The 9th cavalry escorts Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to the mouth of the river that leads him to Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Blaring Wagner’s 'Flight of the Valkyries', the swarm of helicopters drench a remote village with rockets, bullets and napalm that kills both innocents and enemy combatants alike. It’s chaotic and senseless, demonstrating the immorality and absurdity of the Vietnam War, embodied by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who lands and commands his men to start surfing the break while bombs drop.
It’s also one of the most striking and iconic scenes in cinema history, and when Kilgore kneels among the hellish, orange mist engulfing the landscape, he delivers one of the most iconic lines in cinema history: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
It’s an odd sentiment for any civilian watching – how can something so destructive be loved? Because it smells like victory, Kilgore explains, which suggests the ambivalence of the soldiers to the destruction they’re causing and lives they’re taking, representing the real-life quagmire of a war that literally divided a country and symbolically divided one back home in America. Apocalypse Now makes no attempt to obfuscate its anti-war message and like other films in the New Hollywood canon, rejects notions of American exceptionalism.
It is an exceptional film though, taking out the Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or, garnering eight Academy Award nominations and winning two, while ensuring a legacy that sees it routinely make best films of all-time lists, from Empire to Sight and Sound.
Another element of the film that makes best-of lists is that unforgettable line uttered by Kilgore, which was number 12 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes list. Not bad for screenwriter John Milius, who told CNN:
"I just wrote it – it just came up... That's what happens. People love to think that all this stuff happens when you write a famous line – that you really thought about it a lot."
It’s understandable that people would think a lot of thought went into it, because people have put a lot of thought into it themselves, substituting ‘napalm’ for words that remix and reappropriate the original meaning and deliver new context. You can see this in the clip below featuring everything from Entourage, Dexter, Mall Rats and True Blood to The Shield, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Dodgeball to name a few.
The line’s elasticity and ease with which these kinds of substitutions can be made has made it popular in the meme world, where templates are made for users to replace ‘napalm’ with other words to convey sarcasm or fondness for certain subjects.
This phrasal template has also been adopted by manufacturers, who have put it on everything from mugs to customised apparel.