WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Captain Benjamin Willard is sent up Vietnam’s Nung River on a top-secret mission: to eliminate Colonel Kurtz, a model soldier turned cult leader in deepest, darkest Cambodia. Given a boat and a crew of mostly callow recruits, they travel up river and encounter all the horrors of war at first hand.
Divorced, drunk and going slowly mad in his Saigon hotel room, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) hardly seems the ideal assassin; but he’s the Special Ops man chosen to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who – from intel and the tenor of his broadcasts – has himself gone mad in Cambodia, assembling a private army of soldiers-cum-disciples. Willard’s given a boat and – with the aerial assistance of Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) – heads up the Nung river with the crew: ‘Chief’ Phillips (Albert Hall), ‘Chef’ (Frederic Forrest), pro surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms) and young ‘Clean’ (Larry/Laurence Fishburne). As they travel into the heart of the country, and Willard reads up on the formerly feted Colonel, the crew encounters the influences of the American Army’s presence in Vietnam: A USO show where Playboy models cause havoc among the sex-starved soldiers; the Do Long Bridge, where rudderless soldiers are lost in a purple haze of fear and drugs; they also check out a sampan, Clean’s jitters needlessly costing innocent Vietnamese lives. Not all the crew make it to Kurtz’ compound, and Willard is captured and taken to the enigmatic leader; but after everything he’s seen, Willard’s mission appears to be meaningless whether he completes it or not.
From the mighty, incendiary opening to the portentous strains of The Doors’ The End, the reasons why many consider Apocalypse Now to be one of the greatest films ever made are readily apparent. The inspiration provided by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness allows the film to explore the inner workings of the human mind, and compare ’civilised’ and ‘primitive’ human behaviour. Willard and the boat crew regress – devolve, almost – as they get ever closer to Kurtz (Chef, a sophisticated New Orleans saucier, comes face to face with nature in the shape of a tiger; the camouflage face paint that they all eventually assume resembles that of tribesmen). It’s a wonderful story, and presented in a raw, unflinching style that is simultaneously uncomfortable and compelling. From Willard’s personal hell in Saigon (Sheen suffered a heart attack during filming) to the real corpses littering Kurtz’ compound, Apocalypse Now is uncompromisingly direct about the horrors and madness of war: after the carnage on the sampan, Lance saves.a puppy; although it gets destroyed every night, the Do Long bridge must be rebuilt to save face. It also, brilliantly, spears the specious reasoning for the Americans being in Vietnam in the first place: to preserve American values, such as the freedom to surf and the freedom to ogle Playboy bunnies? Coppola’s vision of the war must have been uneasy viewing for contemporary audiences, and it retains a truth and relevance in the light of more recent interventions, qualities that films like Rambo ignore in favour of revisionist, flag-waving patriotism.
Apocalypse Now is full of unforgettable images, but the scene for which the film is most famous is undoubtedly the Ride of the Valkyries sequence. The helicopter attack on enemy territory, in the name of good waves as much as delivering Willard and co. to the river, is an astonishing combination of stuntwork, pyrotechnics, violence, music, semi-absurd dialogue and a towering performance from Duvall as the repellent Kilgore. It’s not for nothing that ’I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ is one of cinema’s most quoted lines. Sheen and the others on the boat also acquit themselves well in extraordinary circumstances.
Yet, watch the film on the big screen – the way good films (all films, really) deserve to be seen – and you notice that the filming conditions (in the Phillipines, occasionally in typhoon conditions) stretched the technical abilities of everyone involved to the limit. There’s an exciting sense that events are barely in control, that the two-and-a-half-hour film assembled from the more than two hundred hours shot are edited out of chaos. If you read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, as every fan of 70s cinema should, you get the sense that Coppola, in part, got incredibly lucky with the finished result (even if the time he took to edit meant his film came out after the Oscar-laden The Deer Hunter). You also get the sense that far from being a nuanced performance as a photojournalist in thrall to Kurtz, Dennis Hopper is just being himself.
Then there’s the film’s last act. While the gloomy, dark decay of Kurtz’ compound is entirely appropriate, the change of pace is taken to extremes when Willard and the Colonel come face to (secluded) face: what was an intelligent war film becomes pretentious and, like Brando himself, lumbering. With effort, Brando’s Kurtz is intelligible, and there’s nothing wrong with his performance as such; but its actorly nature is out of kilter with the rest of the film. T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men might seem like a clever poem for Kurtz to read, but it’s actually disappointingly obvious; after all, one of the poem’s epigraphs is taken directly from Conrad’s novel: ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’ It’s hard to tell who Coppola is indulging more, himself or his star, but throughout the final segment the film dips when it should be building to a climax. Lastly, I entirely understand the religious symbolism and the cinematic language of the cow being slaughtered (Coppola couldn’t literally kill Brando on-screen), but I find it deeply disturbing and unpleasant to watch – as if the bodies on the set weren‘t enough. Of course, that could be the whole point of doing it.
In a smaller movie, the themes of Apocalypse Now – the dehumanising effects of war, the pagan rituals and hierarchies – would feel pompous and self-important. However, whether through good fortune or genuine genius, Coppola’s film succeeds in applying Conrad’s fascinating story to a lunatic war, making its statements in epic, haunting fashion. It has flaws, unquestionably, but Apocalypse Now is a big, big film.