APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writers: Screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, Narration by Michael Herr, based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, G.D. Spradlin, and Harrison Ford
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#30), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#14), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#66), Palme D’Or – 1979 Cannes International Film Festival, 2 Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Francis Ford Coppola, Best Supporting Actor – Robert Duvall, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on Cinemax App, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Apocalypse Now is one of the absolute greatest movies ever made. There was a time (aka college) when I would have told you it was one of my absolute favorite movies. I don’t think “favorite” is a word I would use anymore, but it’s hard for me to dispute the unique power of this thing. It is this crazy journey into craziness, a great big metaphor or allegory or whatever the right word is for the “horror,” if you will, of the human condition. What it is not, I understand, is in any way an accurate experience of what it was actually like to fight in the Vietnam War. If you want to watch a movie by people who fought in Vietnam about their feelings about it, go watch Platoon (we will soon, I promise). Director Francis Ford Coppola once told an interviewer that this movie wasn’t about Vietnam, “It is Vietnam.” 

In that self-delusional tone lies both the biggest strength and biggest weakness of this movie, and also of the infamous story of its production. At the height of the “New Hollywood” period, when certain directors could pretty much literally do anything they wanted, for better or worse, Coppola dragged a cast, crew, and many millions of dollars in budget out into the middle of the Phillipine wilderness, where pretty much everything went wrong and all the while everyone did drugs and went insane. More than one critic has declared that they consider the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (co-directed by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, who made secret audio tapes of him the whole time) to be better than the movie itself, the ultimate story of creative genius going completely awry while still, somehow, ending up with a great work.

Apocalypse Now is based on, or perhaps more accurately, inspired by, the classic Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. The novel was about a man heading up the Congo River at the height of European Colonialism, getting gradually closer to the mysterious figure Kurtz, who has set himself up in the deep jungle as a God to the natives. It is meant to some degree as a critique of colonialism, and also as a sort of metaphorical journey into madness. Its depiction of the natives has been picked apart by critics for a century plus, and Apocalypse Now isn’t any more interested in the “natives” than Conrad was. Coppola moves the story to the Vietnam War, as Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned to travel through the war upriver in a very small boat to attempt to find a rogue Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz, we hear, has gone insane, and Sheen is told by a group of officers (including, very randomly, Harrison Ford) to “terminate his command, with extreme prejudice.”

The journey of Willard and the crew up the river is told as a long series of episodes, which are of course highly disconnected, though I would say they have a cumulative effect. Several of them are justly famous in their own right. Perhaps best known is the group’s early run-in with an airborne cavalry division led by the cocksure Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who is initially reluctant to help but, after discovering there are some great waves for surfing where they’re going (“Charlie don’t surf!”), sends in his fleet of helicopters to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries.” While the village is still being torched, he orders some his soldiers to try out the waves, then delivers a monologue that includes the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” That this phrase made it onto bumper stickers suggests some viewers did not understand the point of this sequence. In the end, Willard reaches Kurtz’s Cambodian stronghold, where Marlon Brando delivers bizarre monologues from the deep shadows while surrounded by the gruesome dead bodies of his victims. In final moments, Willard hacks Kurtz to death with a machete as the soundtrack blares “This Is the End” by the Doors.

Originally, shooting on Apocalypse Now was supposed to last five months, but it stretched well over a year, while the production suffered catastrophe after catastrophe and, meanwhile, Coppola and his writers couldn’t settle on an ending they liked. Helicopters they thought they had rented from the Marcos regime were requisitioned to fight local rebels (that’s right, they ended up shooting this movie in an actual war zone). Some of the sets were completely destroyed by a Typhoon. Martin Sheen, worked to exhaustion and also on lots of drugs, had a near-fatal heart attack in the middle of production, at which point Coppola did his best to keep shooting with Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez as a stand-in. Scenes early in the movie of Sheen doing weird karate moves in his underwear as he gradually loses his mind in his hotel room were not scripted and apparently involved Coppola just pointing his camera at Sheen while he kept doing whatever he was doing.

Then Brando showed up, extremely overweight, having apparently never read the script, or having any idea who the Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness was, for that matter. Brando insisted on being shot only in shadow and seems to have basically have just made up his lines on the spot. Footage shown in the Hearts of Darkness documentary shows Brando stopping in the middle of a scene, announcing, “That’s all the lines I can think of today,” and walking off set while the camera still rolls. Meanwhile, in order to strew dead bodies around Kurtz’s compound, set decorators apparently literally bought cadavers from local skeezy-seeming guy, who turned out to be a graverobber, at which point multiple people got arrested. Then some of those people got Oscar nominations, so it turned out OK I guess? Except for grave robber guy.

It is thus easy to see how most of those involved, including Coppola himself, if the secret tapes are to be believed, thought they were involved in a bomb of epic proportions. Not so much, it turns out, which is clearly a miracle. Yeah, I mean, it’s more a state of mind than a movie, but for those of use who don’t drop acid on a regular basis, this is probably not a bad substitute. Despite some initial mixed reviews, the movie has become firmly ensconced in the list of cinematic achievements. Yet, as with his good friend George Lucas (who was actually attached to direct a version of the movie many years earlier), Coppola can’t quite resist constant fiddling. A while back he released a “Redux” version that stuck an extra hour or so onto this movie, including a whole bit at a decaying French backcountry plantation house that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but was cut out of the original movie. Then he released a “Final Cut” version a few years ago that cut out some of the new bits but not others. This version is “remastered” and interesting for that reason, though other than that I’d still watch the original: the French Plantation bit, in particular, just brings the entire thing to a screeching halt and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie. Just because they shot it doesn’t mean it should actually be in the movie.

I don’t want to portray watching Apocalypse Now as a fun drug trip, because it isn’t. It’s meant to be deeply disturbing. Most movies, even “scary” ones, don’t hang around after the movie is over, but Apocalypse Now does stick with you. Maybe that has something to do with the actual dead bodies and other bizarreness, but a lot of it is the movie working the way it is supposed to work, against all odds. I’ve seen recent articles talking about all the “missed opportunities” for the movie to show actual history, and honestly that seems to me to be completely missing the point. Apocalypse Now isn’t about the reality of war any more than Star Trek is about the reality of space travel. It’s about the human condition.

8 thoughts on “APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

  1. You forgot to mention this was Lawrence Fishburne’s first major role and he lied about his age to get the part. He was only 14 at the time he got the role of a 17 year old, but the production went on for so long, he turned 17 by the time it was done. I’m guessing he took the red pill and stayed in Wonderland all that time. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

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