Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Martin Sheen (Willard), Marlon Brando (Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Kilgore), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), Sam Bottoms (Lance)
Apocalypse Now is one of the most breathtakingly realised descents into hell ever brought to a mainstream cinema audience. Just look at Coppola’s choice of opening shot; a beautiful vista of lush, unspoilt overgrowth that spontaneously erupts with the fires of the American military’s napalm. Paradise lost? This is paradise obliterated. War is hell? Yeah. Welcome to hell. Coppola chose this shot to open the movie during the editing process, lifting it from discarded footage from later in the film, but it’s not hard to see why it stood out. How symbolic it was. Heavy-handed? Maybe. But does Apocalypse Now really deal in subtleties?
There are so many things to discuss on this one, it’s almost intimidating. I love how cyclical the movie is. The scenes following the aforementioned opening shot – of Captain Willard in his room, stir-crazy on r’n’r – couldn’t they potentially also play at the movie’s end? And if so, couldn’t it all be a flashback, or more daunting still, a never-ending cycle; the poor captain doomed to repeat variations of the same insane mission over and over for eternity? And if taken as a linear narrative, one wonders what nightmarish deeds Willard has witnessed or executed already? The sense of a man trapped in a loop is echoed by Willard’s fixation with the ceiling fan, ingeniously cut to the sound of helicopter rotor blades.
And perhaps it is all a nightmare? There are few other war films that feel this hallucinogenic. Take the ensuing briefing scene for example. As Willard is played the tapes of Kurtz’s radio transmissions – those mad sermons – the camera drifts hazily over the officer’s banquet of food. Sound and image dislocate, with Willard trapped in between them both, struggling to make sense of things. He accepts the mission to terminate Kurtz’s command. Like he says, what the hell else is he going to do?
For my sins I’ve never read Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, so I have nothing to compare Coppola’s movie to, but what follows is one of the most remarkable odysseys in American cinema. Certainly the film marks the extraordinary final bow of the nation’s last golden decade of movie-making. A renaissance period in which creative expression and experimentation seemed part of the process, not just in independent films, but in mainstream ones. Imagine that today.
And so to the appropriately startling performances. Whilst Brando and Duvall often share most of the column inches given to Apocalypse Now, it is Martin Sheen’s steely turn as Willard that glues the picture together. It was a role initially given to Harvey Keitel, but Sheen takes it and owns it. Combined with this unforgettable narration, he grounds the film with the weary voice of the pragmatist. A core of determined sense tested by a war that rarely makes any. Willard highlights the hypocrisies and crimes of the Vietnam War – throughout acting like a proto-Kurtz, in fact. The more you watch him, the more it all makes sense. “It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Walter E Kurtz’s memory,” he intones. By the end, has he become him?
Then there is the sound. Inspired choices are abound here, from the aforementioned ceiling fan/helicopter blend, to the pop songs and the infamous sequence of violent action set to Wagner. Yet just as impressive – if not more so – is the electronic music that swamps the picture. Like a step on from Carlos’ work on A Clockwork Orange, Carmine Coppola’s synthetic sounds feed into the dreamlike narrative, heightening it, underlining it. Merged with Vittorio Storano’s photography, it creates a soupy, syrupy cinematic landscape.
Of course, Apocalypse Now is a film well-documented for its excesses, having spawned a celebrated second documentary feature about its creation. However it’s the excesses that elevate the film for me. Coppola’s obsession with the billowing rainbow smoke canisters is hardly accurate, yet it intensifies the otherworldly psychedelia of the era. Likewise, of course Brando’s half-slurred monologues are indulgent, but Kurtz is an indulgent character, a grotesque born of circumstance. And so those monologues are entirely appropriate.
For me personally, the film’s most triumphant and eerie set-piece is the Do Lung Bridge sequence. Lost souls struggling not to drown, the quiet resignation of some of the soldiers verses the untamed screams of the desperate, the pitch darkness lit only by light bulb strings and flare guns. It is a haunting creation, like some apocalyptic engraving from a lost age, only written in the language of cinema and modern warfare. The music again is key; a mix of wonky carnival music, Hendrix’s fevered guitar and cold, dead silence. “Who’s the commanding officer here?” Willard asks a private he’s never seen before in his life. “Ain’t you?” asks back the private incredulously. And when he asks another, “Do you know who’s in command here?” and the solider calmly replies, “Yeah” before departing… is there anything so haunting and melancholic?
There is a sad sense that filmmaking this grand, crazy and ambitious will never really happen again. Computer wizardry has eliminated the need to actually be there, eliminated the need for real extras etc. Yet no matter how impressive the illusion, the human brain can always, always tell the difference. Coppola’s film feels truly like a hand-crafted epic. Constructed by man, not machine. Huge, elaborate, bloated, misguided, but personal thanks to the blood and sweat right there on the screen.
In 2001, Coppola added nearly an hour of footage for the re-release Apocalypse Now Redux. Whilst this is well-worth seeing, my pick is the original theatrical cut. Those extra scenes, though interesting, decimate the film’s pacing and it becomes arduous. The 1979 version remains definitive. Perfect for its so-called imperfections. Repeat viewings and an over-familiarisation with the movie bring definition to its strengths, until every scene becomes a great, noteworthy scene. There is so much more to write about Apocalypse Now. So much that I scarcely know where to begin. But seeing as I’ve already outstretched my usual word limit for these things, this’ll do for now.