Apocalypse Now Summary

Peter Cowie

Apocalypse Now

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Apocalypse Now Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Apocalypse Now by Peter Cowie.

The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie explores the history of the film by Francis Ford Coppola, the screenplay by John Milius, and the source material that provided inspiration. Cowie, in addition to this 2000 tome about Apocalypse Now, is also the author of Coppola and The Godfather Book. Cowie worked closely with director Coppola and with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro in constructing the book.

Cowie writes of the obstacles encountered in making the film. Difficulties and changes in casting, a heart attack suffered by actor Martin Sheen during filming, and major cost overruns are cited. Access to production transcripts allows Cowie to share conversations that Coppola had with star Marlon Brando. These show that Brando had considerable input into the development of his character. Also discussed is the interest George Lucas had in doing the project and the political machinations dealt with in the plot of Apocalypse Now that helped inspire Lucas’s vision in his Star Wars series in which some surmise, the rebels represent the Vietnamese and the Empire, the United States. Onset arguments between Coppola and Milius and the difficulties in wrapping up the project are covered as well as a chronology of the production of the film. Other sections are devoted to the Vietnam War and to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, commonly cited as an inspiration for Apocalypse Now.

The film Apocalypse Now begins in Saigon in 1968. Benjamin Willard is an army captain as well as a special intelligence agent. Willard is anxious to get back to action as he sits drunk in a hotel room. Having completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, he returned home but finding civilization difficult to deal with, is returning for a second tour, but he has yet to receive his orders. Eventually, he is taken to Nha Trang by two officers, where he meets with a CIA operative and superior officers. He is given the history of a Green Beret colonel, Walter Kurtz and is told to find and kill him. Kurtz has become mentally unstable and has committed murder. Kurtz is at a Cambodian outpost with the native Montagnard army who idolize him.

In order to get to Kurtz, Willard joins a Navy River Patrol, which is to take him to the Nung River to Cambodia. The crew includes Chief, Chef, Lance, and Clean. The crew makes its way to a rendezvous with the Ninth Air Cavalry who are assigned the task of taking the patrol to the mouth of the river. A B-52 bomber raid hits. Willard turns to the commander of the cavalry who assures him they will arrive at the river safely. As dawn breaks, an air attack is ordered on a Vietcong village, and the film’s iconic scene utilizing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” unfolds. A helicopter is able to get Willard and the crew to the river and an episodic journey to find Kurtz is underway.

In the jungle, Chef desires mangoes so he and Willard do some exploring. They are in the midst of huge trees and thick vegetation when they encounter a tiger in the shadows. They quickly run back to the boat. Chef suffers a mental breakdown while the crew is shooting into the jungle fearing that the Vietcong is the pending danger. The mood of the crew becomes somber with Chef’s breakdown. Moving upriver, they come to the supply depot of a United States base. There they acquire fuel and other supplies and join many other men in an amphitheater where a USO show is to be performed by Playboy magazine Playmates. When some excited soldiers storm the stage, the show is ended and the Playmates are taken away.

Back at the boat, the crew meets other patrol boats arriving from the other direction. As the journey progresses, the crew becomes more and more frustrated and short tempered. Willard studies all of the information he has regarding Kurtz; Lance and Chef use drugs frequently. Lance takes to covering his face with camouflage paint and becomes very quiet. One day they come upon a small boat with several Vietnamese peasants carrying supplies. Chief orders the boat searched and that the can a woman is sitting on be examined. When the woman makes a move, Clean begins shooting the people on the boat killing all of them with the exception of the woman. The can, it turns out, contained only a puppy. Chief orders the woman be brought onto his boat and be taken to safety, but Willard shoots her so as not to be detoured. This changes the way the crew looks at him.

As they continue upriver, they find an army outpost under fire near the Cambodian border. Willard is given mail for the boat and learns from a letter that a man previously dispatched by the United States to find Kurtz is now allied with him. Clean is shot and killed in a surprise attack. As they continue, they are shot by natives’ arrows, leaving Chief dead. They finally arrive at Kurtz’s camp, finding it littered with dead bodies and disembodied heads. Willard and Lance go to find Kurtz and tell Chef to call for an air strike if they do not return by a designated time. The natives drag Willard to Kurtz, who has him placed in a cage. That night, Kurtz presents Willard with the severed head of Chef. The following day, Willard is freed and spends days in Kurtz’s camp listening to him philosophize.

The natives are performing the ritualistic sacrifice of a caribou while Willard approaches Kurtz’s quarters. Simultaneously, the animal is slaughtered and Willard kills Kurtz with a machete. The final words of Kurtz, “The horror, the horror,” echo as Willard’s boat leaves the shore.