A film review by Craig J. Koban


RANK: # 2


25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1979, R, 153 mins.

Kurtz: Marlon Brando / Kilgore: Robert Duvall / Willard: Martin Sheen / Chef: Frederic Forrest / Photographer: Dennis Hopper / Roxanne: Aurore Clement / Clean: Laurence Fishburne / Chief: Albert Hall / Col. Lucas: Harrison Ford /

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola / Written by John Milius and Coppola

Is APOCALYPSE NOW the best film about the Vietnam War? 

Probably not.  It’s definitely the most surreal and hypnotic in its imagery.   Over the last three decades it seems that the story of the making of the film has become almost greater than the film itself.  What started as a modest script written in 1969 by John Milius called THE PSYCHEDELIC SOLDIER (that was to be a low budget film to be directed by George Lucas) eventually became a Hollywood legend.  It emerged as the single most grueling film making experiences for director Francis Ford Coppola, if not in the entire history of cinema. 

It premiered in the spring of 1979 at the Cannes Film Festival and took the festivals top prize.  It later went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, taking home trophies for only (but deservedly) sound and cinematography.   Sure, the film may not be the most definitive look at the Vietnam War, but it has definitely remained, even 25 years later, a powerful and invigorating work...and a masterpiece.  It arguably is Coppola’s best, most accomplished work, and it shows a filmmaker at his most self-assured.  His singular artistically obsessiveness permeates every frame.  Most films can brag that they have one or two great moments.  APOCALYPSE NOW is a colossal work that has too many to mention. 

The story behind the making of this film is one of the great legendary stories of movie production.  George Lucas was originally set to direct the film of the screenplay by John Milius and planned to shoot the movie as a sort of weird, mock-documentary on location in South Vietnam (a brave choice, considering that the war was still in progress there at the time).  Coppola was initially going to be the executive producer and tried in vain to get the film made as part of a production deal with Warner Bros. This, as history has proven, went nowhere fast and Coppola went on to direct THE GODFATHER.   With the enormous success of that film under his belt, and with Lucas busy making a modest and low budget sci-fi film called STAR WARS, Coppola had the power and the time to concentrate his efforts on getting the film made.  Lucas, in a move that, in hindsight, can be seen as one of the safest choices of anyone's  career, gave Coppola his blessing to direct APOCALYPSE NOW himself.   

If war is hell, then so was the making of the film. 

APOCALYPSE NOW was originally going to be shot on a small budget with minimal production crew over a short span of six weeks.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, Coppola shot an amazing two hundred hours of footage for the film over a span of over 17 months, a gross overspending of time that would make Stanley Kubrick blush.  It took nearly three painful and exhausting years to edit the film, with an average of less than one edit per day.  Randy Thom, one of the sound mixers on the film, stated that it took an amazing nine months just to complete the sound work on the film.  

The shoot was no easier on Coppola.  He shot the film in the Philippines in an effort to make for a more convenient and easy production (ha).  Ferdinand Marcos agreed to supply the helicopters and pilots to the production crew.  Unfortunately for Coppola, Marcos’ government also needed them for fighting nearby rebels, and sometimes withdrew them during filming, thus sending different pilots not familiar with the filming.   Typhoons ripped through integral portions of the film’s sets, destroying them.  At one point, actor Martin Sheen suffered a serious heart attack while filming and Coppola was forced to use a stand-in for some shots.  Coppola, in fact, was so worried that financial backing would be withdrawn by the studio and distributor if news of Sheen's heart attack leaked out that he kept it hush-hush and even went as far as telling the press that Sheen was hospitalized due to  "heat exhaustion".  Coppola suffered agonizing days where he could not think of a way to satisfactorily end the film.  He constantly re-wrote the script, even while filming was commencing.  The helicopters and other outside noise were so loud that much of the dialogue was completely inaudible, which necessitated the need for nearly all of it to be looped.  

As the film spiraled out of control, Coppola ended up investing his entire fortune into finishing the film (it finished with a then astronomical budget of $35 million, huge for the late 70’s).  The final stake in Coppola’s heart was Marlon Brando.  He agreed to make the film and star as its antagonist, Colonel Kurtz, but only if he was paid one million dollars in advance before he even stepped foot on set.  When Brando finally arrived he not only admitted that he did not even prepare for the filming by reading HEART OF DARKNESS (the basis for the film), but he also showed up late, drunk, and fifty pounds overweight.  Brando read Coppola’s script, hated it, and refused to do one line of dialogue from it.  Days were spent with Coppola arguing with the compulsive Brando over single lines of dialogue.  Brando failed to capitulate and refused to do the part unless he could improvise and be shot only in shadows. 

Coppola gave in. 

By all means, this was all clearly enough to break even the strongest of men.  Coppola’s goals, as he stated in a press conference at the conclusion of filming, was “to create a film that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness and sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.”  Funny, in retrospect, because what he really created was his own filmmaker’s apocalypse.  He barely made it out of the production alive.  He lost nearly 100 pounds during the course of filming, was frequently ill for months on end, and even contemplated suicide on several occasions.. 

Whoever said art was easy? 

Okay, it has been proven in the past on occasion that not all tortuous and troubled productions always make for great films (ahem, WATERWORLD).  But in the case of APOCALYPSE NOW, as soon as the lights faded in the theatre and the desolate shot of the Vietnam jungle came up with The Doors’ THE END playing in the background,  you just knew that you were seeing something avant-garde and special.  APOCALYPSE NOW is surly not a serious and straightforward exploration into the horrors of warfare (for that, please see PLATOON), nor is it a film that, even today, is easily digestible.  Some people have left APOCALYPSE NOW either hailing it as a masterstroke work or despising it as being self-indulgent, needlessly ambiguous, and grossly pretentious.  Actually, it’s all of those things, but that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece.  It’s not a film you watch.  It’s a film you feel and experience, and no war film before or since has had the visceral impact and polarizing effect on its viewers that APOCALYPSE NOW has.  It truly is one of the best films of the 70’s, if not one of the greatest films ever made. 

For such a complex and convoluted production, APOCALYPSE NOW is such a deceptively simple story.  Heart of Darkness, a novel by Joseph Conrad that concerned a European named Kurtz who penetrated into the deepest reaches of the Congo and subsequently established himself like a god, inspired the narrative.  A boat is sent to find Kurtz, but during the voyage the narrator slowly looses confidence in the world.  He becomes obsessed with not only the dangers of the jungle around him, but also of his tireless mission.  With subtle changes, the film put Vietnam into the story as the setting and backdrop, changed Kurtz into a American colonel that has gone AWOL, and made the narrator a US soldier that is given the task to find the Colonel and “terminate him…with extreme prejudice.”  I think that the metaphors of both the book and the film are still the same.  In the book, we question the sanity of why a man would brave the dangers of the jungle to hunt someone down.  In the film, the jungle is Vietnam, so the metaphor is twofold -  why go up the river on a suicide mission and why did we go into Vietnam in the first place?  Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) faces these questions on his mission to hunt down Kurtz (Brando). 

The film is one of the great introverted and extroverted 140 minutes I‘ve ever experienced.  There are moments of such striking visual power that you stare at the screen in a kind of awe.  There are also, at the same time, several quiet moments where you can almost hear a pin drop (or, for that matter, hear the thoughts of the director).  It’s a really disorienting ride, and one that does not easily spell out answers or neatly conclude itself on a predictable path.   APOCALYPSE NOW is not a great film because it probes reasons behind the American involvement in Vietnam.  It’s not about social commentary, voicing opinions, or making swift, one-note judgments. Coppola’s speaks like a painter does when he works on a canvas - he lets the visuals speak for him and allows the viewer to read into his haunting, yet lyrical images to discern a feeling, mood, and texture of the war in Vietnam.  Sure, there are moments of interest into the human condition in the piece, but the film largely occupies my memory in a visual and emotional capacity.  The film has painted mysterious, ominous, and lurid images in my head that I’ll never forget. 

That is not to say that there are not compelling human characters in the film.  Martin Sheen has the thankless job as the narrator and protagonist who is sent on the dangerous mission by his superiors.  Does he want to go?  Yes and no.  Yes, because he’s interested and fascinated by Kurtz, and no because he’s afraid of what he’ll find.  Sheen is quietly strong in the film, and has a forceful presence that’s subtle, and it’s certainly the best performance he has ever given. 

One of the best supporting characters would clearly be a crazed lieutenant colonel played by the great Robert Duvall.  He just may be the oddest military man ever committed to celluloid.   He treats his soldiers like his children, and gives into their and his own eccentricities by playing classical music when they invade a Vietnamese village in a daring helicopter attack.  Even stranger is his fascination with surfing, especially when he finds out that one of Willard’s men is a famous US surfer.  His single-mindedness and manic fanaticism are truly frightening, especially when he really only attacks the village to free up the ample surfing real estate because “Charlie don’t surf.”  His greatest moment of shallowness and emotional detachment from the war occurs shortly after the village and its surrounding village has been napalmed and he engages in one the best monologues of the cinema.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning", he reveals with both an earnestness and shameful poignancy.   His moral corruptness paves through even more when he indirectly forces the soldiers at gun point to surf the liberated waves, even as the bombs are still going off around them.  Duvall gives one of the all-time great supporting performances, and his Oscar nomination was deserved. 

Then there is that pesky Brando as Kurtz, whose casting was inspirational, appropriate, and insane all at once.  If there was ever a more powerful performance done purely with minimal body language and eyes, then Brando’s work here clearly is it.  The film is one great build-up of anticipation to the reveal of Kurtz.  He essentially is an enigmatic figure, so who better to play the man then the iconic Brando?  He’s not the violent, over-the-top, crazed lunatic that you were probably expecting.  Rather, he is cool, detached, and quiet…a real poet warrior.  His scenes are the pulse of the film, and his endless monosyllabic ranting gives the film that feeling of operatic and surreal insanity that only further embellishes the hellishness of the Vietnam War.   He mumbles, reads poetry, strings together disconnected thoughts and feelings, but the underlying message of his performance is a sort of poetic pathos and chaos.  Brando, of course, sells it all flawlessly in a small performance that achieves greatness.  Not to mention that he gets to utter one of the greatest lines ever at the conclusion of the film as some sort of mad and tearful summation of the failure of his life and the war. 

The performances are strong, but the visuals are ever more powerful.  So many strike such a strong cord.  The scene of the helicopter raid on the village just may be the single greatest action scene in the history of film.  It's such a textbook display editing, haunting music, and devastating and eerie visuals.  It's an action scene where the consequences of the violence are never sidestepped.  There’s another astonishing sequence of barbaric power when Willard’s patrol boat stops a fishing boat with disastrous results.  Yet another strange and tense moment occurs when one of the characters ventures out into the jungle looking for mangos and is nearly attacked by a tiger (the pacing and sheer anticipation that is created here has seldom been duplicated). 

The final moments of the film, with minimal dialogue, have a sort of pathological and incoherent vitality to them, all punctuated by those great Door’s tunes.  Perhaps the greatest un-sung hero of the film is the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who gives the film a rich lushness (colors, at times, are so fever-pitched and vibrant that you swear you are watching a classic Technicolor film) while creating such a dark undertone of mood (the final scenes in Kurtz’s compound demonstrates how the lighting is almost a separate character on to itself, and worked miracles in contributing to Brando’s performance. 

APOCALYPSE NOW was re-released in the summer of 2001 as APOCALYPSE NOW: REDUX and Coppola added back in nearly an hour of footage into the existing film.  Does it help or hurt the overall film?  In both ways, no.  The new footage was not as nice maybe as, say, the remastered soundtrack and picture quality, which made the film look as fresh as ever.  Most of the extra footage is concentrated in a middle scene where the patrol boat visits a French plantation while on their mission.  It's kind of one of those dreamy colonial leftovers that somehow managed to survive all of the surrounding chaos.  They have dinner together and discuss American politics and history (endlessly, to be exact).  There are also more moments put in with Kurtz, and extended scenes involving a USO tour by some American Playboy bunnies.  Yet, the additions neither hurts nor helps the film.  They are good to see in context, but would have been a satisfying experience on a supplemental section of a DVD.  REDUX still is a powerful work, but the original still holds the most meaning for me. 

APOCALYPSE NOW remains to this day a bold and brave venture into the world of big, epic filmmaking, and it’s a magnificent masterpiece headed by the determination of its creator.  As provocative as it is haunting, the film remains a defining moment in the history of cinema and one of the great unforgettable films that I have ever seen.  Yes, there are other great Vietnam War films, but this one achieves more and goes deeper into those uncharted and thematically difficult grounds where ideas are not easy to discern and thoughts are also plagued with uncertainty and lack of clarity.  It’s really an expressionistic war film, one that exists on its visuals and ability to inspire feelings from its audience.  It does not reach out to us at face value about war, but rather attempts to probe the soul of war.  When Brando whispers out “the horror” at film’s end, I think we kind of feel what he does, without altogether understanding what he means.  APOCALYPSE NOW is a beautiful and abstract film and represents Coppola’s finest hour, and considering what he went through to get this film finished, you sort of feel him through every pore the film.  Not that many movies have that transcending power.

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