Apocalypse Now (1979) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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For today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review, we have J James of JJames Reviews (oddly enough!). He writes excellent reviews and watches LOADS of films. I can’t keep up with him! I’m forever apologizing to people on WordPress as I fall so behind on my blog reading & J James is certainly one of those people always receiving my apologies! But when I do catch up on his blog, I know I’ll always get reviews of all the most current theatrical releases as well as the classics.

There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list HERE.

Now over to J James to hear his thoughts on Apocalypse Now, IMDB rank 35 out of 250…

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Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed By: Frances Ford Coppola

Written By: John Milius and Frances Ford Coppola

Martin Sheen
Marlon Brando
Frederic Forrest
Laurence Fishburne
Sam Bottoms
Albert Hall
Robert Duvall
Dennis Hopper
Harrison Ford
Scott Glenn

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

Adapted from: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Plot Synopsis

After returning to Vietnam for his second tour of duty, special-forces trained Captain Benjamin Willard’s (Martin Sheen) superiors order him to track and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a formerly decorated US soldier who has begun leading a cult that unilaterally executes those they call enemy. With the aid of Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) and his crew of navy personnel, Willard travels the Nung River en route to Kurtz’ compound, all the while growing more disenfranchised with the war. And also more psychologically unsettled.

My Opinion

Frances Ford Coppola’s epic treatise on the Vietnam War needs little introduction, if only because those unfamiliar with the film’s content probably know the story of its creation, a fact that makes this film as infamous as it is respected.

To be sure, it is a quality picture, even if it is not perfect.

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More than most films, Apocalypse Now is theme-based. Good thing that Coppola and Writer John Milius effectively portray the senselessness of war and the fragility of sanity. Between Willard’s mission, Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) unseemly obsession with surfing, Captain Colby’s (Scott Glenn) men mindlessly firing their weapons into uninvestigated space, Clean (Laurence Fishburne) shooting civilians, and soldiers responding badly to a USO show, Coppola shows how war creates bad decisions. In his hands, war becomes descent into madness, whether it is Kurtz’ explosive variety, Kilgore’s obliviousness or Colby’s soldiers’ emotional catatonia.

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Perhaps most impressively, Coppola’s filmmaking technique, especially the audio, helps us understand Willard’s descent. Early in the film, the sound design is conventional. We hear the sounds of the characters’ surroundings as they shout to be heard, but as the movie progresses, the audio becomes increasingly psychedelic, until, eventually, Willard’s environment is almost silenced by trippy and disturbing rhythmic noise. Apocalypse Now won an Oscar for Sound Design, and it is no wonder why.

Sound is not the only technical element that proves successful. So does the movie’s cinematography. Few motion pictures use darkness and (almost paradoxically) color to blind both the viewer and the characters, to produce uneasy nervousness.

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In other words, Apocalypse Now is very well made. It is also well acted. Robert Duvall shines as a crazed combat commander, as does Dennis Hopper as a hyperactive photojournalist convinced of Kurtz’ greatness. Of course, Marlon Brando is disturbingly intelligent as the malicious Kurtz, while Martin Sheen admirably anchors the movie.

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All of which is to say that Coppola’s epic is thematically and technically successful. Too bad it is narratively flawed. Most of Willard’s descent, for example, is told through dry voice over, not shown through action or other character’s dialogue, a direct result of Willard’s status as observer in his own story. He spends most of the movie watching other people’s insanity, instead of doing things himself. Similarly, we frequently hear about Kurtz’ charisma, most especially from the Photo Journalist (Hopper), but we do not see it. We see Kurtz’ intelligence and ruthlessness, of course, but not the likability that causes his followers to treat him as their god. Unfortunately, telling not showing continues throughout much of the film’s narrative.

Including with many of the side characters, none of which are well developed. Each has one trait, something Willard often describes in voice over. Ditto that for the consequences to many actions, including Willard’s choice to kill a wounded woman. He tells us that his companions now feel differently about him, but we don’t see their behavior change, really.

Finally, Apocalypse Now has zero notable female characters. While understandable given context, the absence of femininity makes the picture too macho.

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To be sure, none of the narrative flaws ruin Coppola’s film, but they do keep us at an emotional distance from the story. We are unable to immerse in the characters’ psychology and experience, a fact that means we never truly feel their struggle.


Apocalypse Now is a masterfully made thematic film that accomplishes its objectives. Even still, additional focus on narrative and character development would have produced a more emotional, and thereby more moving, final product.

Final Score: 7/10

24 thoughts on “Apocalypse Now (1979) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

  1. Thanks for joining in on this, J James! : ) Great review. I remember not being overly impressed with Apocalypse Now. It certainly has iconic moments but, man – that Marlon Brando stuff is just a bit odd.

    • No. Thank you for having me!

      Odd and under explained. If he had been better developed, we might have better understand his status as cult leader. As is, we just don’t.

      • I think I like this more than you. The cinematography and the music really stand out most to me. The opening music is sublime, and Wagner’s music is perfect. I usually agree with you when it comes to women’s characters, but I really don’t think it would have worked here. Oh well, we can’t agree on everything.

      • I mentioned the lack of femininity last for a reason. Given context I think it makes sense that we didn’t a female character, but I think it still worth observing that this kind of becomes a guy’s flick.

        I agree on the opening and the music in general. And also on the cinematography.

        Generally, though, I look for well developed characters and strong narrative. I don’t think Apocalypse Now really has either.

      • From experience I’ve found more guys to like it, but some films naturally tend to divide. Underdeveloped characterisation usually bugs me, but this time I didn’t think it was as pivotal. We don’t agree this time, but always a pleasure reading your work 🙂

  2. Thanks again for having me. I probably never would have watched this one without this series. While I don’t love it, I am glad I saw it, so that makes me happy to have been able to participate. 🙂

  3. Good stuff JJames and CPD!

    I’ve actually never been able to sit through this whole thing. I think, over the years, I’ve seen the entire movie but never in one sitting. Mainly because I don’t like it very much….

    • Me either.

      I adjusted the score upward because it is well made. But, much like Bladerunner or Clockwork Orange before it, I don’t ever need to see it again. I’m learning that, for the most part, the 70s and early 80s are not my favorite film era.

      • I think Bladerunner as well made as Apocalypse Now (maybe even better), but it suffers from similar narrative flaws that prevent me from understanding or caring about the characters and their relationships. Really, I think this is true of many of the era’s best movies. They are intellectually and thematically challenging, but they are not built on characters and narrative.

        Which is what I care most about.

  4. Such an iconic film. I love it on so many levels. The unique acting performances, the smell of Napalm in the morning, Brando’s bald head, Hopper’s rant and the fifty times he says “man”, the cinematography, the craziness, the horror….great review.

    • I find I cannot disagree with any of that. All of those moments are really good. Really, in many ways, this adapts Heart of Darkness about as faithfully as any movie ever could. I think that impressive given all of the differences.

      Yet, obviously, I don’t love the film.

    • Sorry, Mark. I haven’t thought to check back on this page for some time. I too think it considerably better before reaching Kurtz’ compound. Coppola just doesn’t develop Kurtz as the sort of individual who could attract a cult, so the sequence winds up ringing narratively weirder than interesting.

      I wouldn’t say I loved any of it, but I would say it was better before the final act.

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