Apocalypse Now (1979) Screenplay Analysis

Apocalypse Now (1979), written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola is one odd script. It’s strange, intense, and dives headfirst into the worst parts of humanity. Let’s analyze the screenplay.

*I didn’t finish my analysis here, and seeing as it’s been a month since I read the screenplay I’ll leave the parts I didn’t fill in blank.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: December 3, 1975
  • Type: Shooting
  • Page Count: 138
  • Reading Speed: Medium
  • Setting(s): Vietnam, Cambodia
  • Plot Structure: Nonlinear, Spanning multiple years
  • Genre(s): War, Action/Adventure
  • Theme(s): War, Mental Illness, Violence, Anti-colonialism
  • Protagonist Change: Significant

Overall Thoughts

Apocalypse Now is loosely based on the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The plot, therefore, is actually pretty straightforward: A crew on a mission travels upriver in a jungle and encounters one odd phenomena after enough. Apocalypse Now takes that concept and places it during the Vietnam War.

The script is plainly weird for a few reasons. The first is that many of the sequences are far out: For example, any scene with surfing-addicted William “Bill” Kilgore, the French Plantation deep in the jungle and of course, Kurtz’s encampment.

All of the character arcs go from sanity to craziness, which only adds to the odd nature of the script.

Script Strengths

The strongest aspect of Apocalypse Now is the story itself: A man on a mission sees the horrors of the Vietnam War. It has elements of Action and Adventure, as well as a deep physiological analysis of not only the leading characters, but also the Vietnam War itself.

It’s also an ambitious screenplay because it relies on portraying madness in a serious (no comedy here) way. This leads to increasingly intense and outlandish sequences.

The action lines, while bloated, at times show moments of brilliance (Page 102):

Each man in his heart feels a need to stay — his soul cried to stop — stop their madness — this spiral into hell.

Script Neutrals

It’s hard to gauge the use of the voiceover. But to have the voiceover come from a mostly sane Willard does detract from the intensity of some scenes by taking us out of them.

The language has aged poorly. Here’s an action line (Page 23):

All have one thing in common, to see and if possible grab an American girl. Their need far surpasses that of the run-of-the-mill rapist, pervert or child molester.

Script Weaknesses

None to note.


It’s a great adventure plot. One thing to note is that while the final sequence at Kurtz’s base is the most intense, the rest of the stops on the river vary in their intensity (in other words, they don’t all build up). For example, Kilgore’s raid is probably the most intense, while the bridge scene is not. However, while some earlier scenes have more going on visually, the psychological change becomes progressively more intense as the script progresses.

That’s the variable that we mostly closely follow here. It’s almost as if the fighting is just there to keep us entertained while the real dramatic argument is expressed more subtly.


Great characters all around. I won’t dedicate any writing as there are so many character analyses of this film.

Dialogue & Pacing


Emotional Impact

It’s a pretty impactful script, probably more psychologically chilling than any other war movie, even Saving Private Ryan (1998). The anti-war and anti-colonialism themes are strong, dark and vivid. It’s hard not to see that resonating with viewers (which they of course did).

Best Part of The Script