Written and directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper
While Francis Ford Coppola has no doubt gone down into legend as the infamous director of the Godfather trilogy, he will also be forever remembered for all the grueling troubles he went through trying to bring the Vietnam War to life in this spectacular epic. True The Deer Hunter was the first mainstream film to focus on the war, but this was the film that many critics and historians claim truly captured the psychologically destructive nature of that terrible war.
The film tells the story of Captain Willard (Sheen), who is sent on a perilous mission into the heart of Cambodia to track down the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and terminate him with extreme prejudice. Throughout the film, he and his squad get into a series of adventures across the Cambodian river, whether it involves their American allies or their Viet Cong enemies, as they eventually realize the true terror of war. The film is inspired by the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but it is not a direct adaptation.
Any major film buff will know that the troubles the filmmakers went through to make the picture are legendary. Francis Ford Coppola spent three years working on this film when it was originally supposed to take sixteen weeks. First of all, a dispute resulted in the firing of Harvey Keitel in the lead role. Second, a massive typhoon wrecked his set in the Philippines, further delaying production. Martin Sheen had a heart attack on the set and Marlon Brando showed up overweight and had not read the script. Eventually, Coppola went way over budget and behind schedule and had to invest his own money to complete the picture before it killed him. Many of these problems were the focus of the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Somehow, Coppola and his team pulled through and the result is one of the best war films in history. Coppola has famously stated that this film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam and you almost believe it. We get the sense of the war and how it has affected both sides. The cinematography makes us feel the dark atmospheres of the jungles of Cambodia where at any second someone may start firing at you.
What really makes this film stand out are the characters. Although some of them are in the film for a few minutes, they are memorable and they have great actors to portray them. Sheen is great as Captain Willard and he shows a great amount of depth and sensitivity that helps the audience understand what it is like to be in the war. Brando plays a chilling Kurtz and he helps us understand how someone can lose themselves mentally during war. There are many other great actors such as Dennis Hopper as the crazed journalist at Kurtz’s fortress, a young Laurence Fishburne as one of the privates who accompanies Willard on his mission, and Harrison Ford as the colonel who gives Willard the mission.
The best and by far the most memorable character is Robert Duvall as Col. Bill Kilgore. Although his screen time is only 11 minutes, he is often considered to be the most important character. This is especially shown during the film’s most famous scene where he orders an air strike against a Vietnamese village with Ride of the Valkyries being played over the loud speakers of the helicopters. He allows his men to surf the beach under enemy fire and he gives a monologue about a previous strike he ordered. It is during this scene where he gives the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” His character is different from the others because unlike most soldiers, who were against the war, he absolutely loves war and glorifies it. This scene alone is the heart of the film, even more so then the ending.
Many people to this day debate whether this is a pro-war film or an anti-war film. It does have elements of both, but it is really neither. It is a haunting look at how war destroys people mentally and makes us lose all perception of right or wrong. It is truly an unforgettable film and it should be seen by Coppola fans and Vietnam veterans alike. It is the best Vietnam War movie of all time.