Apocalypse Now (1979)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn

It was madness that sent thousands upon thousands of young American men halfway around the world to “make the world safe from Communism.” It was the Draft which ensured that many who never would have entertained the possibility of military service would never come home from this war. Back home, it was lies and deceit coupled with the horror stories reported on the news that inspired anti-war protests. Lyndon Baines Johnson could have been regarded as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents of all time for certain key accomplishments, but the tragic mistake that was the Vietnam War will forever tarnish his legacy. Those who survived and returned home would often wind up so emotionally scarred that the madness only deepens as time goes on. Though their tour may have ended, Vietnam never truly left them.

Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) faces quite a conundrum. When he is in Vietnam, there is only the mission, otherwise he can’t wait to get out. But on the occasions when he is returned home, all he can think about is getting back. So, while in Saigon with nothing to do, the special ops soldier drinks himself half to death until someone hands him official papers telling him which way to jump. This time, he’s been summoned to his most unusual mission yet, a top secret assignment which will have him traversing into Cambodia, where he is to locate and “terminate” the rogue Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is said to have gone insane and has been carrying out his own “missions” without any authorization from the U.S. Military. Willard has been sent on missions where he’s had to kill specific people before, just never an American. Never an officer, and certainly not one who at one point was being considered for promotion to the rank of General. Willard hitches a ride on board a Navy Patrol Boat, along with its crew of four. On several occasions, they run into trouble, once inadvertently murdering the innocent passengers of a civilian boat while checking it for hidden weapons. Each successive obstacle causes further paranoia among the crew, with some resorting to hallucinogenic alternatives to the reality of their situation. Willard himself, although bothered by these events, remains focused on his mission. There are casualties among the crew, but eventually Willard reaches his destination, finding the previous soldier sent to do the same mission (Scott Glenn) and an American civilian photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper), both seemingly worshipping the Colonel, and finally Kurtz himself.

Despite changing the location of the story, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness,” from the African Congo to the jungles of Vietnam, the question raised by the source material of what defines civilized behavior is every bit as well-represented. “Apocalypse Now” features one of my favorite opening scenes of any movie. As the song “The End” by The Doors plays on the soundtrack, we know even without considering the Vietnam setting that this is a story which is not destined to end well for anyone. Terrific use of the rotating blades of the ceiling fan in Willard’s room in mimicking those of the helicopters flying outside. I also love the way Martin Sheen instantly lets us in on his character’s state of mind. Willard may be good at what he does, but he’s also prone to flying off the handle, which leads me to suspect that it was no accident that he was picked to go after Kurtz. I find myself in complete agreement with the actor in that my two favorite film roles of Sheen’s are this one and 1973’s “Badlands.” Laurence Fishburne, then 14, lied about how old he was in order to win the role of the 17-year old “Clean.” By the time production was finished, Fishburne had reached his character’s designated age. Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper are all masters of their trade. Bizzare as it may sound, Col. Kurtz sits somewhere around fourth or fifth in my top five of Brando’s film roles, but he’s still an absolute joy to watch… even when the things Kurtz has to say don’t really make much sense. Dennis Hopper has always been a scenery-chewer, owing a lot to his ability to play characters of questionable sanity. He turned his manic meter up to 11 for this one, and I love that about him.

The behind-the-scenes account of “Apocalypse Now” is almost as intriguing as the film itself. I’ve yet to see the documentary “Hearts of Darkness” for myself, though what I have heard really makes me want to check it out. Tensions between Brando and Hopper were such that Brando refused to be on set as the same time as his co-star. Martin Sheen nearly died for this movie, suffering a heart attack after the first 12 months of the film’s arduous production. The story also goes that, for the opening scene which I love so very much, Sheen had just celebrated a birthday and did not have to act like a man who’d had one too many drinks. “Apocalypse Now” wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for director Francis Ford Coppola, either. In addition to playing referee between an overweight Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, Coppola also had a typhoon to deal with, unreliable Filipino extras,  nervous breakdowns, rising production costs and having to replace his original lead actor, Harvey Keitel, after just the first two weeks. That he ended up creating one of if not THE greatest war movie of all-time is a miraculous sign of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into piecing this masterpiece together.

All of that being said, some directors just don’t seem to know when to leave well enough alone. Of all those who release special extended director’s cut editions, James Cameron easily has the best track record. Francis Ford Coppola has thankfully never attempted to “improve” his “Godfather” movies, but 2001’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” was a bitter disappointment, and a clearly inferior film to the more familiar 1979 cut. I have no problem criticizing this version with extreme prejudice! Nearly an hour’s worth of footage was added, and none of it makes anything resembling a welcome contribution. Especially puzzling is the decision to reinstate the French rubber plantation scene. This scene does so much to slow down the pacing of the movie that it would be like if Peter Jackson had integrated the much-talked about “Tom Bombadil” scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” into 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The crew can get where they’re headed just fine without having to make that elongated pit stop. The first time I saw “Apocalypse Now,” it was on a fullscreen VHS copy from my local video store. It made such an impression on me that I had not returned the tape before running out to purchase my own copy, this time in widescreen as it is meant to be viewed. If you haven’t seen “Apocalypse Now” and have been unsure as to which version is the best one to watch, I’m telling you now that the original version is the only one your eyes should ever witness. To do otherwise would be madness.

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Comments
  1. CinemaClown says:

    Great review of the darkest cinematic masterpiece. Brilliantly written.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Such an eerie movie. But it works so well because of that. Good review.

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