Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Apocalypse Now continually spotlights the ironies that accompanied the Vietnam War in particular and western imperialism in general. The film is not overtly antiwar, but it takes pains to reveal the atrocities of a war fought by the United States in the name of democracy and freedom. In the air strike, sampan, and bridge scenes, Coppola clearly depicts the death and destruction that result directly from U.S. involvement. Instead of helping innocent civilians, American troops kill them. They are strangers in a strange land, yet they act as if they own it, staking out territory and firing without provocation.
The film characterizes Willard’s mission as the epitome of hypocrisy: in the midst of scores of senseless killings, the U.S. military is wasting energy and lives on killing one of its highest-ranking military officials. While Kurtz may well have gone insane, it's not clear why killing him is a priority when U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians are dying. Moreover, since the military seems to encourage assassination in war, as evidenced by Willard’s assignment, we may question why Kurtz is demonized for killing two people who may have been working against the United States. Willard points out a number of other hypocrisies in his narration. For instance, after killing the Vietnamese peasant in the sampan, he reflects, “We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie.” When Willard kills the woman, the others’ perception of him changes, yet Clean is not criticized for shooting preemptively and killing an entire family—because he was following protocol.
The film is a metaphor for a journey into the self and shows how the self, in the face of war, darkens beyond recognition. As they move upriver, Willard and the PBR crew become more agitated and separated from reality. Each experiences his own kind of mental breakdown. Chef enters the jungle, has a run-in with a tiger, and is no longer the same—his temper becomes shorter, and he withdraws further into drugs. Lance turns to drugs too, but he also camouflages his face, signaling a changed self . When Clean is killed, Chief breaks down emotionally and becomes a changed man. Willard, already broken from his first tour in Vietnam, becomes obsessed with his target. What originally is a mysterious, exciting voyage morphs into a descent into hell, and the characters respond by hardening themselves, withdrawing, and transforming. The cinematography reflects their impending madness by cloaking the journey in darkness and fog, creating an increasingly hallucinatory atmosphere.
While the Vietnamese are fighting for their homes, American troops are fighting to go home—and home, to them, is a combination of surfing, Playboy Playmates, and psychedelic rock. These values are what the soldiers in Apocalypse Now live for, and Willard often reflects upon their emptiness and absurdity. Kilgore’s introductory scene also features a team of American journalists ridiculously filming the soldiers and telling them not to look at the camera. The film crew essentially converts the war into popular entertainment, much as actual footage of Vietnam once dominated the airwaves, exacerbating the antiwar movement. After a senseless air strike, Kilgore orders his men to surf or fight. The priorities of the American officers seem confused, to say the least.
Perhaps the biggest absurdity appears when Willard and the PBR crew happen upon a military supply post where a USO show is about to take place. In showing the Playmates in Vietnam, the film highlights the contrasts between American and Vietnamese values. Frenzied U.S. soldiers drool over the women they can’t have while Vietnamese villagers eat rice calmly. Willard reflects on the contrast: “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Meanwhile, as he speaks, American soldiers continue hooting loutishly.