|After first seeing Apocalypse Now (1979) at the now destroyed University Theatre on Bloor Street in 1979, I stumbled out of the theatre in shock, knowing I had just seen the future of American cinema, a film that broke all the boundaries and in doing so actually created new ones. The surrealistic nature of the film had a hypnotizing effect on the audience seeing the film for the first time, and together we shared an experience unlike any other in cinema history. |
By the time Apocalypse Now (1979) was released to the general public, it was already one of the most famous and infamous films in modern cinema. Principal photography had begun in 1976 in the jungles of the Philippines, and there Coppola and his cast and crew went through hell to make the film. There were natural setbacks such as a typhoon wiping out the sets, and Martin Sheen suffering a massive heart attack. There were also major setbacks such as the Philippine government seizing the helicopters on loan to Coppola to fight the rebels in the hills, and Marlon Brando showing up grossly overweight, bald and having not read the script. It remains a miracle that Coppola was able to find a masterpiece in the miles of footage he shot.
Loosely based on Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the film traces the circumstances surrounding Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) being sent into Cambodia to assassinate a fellow American, Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who has gone insane in the jungle.
Set during the war in Viet Nam, the film makes a vicious statement about that dirty little war in that the soldiers fighting it were operating without any guidance or control. When Willard and his men encounter Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his platoon, they are stunned to learn that Kilgore will attack a village at dawn just to see Lance (Sam Bottoms) a famous surfer from California hit the waves.
In they go like prehistoric mosquitoes, with Wagner blaring out of massive speakers, Kilgore and his men attack the village.
When it is all over and the smoke is still clearing, Kilgore stands among his men, with bombs going off around him, he stands fearlessly, unflinching and states that “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like victory”. Kilgore is the madness of Viet Nam, the dark side of America that loved the war that believed in the war that actually had fun in Viet Nam. His character is dark yet equally darkly funny, as we see clearly the clear eyed madness in Kilgore’s jaunty behavior.
Of course the closer to Kurtz that Willard gets, the more he begins to understand how the once great soldier went made by what he was seeing in Viet Nam. When he finally encounters the bloated Colonel he cannot decide whether or not to kill him or just let him be. Kurtz however, knows that Willard must kill him, that he must be killed, for one reason to be put out of his misery, but also because he knows that Willard will take his place.
Kurtz is indeed slaughtered, the sequence juxtaposed with the sacred slaughter of a water buffalo.
In the end Kurtz is left hacked to pieces, whispering, “the horror…the horror”.
Thus ends Coppola’s searing, phantasmagorical journey through Viet Nam, though in reality he is using Viet Nam as a metaphor for all wars. He seeks to explore the horror and madness man is capable of creating and he does just that in a series of stunning images that sear themselves into the landscape of the mind with astonishing power.
The performances in the film are stunning, topped by Robert Duvall’s clear eyed lunatic Kilgore, who tears apart a village to see somebody surf. He has no fear, stripping off his shirt as he struts about the beach inhaling the smell of the napalm he so loves. Duvall dominates the film, though he just onscreen for twenty minutes or so. Apocalypse Now (1979) never quite recovers from his exit, which comes when he states with regret, “some day this war’s going to end.”
Martin Sheen has an enormously difficult role as Willard, required to take so much in and convey it to the audience through his expressive eyes. He is obviously haunted by what he has seen previous to the beginning of the film, an assassin whom has killed because he was asked to do so. Sheen is extraordinary, whether breaking down in his room or discussing the logic of the war with Brando, it is an exceptional performance.
Marlon Brando gives a performance no other American actor could give in the role of Kurtz. Looking like a giant wounded Buddha, he is a man betrayed by the very war he believed in. He captures the aching soul of a man who knows he has brought to other suffering and is suffering by the impact of what he has done. When he relates to Willard what set him over the edge and says, “and I cried, I wept..”, we feel for him because Brando is so astute at bringing to the audience what he feels.
Coppola’s direction f the film is simply breathtaking, from the gently waving jungle at the beginning that suddenly explodes into an inferno to the strains of The Doors The End, through to the massacre on the sampan, to that final image of Willard walking through the village after he has killed Kurtz and we hear the weapons dropping on the ground in tribute of him. The film is massive in scope, truly huge, yet Coppola never loses sight of the very intimate human story he is telling. The battle sequences are stunning and startling in their visceral power, but it is the small moments we remember. Willard losing himself in front of a mirror in a drunken stupor, falling off the bed weeping out of control; Kilgore’s fearless strutting about the beach; the mad photojournalist first greeting the men at Kurtz’ compound; and Kurtz’ haunting monologue about what it is that has destroyed him, Coppola captures the insanity of war to frightening perfection.
The film plunges the audience into the Viet Nam war and never lets up throughout its horrifying story. We do indeed see the madness of war, but also the excitement and sensuality of conflict. It is the moral conflict that has destroyed Kurtz as it will devastate the audience.
Available on DVD in two incarnations, the first being the theatrical release while the second is the Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) in which Coppola restored nearly fifty minutes of footage taken out of the theatrical run. The Redux version is deeper and certainly more complex than the theatrical version, and is certainly the stronger of the two. Comparing the pair is like standing beside two paintings by Van Gogh and trying to decide which is better, it simply cannot be done.
How sad that Apocalypse Now (1979) and Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) does not have a directors commentary or is paired with Hearts of Darkness (1991), the superb documentary about the making of the film. You can count on that coming in the very near future.