Apocalypse Now (1979) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Sam Bottoms, Dennis Hopper and Albert Hall.
For a film that isn’t about very much, there’s much to say about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Set during the Vietnam war, the film is essentially ‘men on a boat’ travelling into the unknown on a mission to “terminate the command” of Marlon Brando’s rogue Colonel Kurtz, a decorated U.S soldier who has gone ‘off the reservation’ by taking the lead of a depraved cult, deep in the Cambodian jungle.
Adapted for the screen by John Milius from Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the tone is one of duality between cinematic marvel and sheer horror. We’re introduced to the film by Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, narrating the inescapable reality of his own predicament of insanity. As Jim Morrison sings ‘this is end my friend‘ over images of an entire tree line being incinerated by napalm, we’re left alone with Willard in his room, paranoid over the strengthening enemy ‘squatting in the bush’ while he grows weak awaiting the next mission. The scene ends with an intoxicated Willard punching a mirror, naked and wailing helplessly in his own bloodstained bed sheets. Welcome to the jungle.
What ensues is a tour de force of what cinema can be. Coppola’s ego is on show and there are moments that are deeply upsetting, but there is something unflinching and true, in as much as the horror it inflicts upon you is what ought to be expected from a film set in a war zone as deranged as Vietnam. There is a background sense that the U.S is losing the war, and from that apart, the war has no achievable end. The central consciousness of the film is a U.S soldier driven to the edge of his sanity, on a mission to assassinate another U.S soldier who has fallen over the edge of his own – perhaps a metaphor for the mental mind-fuck of a country out of its depth, choking in the aftermath of its own napalm cloud.
Perhaps the most iconic sequence of Apocalypse Now is its most misunderstood, misrepresented, misremembered. The stunning ‘Ride of the Valkyries‘ helicopter attack on a peaceful village has become an emblem of power and victory, viewed outside the context of the film as a moment of military justice from the skies. The actual scene is a further establishment of how desperately miscalculated the war in Vietnam was. Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “Charlie don’t surf” are t-shirt slogans, forever ingrained into the culture of “boo-ya!”, yet heard in context, they are the words of an army commander operating outside the parameters of humanity, seeking pleasure in horror as he forces his troops to surf breaking waves as they simultaneously dodge explosions and blow innocent people into oblivion.
Through the texture of Vittorio Storaro’s spellbinding cinematography, Sheen’s performance is a fine mix of understated and weighty, as he narrates an insight-giving inner monologue. With a wounded screen presence and a long pain at work behind his eyes, Sheen and Brando’s Kurtz are two peas in a pod. It is through Willard’s narration and reading of Kurtz’s background that we also learn about who Kurtz is. There is a symbiotic nature to their characters in the way they are written, as we take a sight-seeing trip through the worsening dementia of Coppola’s conflict zone.
It took 16-months to shoot, Coppola tried to take his own life and Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack. The good news is, a sense of crumbling sanity makes it onto the screen, enhancing a visually astounding piece of cinema that is as alarming today as it was in 1979. Coppola says of his own movie – “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” Indeed.