Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s stirring novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic adventure set during the Vietnam War follows the central character, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) who has been sent on a secret mission to assassinate the renegade and presumed insane Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Ambivalent about his mission, Willard joins a Navy patrol boat crew to head upriver in search of Kurtz. They rendezvous with surfing enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) to discuss going up the Nung River. Kilgore reluctantly agrees only after learning that one of the crew is an expert surfer.
The incongruities of war mesh nicely as the trek upriver continues. Willard learns, among other things, that another Studies and Observation Group (SOG) operative, Captain Colby, who was sent on an earlier mission identical to Willard’s, has joined forces with Kurtz. The river soon becomes a metaphor for madness and the search for meaning now seems destined to failure.
Arriving at Kutz’s outpost, crew members are met by an American freelance photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who manically praises Kurtz’s genius. Later Willard encounters Kurtz, almost accidentally. When Kurtz asks him, “Are you an assassin?”, he responds by telling him, “I’m a soldier.” Kurtz scoffs at this before replying, “You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.” And that about sums up Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
The entire narrative is riddled with these zen-like koans, wrapping violence and bloodshed in a mysterious and impenetrable blanket of excuse and observation. It is a stellar achievement. The atrocities of war are there. The audience is left to decide which atrocities are to be preferred. The ones in Washington D.C. Or the ones in the jungle.