APOCALYPSE NOW – Ride of the Valkyries Sequence
There’s an old saying that goes “War is hell” and that is surely true but when you watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, it also shows that it can be exhillerating in many ways. Nothing conveys this notion better than the catastrophic helicopter attack on a small coastal Vietnamese village. The mission is led by Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who is the epitome of the gung-ho, macho alpha male. This guy is completely bugnuts and is obsessed with two things: KICKING ASS and SURFING. Which is actually a paradox since one is about being violent, the other being peaceful and having oneness with the Earth. This detail was a direct bit of life imitating art since screenwriter John Milius was an avid surfer himself. To heighten the drama and boost morale for his men, Kilgore chooses to play Wagner’s classical opus Ride of The Valkyries on the helicopter’s massive stereo system. It’s as if he’s creating his own live soundtrack to accompany the carnage that will be happening at the same time.
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Clean (Lawrence Fishburne) and Lance (Sam Bottoms) all witness this insane scene as they hitch a ride with Kilgore’s men on their way to seek Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The sequence plays out so surreal but also beautiful as the ‘copters ascend into the rising sun and fly across the horizon. It’s mezmerizing right up until the flying machines begin to open fire on the village. The utter chaos ensues as the devastating airstrike rains down and residents have weapons and booby traps ready to go. One woman plants a grenade in a farmer hat and tosses it into a landed helicopter which explodes causing more gory casualties.
What makes this section of the movie uniquely insane is when Kilgore, clearly a multi-tasker, orders some of his men, who are famous surfers from California, to hang ten RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BATTLE. Bombs explode, bullets fly and surfboards hit the waves as Kilgore watches on, yelling orders through a megaphone in case something goes wrong (what could happen?). Here is where we get one of the film’s famous bits of dialogue from Kilgore who shares a warm fuzzy memory with Willard and Lance:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like…victory.”
The President of the Phillipines at the time, Ferdinand Marcos gave Coppola access to his Army’s helicopters and pilots for the film and this complicated sequence. Some problems later arose when Marcos pulled the helicopters from the production to fight rebels in the area. There’s no dispute that this is Coppola’s most ambitious set pieces of all his films and one of the greatest depictions of the insanity of war ever shown onscreen.