War. Is there anything more harrowing, more destructive, more dehumanising? Probably not. So it’s certainly not much of a surprise that it’s been constantly replicated throughout cinema, across plenty of genres, from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory, to black satires Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, to monumental classics A Bridge Too Far and The Bridge on the River Kwai. But the greatest, unrivalled war film? Perhaps even just one of the greatest films? There’s not much doubt about it.
Apocalypse bloomin’ Now.
The 1979 epic follows the self-sufficient Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) up the Nung River towards Cambodia, where he was been assigned a mission to assassinate the presumed insane and renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who’s taken a local tribe under his wing and made them believe he’s some sort of God.
Most people will know how difficult it is to comment on your favourite films, especially when that film has already been praised to the high heavens – books, documentaries, the whole treatment – so I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.
Coppola once said:
My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam.Francis Ford Coppola
And, with a simple ten words, he’s managed to captured the entire two and a half hours. I could probably end the review here. That’s all that needs to be said – but I won’t. Hubris, probably.
Coppola is one of the most talented directors in the history of film. Who could question his genius, with The Conversation and The Godfather being just two out that incredible run throughout the ’70s, which probably led to such a burnout, alongside trying to fund his own film studio (American Zoetrope) with George Lucas, that he was and has never been able to replicate the same level of quality since – albeit, his incredibly ambitious, expensive and deludedly exciting passion project Megalopolis could be the incredible return of the king. But you doubt it would ever be a match for the incredibly visceral, disturbed and dark experience that is Apocalypse Now.
The film is made by a tantalisingly simple premise: a journey down a river. Yet it’s astonishingly deep characterisations, beautifully haunting scenery and intense, perfectly paced script – Coppola showing another of his many talents, especially considering the fact that the screenplay wasn’t even finished when he turned up in the Philippines – manages to create a brilliantly complex and riveting plot.
Willard is accompanied by a group of disillusioned and tormented American sailors, who each experience their own, unique mental collapses as they drive towards Cambodia, towards insanity and towards dehumanisation – it’s truly fascinating is how they manage to take the debasing trope, as seen in Full Metal Jacket, and expand it to massive, epic, engulfing proportions.
Because, as the crew head further and further down the bubbling, boggy conduit, the further and further they head towards the gates of hell, their situation becoming more and more desperately fanatical. It’s a journey into madness. The river is almost another character, and the only one that seems to have a modicum of control. Kurtz is the apparent antagonist, but the water, deciding who is cleansed and who is dirty, who is born and killed, is true centrepiece. The boat flows the same ebbs and flows of the current, and once you’re in its grasp, there’s no turning back. They first stop off at Lt. Col Bill Kilgore’s (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) surf-obsessed regiment, a group that have successfully imbruted their Vietnamese enemy to such extremes that they blare Ride of the Valkyries to submerge anything feelings of remorse or guilt, gleefully pumping led into the innocents screaming as they try to escape below.
Then comes the Suzie Q dance scene, wholly disturbing to watch the complete loss of morality of the soldiers, selfishly clambering over each other to have any chance of grabbing some female flesh – by this point, the frenzied crowd have not only reduced their opponents to dirt, but everyone apart from themselves. And all of this is to reach the final destination: a man who’s lost touch of reality from the all consuming pain, a man who has not only brutalised the rest of humanity, but himself too.
And this whole chronicle is effortlessly masterful. The emotional depth, the flawlessly unhinged acting, the perverted and artificial clash of cultures. There’s not a moment of filler here – just pure, intense, incredible cinema. Voiceovers have often been a cause of exasperation in films (Blade Runner being an example), but it’s utilised superbly here, artfully escalating the mystery and tension surrounding Colonel Kurtz. It provides a dark undercurrent that ravages at the back of the viewer’s subconscious.
Just like Coppola, who turned up in sweltering South-East Asia without having any idea of what he doing, Willard can’t possibly prepare for the horrors (“the horrors!”) he know he’ll have to face. And both suffer terrible consequences – a damning creative burnout and a loss of humanity – but both still achieve their onerous and hellish aims with brilliant success.
There’s a spectacular size to Apocalypse Now that completely immerses you as you watch – an overwhelming immensity. Just like our characters, consumed by warfare, we can’t see the end of the water. Just endless rainforests and a hot, orange sun burning in the sparse sky. I don’t want to keep coming back to this comparison, but I think it’s an interesting one between Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick filmed completely in the UK in 1987, using an abandoned gasworks located in Beckton to recreate the Vietnam bloodshed – although you’d never realise it, with the visuals being just as spectacular as Apocalypse Now‘s.
But it doesn’t hold the same vastness, the same monumental size as Coppola’s decision. And it goes perfectly with the shimmering, mirage-esque, hallucinogenic quality to the film. The distorted plot, the constant sweat, the hot insanity – it leads you to question what is that actual cause of the peculiar nature of this print: the growing delirium, or the stacks of dope and acid on the boat? Are the crew high half the time? Or are the factors inextricably linked? It’s an interesting angle to try and watch the film from.
I don’t want to dwell on the cast for too long, because they’ve been discussed enough to last us for the rest of the century. But all of Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper (who plays a photographer similar to Brad Pitt’s performance in 12 Monkeys), Scott Glenn, the legendary Robert Duvall and all I couldn’t fit there are just brilliant. It’s a – nearly – perfectly cast. Martin Sheen gives one of the finest performances in the history of all cinema – he’s ridiculous. There’s nothing you can say to possibly describe it. You just have to see it. His overindulgence in alcohol creates that brilliantly distant, glazed over look in his eyes, and an eventual heart attack during production, very close to tragic, seemed to help him truly appreciate death.
But I’m sure you’re noticing a glaring miss from that list. Now, I love the man as much as the next guy, but this is no On the Waterfront Marlon Brando. Apocalypse Now‘s creation was notoriously riddled with difficulties, from addiction to facist governments, and Brando played a big part in nearly derailing it. He turned up overweight, when he was supposed to be a lean, golden God-like figure, meaning Coppola had to mask him in dark shadows and have the designers produce completely new costumes. Worse yet, he knew none of his lines, hadn’t read the film’s source The Heart of Darkness, or what the story even was about – a horrified Coppola described him as “an irresponsible kid”. And while that’s some fairly amazing improvisation from Marlon, it reeks of unprofessionalism: a man taking advantage of being at the prime of his career.
Simply put, I don’t think it’s a very good rendition from him. For a brilliant build up, he lets the climax of the film down. It’s a climax we want to think is great, that we want to believe is befitting of Apocalypse Now – but truth be told, it probably isn’t. And that’s why the film garners a 9 instead of The Godfather: Part II‘s 9.5, although it gave my favourite film a very, very close run for its money – but I doubt Coppola cares either way.
So, put simply, I love this film. I guess that wasn’t so short and sweet after all.
Apocalypse Now (Theatrical Cut) – 9 out of 10