Apocalypse Now is a 1979 American epic war film set during the Vietnam War, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen. The film follows the central character, U.S. Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Sheen), of MACV-SOG, on a mission to kill the renegade and presumed insane U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando).
The screenplay by John Milius and Coppola came from Milius's idea of adapting Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War era. It also draws from Michael Herr's Dispatches, the film version of Conrad's Lord Jim (which shares the same character of Marlow with Heart of Darkness), and Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The film drew attention for its lengthy and troubled production. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse documented Brando's showing up on the set overweight, Sheen's heart attack, and extreme weather destroying several expensive sets. The film's release was postponed several times while Coppola edited millions of feet of footage.
Apocalypse Now earned widespread critical acclaim. Its cultural impact and philosophical themes have been extensively discussed. Honored with the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, the film was also deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2000.
U.S. Army Captain and special operations veteran Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) has returned from action to Saigon where he drinks heavily and destroys his hotel room. Intelligenceofficers Lieutenant General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) approach him with an assignment: Willard must follow the Nung River into the remote Cambodianjungle, find rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and kill him. Kurtz apparently went insane and now commands his own Montagnard troops insideneutral Cambodia.
Willard joins a U.S. Navy PBR commanded by Chief Petty Officer George "Chief" Phillips (Albert Hall) and crewmen Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Jay "Chef" Hicks (Frederic Forrest) and Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller (Laurence Fishburne). For escort they rendezvous with reckless Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who commands a squadron of attack helicopters. Initially scoffing at them, Kilgore befriends Johnson as both are keen surfers. When Willard suggests the Viet Cong-filled coastal mouth of the Nung River, Kilgore accepts due to the surfing conditions there. After napalm strikes and Ride of the Valkyries playing over the chopper loudspeakers, the beach is taken and Kilgore orders others to surf it amid enemy fire. While Kilgore nostalgically regales everyone about a previous strike, Willard gathers his men to the PBR, which had been transported by helicopter.
Willard sifts through files of Kurtz, learning he was a model officer and possible future general, a top soldier in the field. Navigating upstream, the crew encounters a tiger and later visit a supply depot USO show featuring Playboy Playmates. The crew search a civilian sampan they come across, but Mr. Clean snaps and kills almost all on board, while Willard coldly shoots an injured survivor to prevent any delay of his mission. On reaching a US outpost at a bridge under constant attack, Willard is informed that a Captain Colby (Scott Glenn) was sent to find Kurtz, but is now missing. Lance and Chef are continually under the influence of drugs and Lance becomes withdrawn, smearing his face with camouflage paint.
The next day the boat is fired upon by an unseen enemy in the trees, killing Mr. Clean and turning Chief hostile toward Willard. Later, they are ambushed again, by Montagnard warriors. They return fire and Chief is impaled with a spear, tries to kill Willard by pulling him onto it, but dies from his wound. Afterwards, Willard confides in the remaining Chef and Lance about his mission, and they reluctantly agree to continue upriver where they see the river bank is littered with bodies. Arriving at Kurtz's outpost, Willard takes Lance with him to the village, leaving Chef behind with orders to call an airstrike on the village if he does not return.
In the camp, the two men are met by a manic freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), who explains that Kurtz's great philosophical skills inspire his people to follow him. As they proceed, they see bodies and severed heads scattered about the nearby temple that serves as Kurtz's living quarters, and encounter the missing Captain Colby, who is nearly catatonic. Willard is brought before Kurtz in the darkened temple, where Kurtz derides him as an errand boy. Meanwhile Chef calls in the airstrike but is kidnapped. Bound to a post, Willard screams helplessly as Kurtz drops Chef's severed head into his lap. After some time, Willard is released and given the freedom of the compound. Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, humanity and civilization while praising the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong. He asks Willard to tell his son everything about him in the event of his death.
That night, as the villagers ceremonially slaughter a water buffalo, Willard enters Kurtz's chamber as Kurtz is making a recording, and attacks him with a machete. Lying mortally wounded on the ground, Kurtz whispers his final words "The horror ... the horror ..." before dying. Willard descends the stairs from Kurtz's chamber and drops his weapon. The villagers do likewise and allow Willard to take Lance by the hand and lead him to the boat. The two of them sail away as Kurtz's final words echo.
- Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a veteran U.S. Army special operations officer who has been serving in Vietnam for three years. The soldier who escorts him at the start of the film recites that Willard is from 505th Battalion, of the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade, assigned to MACV-SOG. It is later stated in the briefing scene that he worked intelligence/counterintelligence for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, carrying out secret operations and assassinations. Both scenes also establish he worked COMSEC. An attempt to re-integrate into home-front society had apparently failed prior to the time at which the film is set, and so he returns to the war-torn jungles of Vietnam, where he seems to feel more at home.
- Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces with the 5th Special Forces Group who goes renegade. He runs his own operations out of Cambodia and is feared by the US military as much as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
- Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore, 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry Regiment commander and surfing fanatic. Kilgore is a strong leader who loves his men but has methods that appear out-of-tune with the setting of the war. His character is a composite of several characters including Colonel John B. Stockton, General James F. Hollingsworth (featured in The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong by Nicholas Tomalin), George Patton IV, also a West Point officer whom Robert Duvall knew and possibly Col. David Hackworth.
- Frederic Forrest as Engineman 3rd Class Jay "Chef" Hicks, a tightly wound former chef from New Orleans who is horrified by his surroundings.
- Albert Hall as Chief Quartermaster George Phillips. The chief runs a tight ship and frequently clashes with Willard over authority. Has a father-son relationship with Clean.
- Sam Bottoms as Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson, a former professional surfer from California. He is known to drop acid. After the scene at the bridge, his character does not speak for the remainder of the film. He becomes entranced by the Montagnard tribe, even participating in the sacrifice ritual.
- Laurence Fishburne (credited as "Larry Fishburne") as Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller, the 17 year-old cocky South Bronx-born crewmember.
- Dennis Hopper as an American photojournalist, a manic disciple of Kurtz who greets Willard. According to the DVD commentary of Redux, the character is based on Sean Flynn, a famed news correspondent who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. His dialogue follows that of the Russian "harlequin" in Conrad's story.
- G.D. Spradlin as Lieutenant General Corman, military intelligence (G-2) an authoritarian officer who fears Kurtz and wants him removed.
- Jerry Ziesmer as a mysterious man (who is coincidentally addressed by General Corman as 'Jerry'; document visible on the Blu-ray version mentions a C.I.A. agent named R.E. Moore) in civilian attire who sits in on Willard's initial briefing. His only line in the film is the famous "Terminate with extreme prejudice".
- Harrison Ford as Colonel Lucas, aide to Corman and general information specialist. Despite his rank, he often appears nervous and jittery regarding Kurtz and the mission.
- Scott Glenn as Captain Richard M. Colby, previously assigned Willard's current mission before he defected to Kurtz's private army and sent a message to his wife telling her to sell everything they owned (but he goes on to tell her to sell their children, as well).
- Bill Graham as Agent (announcer and in charge of the Playmates' show)
- Cynthia Wood (1974 Playmate of the Year) as "Playmate of the Year"
- Linda (Beatty) Carpenter (August 1976 Playmate) as Playmate "Miss August"
- Colleen Camp as Playmate "Miss May"
- R. Lee Ermey as Helicopter Pilot
- Francis Ford Coppola (cameo) as a TV director filming beach combat; he shouts "Don't look at the camera, keep on fighting!" Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro plays the cameraman by Coppola's side.
Several actors who were, or later became, prominent stars have minor roles in the movie including Harrison Ford, G. D. Spradlin, Scott Glenn, R. Lee Ermey and Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne was only fourteen years old when shooting began in March 1976, and he lied about his age in order to get cast in his role. Apocalypse Now took so long to finish that Fishburne was seventeen (the same age as his character) by the time of its release.