Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius (inspired by the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
It’s somewhat fitting that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was in itself such a straining, seemingly cursed production. It’s a case of life inadvertently imitating art, where the film’s planned 16 week shoot was protracted to 16 months, and the intended budget was left dead in the dust as millions of extra dollars were committed hand over fist. There were typhoons, near-fatal heart attacks, a screenplay that was being reworked on the spot, like someone packing their bag for a flight in the cab on the way to the airport, and a cast (brilliant though they ultimately are), who were apparently all ill-equipped for such a film; most notably Marlon Brando, who had to be filmed obscured by shadow due to his haggard appearance, and Martin Sheen, who was on the precipice of real-life death throughout. It’s as if the ghost of the Vietnam War inhabited the film, occupied it and tried to kill it. The essence of the war seemed to be upon Coppola and his team, which may be why the film is such a stirring evocation of it, why Apocalypse Now, better than any film, renders the essence of Vietnam.
The final product is the most severe and striking crystallisation of the conflict. It’s stirring in two distinct ways. Firstly, the film wrestles you on an intellectual level, inciting the viewer to question the whole war process and to dare make sense of it. Apocalypse Now is the most redolent snapshot of war’s derangement since The Bridge on the River Kwai, but where River Kwai had a certain majesty and dignity, Apocalypse has something much more unsettling and often creepy; the “madness” that Major Clipton so succinctly described has been traded in for Colonel Kurtz’s “horror.” Particularly crushing is how innate yet believable the plot is, a plot which, by its very nature, grasps at the contradictions and nonsensicalness of Vietnam.
Captain Benjamin Willard (Sheen) is tasked with assassinating the renegade Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a military genius and decorated officer who at one time was being groomed for a top spot in the administration. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), has apparently gone insane, taking to operating under his own command in Cambodia and positioning himself as a demigod amongst the indigenous peoples. His official charge however is having ordered the execution of four Vietnamese double agents behind his military’s back; Kurtz’s crime is murder during the Vietnam War, a charge which Willard acknowledges is akin to “handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” The story in its very machinations turns America’s murky Vietnam era morality back on itself, where an American colonel must be killed by his own government for not playing by the rules in a ruleless game; “terminate, with extreme prejudice” Willard is chillingly ordered.
The second means by which Apocalypse Now is so stirring takes place on a gut level, as a deeply visceral illustration of Vietnam and its effects. However, where so many filmmakers turn to an unflinching depiction of warfare and combat as a means of achieving the visceral, Apocalypse Now hones in on atmosphere, on the intangibles. Coppola’s story is told with a dirty lyricism, unravelling like an acid induced poem which seems to mostly take place during a Malick-esque magic hour, where the sky is ablaze and the world itself seems to be hallucinating.
Willard’s journey to Kurtz sees him snake up the Nang river with four others, Mr.Clean, Chief, Chef and Lance (Laurence Fishburne…) their boat in actuality acting as a tour guide where Vietnam is the museum, each fleeting encounter and instance of violence a disturbed artwork. The upriver descent unfolds in episodic fashion, with the episodes steadily increasing in their drug addled tone. On the trek we meet Sergeant Kilgore (Robert Duvall), an off-kilter blend of General Patton and a high school jock, who agrees to escort Willard and his men into the Nang purely because of the surfing opportunities the expedition will afford him. There are moments with Kilgore that are so absurd and repugnant that it’s funny, like when he calls a Vietnamese woman a “savage” as he drops napalm bombs on a peaceful village, blaring Ride of the Valkyries from his helicopter’s sound system.
The film’s other revelatory moments take place at a decidedly unerotic Playboy Bunny show which descends into savagery, and at a chaotic U.S outpost in the form of an under siege bridge, the latter of which is the film’s most surreal sequence. The soldiers at the bridge are ghostly, the scene observed as though it has been filtered through intoxicated eyes. “Who’s in charge here?” Willard asks one soldier.
“In charge? I don’t know man.” It all feels half-remembered, un-right. Watching these scenes, it’s difficult to know what Coppola is trying to articulate, maybe because no real thesis is being articulated. The language of his film can only be understood subconsciously, in the guts. Apocalypse Now is a feeling rather than a story.
By the time Willard and his crew find Kurtz we sense the outcome of the mission is beside the point. Everybody is already dead, whether they know it or not, the sickness of Vietnam has claimed them, and whatever moralities the men may have had have long since faded. Willard’s eventual exchanges with Kurtz are the film’s most compelling passages. It may have just been happenstance, but Brando’s being encased in shadow (done in reality to protect his image) adds an ethereal, enigmatic quality to the Kurtz character, somehow making his words all the more stinging and poetic. Kurtz’s monologue regarding the ingenious ploy of North Vietnamese soldiers to hack off the limbs of children that had been inoculated, is in itself a gutting encapsulation of the savagery and indecency war demands. The monologue is case in point for Apocalypse’s uncanny ability to burrow under the skin, to nestle itself uncomfortably in the stomach and to make atmosphere, the demented spirit of Vietnam, the true protagonist; in Coppola’s words, “my movie is not about Vietnam…it is Vietnam”.