola, was deeply influenced by these things he saw happening all around him. He was angry, and it was this intense rage that led to the creation of one of the greatest pieces of cinematic art, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Coppola’s main inspiration behind the story of ‘Apocalypse Now’ was the Joseph Conrad book ‘Heart of Darkness’. The premise, in short, goes something like this: Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a soldier of the United States Army posted in Vietnam. His seniors inform him that one of their high-ranking soldiers, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), has gone rogue and has created a sort of cult with a few South Vietnamese/Cambodian tribals and now has built a haven for himself deep inside a jungle. Willard’s objective is to find him and “terminate” Kurtz with “extreme prejudice”.
Soon after the movie starts, we see a shot of the deep forests of Vietnam and American helicopters dropping bombs on them. In the background plays the song “The End” by The Doors. This harrowing scene sets up the mood for one of the grittiest war films ever made. And as they say, all great war movies are anti-war movies. With a small troop, Willard travels to the heartland of Vietnam. As they need to go further up the river, they meet with another war veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), and he helps them get on their way. Kilgore is the sort of character who thrives on war. He does not need a reason to kill. He just enjoys it. As his helicopter bombs the hell out of the Vietnamese farmers, he merrily talks about surfing. Kilgore, very famously says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. He is the example of the ultimate depraved soul. He is a sadist, who thrives on causing harm.
The horrors of war are such that most soldiers indulge in taking drugs. None of them, except a select few like Kilgore, really want to be there. The purpose of our central character is the biggest irony of the film. Five people have been sent out on a mission to kill a single man inside a jungle. There is hardly any chance that they will return alive. Then why waste lives and money on finding some former high-ranking official? Does he know some precious secret that would harm America’s image? There’s no answer. Because soldiers just obey, they don’t ask questions. They are mere pawns in the battle who are just there to offer their lives and services. As their journey progresses, the group becomes more disenchanted with reality. They take a journey inwards, inside their hearts, and maybe realize the futility of it all. They realize they will die in the name of their country but no one will remember them — their existence is futile.