Apocalypse Now (1979) is about a quest for the Holy Grail; as with all true quests for the Grail, its purpose is disguised. The Grail legend says there is a sacred kingship and that this sacred kingship is connected to rebirth and renewal; for example, in West Africa there are tribes that would elect a sacred king for seven years—after this period, he would enter a hut and be strangled to death. The number seven, incidentally, is a holy number and it recurs frequently in these kingships. The king’s sacrifice was essential for the land to be renewed and there was never a shortage of candidates for the post. A similar priestly position existed in Ancient Rome; in this case, any challenger to the incumbent priest who could kill him could take on the role: the more decadent emperors liked to encourage weekly, if not daily, challengers, so there was a new priest all the time.
The sacred king dies to renew the land; he literally gives his life to renew the land—if the sacrifice is not made, then the land becomes a wasteland. It falls under a frosty enchantment. The quest for the Holy Grail is the quest for those knights who would break the enchantment, spill the sacred king’s blood, and so take his place. The Grail knight arrives at the castle and meets the Fisher King and his father, the Wounded King; actually, both men are injured. They are the old sacred kings; in the Grail legends, the knight does not exactly slay them—although he can do—rather he says the right words, relieves the Fisher King and his Father of their wounds, and so gives them rest at another level. He takes their place and rules for another seven years, until the new knight arrives to relieve him.
In Apocalypse Now, the young Willard (Sheen) is the Grail knight; he is summoned to travel upriver to find the older Kurtz (Brando): Kurtz lives in an enchanted kingdom—an ancient Cambodian palace—where strange and abnormal events transpire; his elite soldiers have gone native and his kingdom is enchanted with death.
On the journey upriver, Willard encounters French planters who have somehow hung on beyond the post-colonial era; and they hang on because Kurtz’s kingdom is frozen, and time does not flow normally there. Kurtz himself has attained great wisdom; but he is also the Wounded King—the Fisher King, his son, is a photojournalist hanger-on (Hopper) who idolises Kurtz’s wisdom. Willard goes on a quest to slay the Wounded King; he takes Kurtz’s place as the sacred king when he assassinates Kurtz and so liberates the kingdom from its stasis.
The allusion to the Grail is clear, Kurtz is shown to have read three books: The Golden Bough (about the sacrifice of the sacred king); From Ritual to Romance (about the Holy Grail); and The Waste Land (about mythical enchantment). The journey includes elements from the Grail legend: Willard is accompanied by a surfer called “Lance”—a lance is considered an essential part in any Grail quest. Later, Willard encounters a Playboy Bunny show put on to entertain the troops: these women, clad in diaphanous clothes, represent the women said to herald the Grail. Kurtz briefly imprisons Willard in a cage, analogous to the fasting the knights and the Fisher King undertake. Willard’s thirst is relieved when the photojournalist offers him water from a wooden bowl, another element in the Grail legend.
Kurtz possesses sacred knowledge: America cannot win in Vietnam with a conscript army made soft on pot, Playboy shows, and R&R in the Philippines. America can only win the war if she fights spiritually, in a knightly way—as he does; only Willard, his replacement, can really know this truth. Finally, “apocalypse” means “revelation”; the title does not refer to horrific warfare in Vietnam: the title means that the film is a sacred revelation; it uncovers the Grail mystery, now—both for Willard, and for the audience.