As a film that pops up often near the top of lists of the best movies ever made, Apocalypse Now surely needs no introduction. Together with the Godfather trilogy, this established Francis Ford Coppola’s reputation as one of greatest American directors of all time. The version we watched is the much longer Redux edition that was released in 2001. It’s actually getting rather difficult now to find the original theatrical version.
Martin Sheen stars as Captain Willard, a black ops veteran who is sent to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Kurtz who has gone rogue with his entire command. A Navy patrol boat is assigned to transport him to Cambodia where the colonel is holed up. Along the way, they encounter such characters as the bombastic commander of an attack helicopter squadron, a trio of Playboy Playmates sent to entertain the troops, and even a family of French plantation owners who are determined to hold on to their land. As they journey ever farther upriver and away from civilization, they weather attacks from the Vietcong while Willard reflects on Kurtz’s state of mind and what he must have done to earn a kill order from high command.
Production values-wise, this is a staggeringly spectacular film with practically every frame being a work of art. Few other movies can match it as a feast for the senses and it boggles the mind to imagine how long they had to wait to get just the right color of sunset or how much effort it took to contour Marlon Brando’s head in shadow or make every bead of sweat on Sheen’s face stand out. One example of the incredible quality of the work is the scene in which the helicopters swoop down to attack a helicopter while the Ride of the Valkyries play. It’s an iconic scene that has long been sublimated into popular culture so there’s no element of surprise here. Yet it’s executed so perfectly that it still manages to blow me away. Just for this alone, I’d consider this a must-watch.
Story-wise, it’s really more an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam than a Vietnam war movie inspired by the novella. Even the names used for the characters are similar. This explains why it makes little effort to be historically accurate or even plausible. It doesn’t make sense why the U.S. would send a single captain to rein in a rogue unit or how they expect a single patrol boat with a crew of five to survive a lengthy journey with no support. Arguably it should be seen more like an attempt to capture the spirit of what this conflict felt like to Americans, and in this I think it succeeds fantastically.
One of my favorite bits about its theme is its ambiguous attitude towards war. On the one hand, it plays with Conrad’s point about how Western civilization is but a thin veneer and that when real violence breaks out, everyone reverts to being brute savages. The whole film is shot like a wild ride through a horrific fun fair in which everyone progressively goes insane. I think the added scene of the Marais family’s plantation is a great case in point. It’s a tiny bit of Western civilization in the middle of a warzone, with formal sit-down dinners, fancy silverware and cognac as a digestive. Yet the very insistence of trying maintain this in the face of utter barbarity everywhere else can’t help but feel completely incongruous and therefore insane.
On the other hand, this film also seems to claim that there is something primal, powerful and even great in being a savage, in being so completely dedicated to a cause that you’re willing to sacrifice everything, even morality and humanity, to it. Kurtz as the warrior-poet god-king out of legend is the most obvious example but this also pops up everywhere in the film. In the scene of the helicopters attacking the village, the music is powerful, uplifting and even liberating. There’s always of sense of revel in the air. The surfing-mad and larger than life Kilgore is an unambiguously off-his-rocker mad dog yet the film never portrays him as a real villain. Willard notes that he loves his men who consequently would do anything for him and believes that he is destined to walk out of Vietnam without a scratch even though he strides in the middle of battle without worrying about such petty things like taking cover. There’s a good why many critics continue to insist that despite all of the horrors that it depicts, Apocalypse Now actually glorifies war.
The acting is naturally superb all around. I especially loved Martin Sheen as Willard. The opening scene shows us that he is traumatized and completely fucked up inside. But it turns out that only we know this since as he goes about his mission, he is the stand-in character for the audience and dispassionately observes the craziness of everyone else as if he were the sanest man on the planet. Brando has fantastic screen presence but I’m more impressed with Coppola for being able to make the most of Brando’s shortcomings. I also got a real kick out of a very fresh-faced Harrison Ford in a very minor role and a real shock when I realized that one of the patrol boat’s crew members is a 14-year old Laurence Fishburne.
It should be pretty clear that I consider this a masterpiece of cinema. As a visual spectacle, it blows away modern CGI fests while its rich and complex themes makes it something that will stick in your mind long after you’re done watching. Apparently making this film imposed heavy costs for many of the people involved. It almost ruined Coppola’s financials and family and Sheen almost died of a heart attack while making it. There’s even a documentary of the total nightmare that making this film was. Alas, as is often the case, such is the price of striving for total perfection.