“…this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.”
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Runtime: 155 minutes (for original version)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Released in 1979 and then re-released as the extended “Redux” version in 2001, and a “Final Cut” version in 2019, “Apocalypse Now” often finds itself in an argument against “The Godfather” (1972) as Frances Ford Coppola’s greatest film. I’m not going to start this blog arguing for one over the other because both are great films in my opinion, and each has its own merits that admire. “Apocalypse Now” may be set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War, but it’s more than just a war film and has been recognised as a psychological exploration into the deterioration of the human psyche, when faced with the dehumanising conflict of war, the atrocities linked to it, and the reality of death.
Martin Sheen is Captain Benjamin L. Willard, an alcoholic soldier holed up in a sleazy hotel with his hallucinations of the war to keep him company. He receives new orders to find and kill Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone AWOL in the Cambodian jungle.
Kurtz is a decorated military hero who has excelled in the dirty work that others have failed at or just avoided. The top brass in the military has become fearful of Kurtz because he has gone rogue doing his own thing, and the military fear his past and his potential. He has inspired a breakaway guerrilla militia – and is being idolised like a living deity.
Captain Willard and his small team begin the journey to find him, sometimes aided along the way, but quite often hindered just as much too. The road, or in this case, the river, is long, and it is not going to be a smooth journey to fulfil the orders he has been given.
In 180 Characters or less: If war wasn’t traumatic enough, a soldier is ordered to find and terminate (with extreme prejudice) a decorated war hero in the Cambodian jungle. The journey he goes on takes him into the heart of darkness.
The whole look and feel of the film is a visual and audible assault on the senses. It looks and feels sweaty, bloody, and dirty – while the soundtrack drills into your ears like hammering rounds of ammunition being fired, and the screams of anguish of torture souls. A standout scene to demonstrate some of what I mean here is Lieutenant Kilgore (Duvall) and his soldiers. They have become complete dehumanised from the monstrosity of war and can’t see right from wrong. They are more than happy to be part of a dawn assault from their helicopters, while blasting out Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” believing them to be like the mythical beings who decided who lives or dies. They assault a civilian village and lay it to waste, and then happily discuss surfing while all around them innocents are being tortured and killed – “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning”.
Based on Joseph Conrad’s boo, “The Heart of Darkness”, Francis Ford Coppola and John Millius set about converting the original story into one more relevant to recent events for them. Instead of the plot being based in Africa, it is centered on the Vietnam War. Carmine Coppola’s eerie and sometimes hypnotic score really compliments the cinematography that Vittorio Storaro brings. The end result is something that some people find challenging while other feel enlightened. Either way the film was a massive success with plenty of awards and recognition – some people still have “Apocalypse Now” in their “Top 10 Films of all-time” lists, and that’s despite the film being over 40 years old now.
There are a lot of household Hollywood names acting in this film, some in plain sight and obvious, so not as much – Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, R. Lee Emery, & Robert Duvall. But don’t worry too much about the names though, because the film is littered with gritty and authentic performances throughout.
The stand out’s here though are Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Sheen carries the film throughout, not just the face the audience follows but the narrator that moves the story on too. He does really well in transitioning from the broken soldier, to the machine that’s just “doing his job” without letting emotions interfere. He then goes through various other transitions before seeing the reality of war and being horrified by what he’s part of.
Much has been made of Brando’s performance in this film. Some documentaries and commentaries say unhinged, some say brilliant. Considering he only has a small part in the film, something about his performance stands out and sends shivers down my spine. I’m not sure if it’s because we have been part of Willard’s journey, obsessively searching for Kurtz, and when we eventually find him after going through so much madness along the way, he’s just human after all. But then the longer we spend in his presence, the more we see a character that is out-of-bounds mentally, spiritually, and physically. Considering the small amount of screen time, Brando brings real presence to the screen, and Francis Ford Coppola manages to work with that well by putting him shadowy situations where you can’t quite see him and are forced to listen extra carefully to interpret the mumbled dialogue.
The could have been… Steve McQueen was Francis Ford Coppola’s first choice to play Willard, but he didn’t want to leave America for the shooting period – and he was too expensive. Al Pacino was offered the role having worked with the director before, he declined because he feared getting ill like he had done in the Dominican Republic while shooting “The Godfather Part 2”. Other people that were offered parts, or declined parts include: Harvey Keitel, James Caan, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford… the list is massive, not just in the acting stakes, but all around, for example – George Lucas was nearly the director. He got the green light for “Star Wars” though and decided against this.
In many ways this film nearly broke Coppola, and the cast too. But the level of pain experienced feels like it dropped through into the celluloid that audiences got treated to. There have been plenty of stories about the problems that making this film created, and there are some great documentaries of behind the scenes. If I was to call out one it would be “Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991) by Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper, and Fax Bahr.
I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.”Colonel Kurtz
“Apocalypse Now” is challenging and at time psychedelic and even painful to endure. It is not something that everybody will enjoy it, but for those who do, there is plenty of room for your own interpretation of what is unfolding. I once read a review of it that likened Willard journey to that which may be experienced if descending Dante’s “Inferno” and experiencing the different levels of Hell. Each step along the way brings with it more and more horror and depravity, before finally the gates of Hell are opened – or in this case the canoes that guard Kurtz’s temple part, so that Willard can go into the heart of darkness. That’s kind of my interpretation of what happens at the end too, Willard is reborn when he comes out of the water at the end, he embraces evil as a c hanged man and takes the heart of darkness from Kuntz for himself.
If you haven’t seen “Apocalypse Now”, my advice is start with the original version. The “Redux” does add more to the film but not all of it is essential in my opinion. It’s more something that hardcore fans of the film may want to try out.