What do you say about a film like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, but what more? It’s considered by some to be the greatest film about the war in Vietnam; its story straddles a unique line between adaptation and originality; it represented a new level in the scope, scale, and difficulties of production under which a film can be completed; it is one of the few films with a director’s cut that feels non-trivial.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
Apocalypse Now, at its core, is about an assassination. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen)–a disillusioned, dehumanized soldier– has been given the task of journeying up river, through Vietnam, and into the jungles of Cambodia in order to terminate Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando)–a decorated colonel who went rogue, formed his own army, and established himself as a god among the natives. He makes this trek with the crew of a patrol boat; and as they head up river, they make various, episodic stops that highlight the chaos, insanity, and hypocrisy of the war.
These stops along the river are easily the most memorable part of the film. Each one displays a distinct perspective on the violence going on as witnessed by various people–be they Vietnamese civilians or soldiers in differing levels and differing areas. The best of all these stops is the first one made: the patrol boat encounters a helicopter division who escort them to the head of the river. In the process, the crew of the boat witnesses a helicopter strike on a Vietnamese village. It’s easily one of the most epic scenes ever put to film: as a dozen or so choppers rain down fire and explosions on the people below to the music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” It’s thrilling and at the same time horrifying, as Coppola shows us the body count in graphic detail. I hate to jump on the “practical is always better than CGI bandwagon” that is going around film critics on the Internet, but there really is something wonderfully tangible and impressive about this scene, which was done with real helicopters and explosives, that would be utterly lost had computers been used to make it, which would have surely been the case had this movie been made in the last fifteen years. It’s a testament to what could be accomplished prior to the visual effects revolution.
Other memorable stops include the crew witnessing a show featuring some Playboy bunnies–which serves to highlight the unrestrained sexuality of the soldiers in the war–and the boat traveling through a war zone in which the American soldiers have appeared to have lost any sense of hierarchy or command and are just sporadically firing away at Vietnamese soldiers. The latter features some of the best cinematography in the film, as Coppola makes very creative use of lighting and shadow.
I don’t know how many of these moments on the river actually qualify as historically accurate (I suspect at least some of them aren’t), but I also don’t think that it’s really the point of the film. Coppola is trying to sell the mood of Vietnam–the double standards of commanders, the insane level of carnage, the complete and total disillusionment of the ordinary soldier in why they’re fighting, the utter disfunction of the conflict itself–but not necessarily the accurate details. In a sense, Coppola has mythologized the Vietnam war, and this story has more in common with legend than reality.
As a side note, I should mention that Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. That story was set in Africa and also depicted a man journeying up river to encounter another man–also named Kurtz– who had established himself as a god among the natives. It has similar broad strokes and overarching themes, but the specifics of the story are quite different; and I don’t really view the movie as an adaption of the novella. I see it more as an inspiration–more akin to how Superman’s origins were inspired by the story of Moses from the Bible– rather than an updating in setting–like how Fistful of Dollars puts the story of Yojimbo in the old west.
All throughout this journey we get voice-over narrations from Willard, as he learns more about Kurtz–particularly his slip into insanity– and his views on the war in general. Willard’s thoughts are haunting, yet quite poignant. It’s an example of a style of filmmaking that goes against the “show, don’t tell” axiom of cinema; as Willard (and later Kurtz) pretty much spell out the meaning of the film through dialogue and narration. There’s not much to be inferred here; everything is fairly well laid out in front of us. We tend to criticize this form of storytelling in this day and age–it’s a common complaint of Christopher Nolan’s films, for example– but it works here. Why? First and foremost because the dialogue and narration are very well written and acted, which is a treat in and of itself. Secondly, I think, it works because the themes that are talked about were foreshadowed earlier in the film, and the act of connecting scenes with later dialogue is worthwhile, if also a very different experience than inferring themes directly from scenes. Thirdly, the “show, don’t tell” axiom is mostly just a rule of thumb and its status as a standard by which films should try to abide by is questionable at best.
As long as I’m talking about things this movie does that “break the rules” of cinema, I should also mention that there’s a relative lack of character growth in the movie. The leads are all interesting, but no one really goes through an arc in the film; or even seems to learn anything they didn’t already know when it comes to the war. Like the nature of the dialogue, this aspect works despite going against the perceptions that characters in stories should have conflict or go through some kind of emotional change. Again, this story is about selling the mood of Vietnam; the fact that most of these characters have archetypal, non-wavering personalities adds to that. We’re seeing how people operate after they’ve been changed by this place; and that can be as revealing about a situation as seeing them changed in the first place.
If the film’s story has a weak point, it’s when the boat finally reaches Kurtz’s destination. Kurtz, who has been built up to be some kind of insane super soldier, is revealed instead to be sick, worn out, and mostly disheartened with the world. Perhaps that’s the point–to subvert the way he was imagined earlier–but at the same time it’s a little disappointing after so much foreboding earlier. Admittedly, Kurtz does show some level of threat: He jails Willard for a while and decapitates one of the boat’s crew members, but it’s weirdly executed and seems more odd than intimidating. Again, this might very well have been part of the point in this story, but I was a little let down. During this part of the film, we also see Dennis Hopper playing a very annoying photographer who somehow wound up in Kurtz’s cult. I never felt like he added much to the story, and I question a lot of the ways in which Hopper acts this character out.
These complaints aside, Kurtz’s speeches, though lethargic, are never the less quite insightful into the nature of humanity and war; and despite this last part of the film not being as cohesive as the preceding parts; the final moments do come together and are pretty iconic, and a satisfying end to the film.
Keeping my minor complaints in perspective, this really is a captivating story; and this is easily one of my favorite films to watch. I’m not really qualified to weigh in on how it defines or doesn’t define the war in Vietnam (I was not around then, and my grasp on it is tenuous at best), but I do believe that it offers at least some incites into the human nature of the conflict, revealing the darkness people were grappling with in that war, and I really appreciate the film’s willingness to show that.
There are, of course, many other things to appreciate about the movie.
I talk about cinematography a lot in my reviews of films, but I want to particularly highlight it here. For one, for 1979, Apocalypse Now has strikingly crisp, modern cinematography. In all seriousness, going by the way it was shot and the film grain, it looks more like a movie made in the 1990s or 2000s rather than the late 70s. It’s that good; and it is the only film from this era that feels that way. With the exception of the music–which is good but very synthesizer driven–there’s nothing that really dates this film to the late 70s. If you were just going by the movie itself, without knowledge of production dates or actors or anything else–I’m not sure it would be easy to tell when it was made. In that sense it has an almost timeless quality to it.
On top of that, the cinematography really enhances the film as a work of art: so much is made of different camera shots–be they wide pans, extreme closeups, or crossfades–to enhance the story told on screen; and Coppola’s sense of light and color in the film and his manipulations of the contrast between bright and dark, day and night, is really a treat to watch. Many shots in this film are utter masterpieces in and of themselves.
Another part to appreciate about this film is its roster of supporting roles. Apart from Brando and Hopper, whom I mention earlier, various famous actors, or actors who would become famous in the coming years, play smaller parts in Apocalypse Now. Watching the film, you will notice a very young Harrison Ford, a teenage Laurence Fishburne, and an enigmatic Robert Duvall. Ford, in particular, plays fascinatingly against type. Whereas he normally plays bold individuals, here he is much more introverted and reserved. All in and all, it’s a fairly unique collection of big names in one movie.
You can also, if you want, appreciate the production of the film. Evidently it had one of the most tumultuous shoots of all time. It went way over schedule, way over budget, and nearly drove everyone working on it insane. Much of this hellish making-of was chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which I recommend checking out. It has a lot of cool little pieces of trivia: like how Martin Sheen was actually drunk on camera during some parts of the film, or how shooting the scene with the helicopters often got derailed when pilots were called to actually fight in a local civil war.
The final thing I want to mention are the extended versions of Apocalypse Now. Over a million feet of film was supposedly shot for the movie, and quite a few scenes were shot that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut (which itself has several variations, but that’s a conversation for another day). Some of this footage was restored and included in the 2001 director’s cut, Apocalypse Now: Redux, which adds nearly 50 minutes of running time to the film.
The biggest additions that Redux offers are two new, quite-lengthy scenes. One involves the crew of the patrol boat running into the Playboy bunnies again. The other involves an extended sequence on a still-active (somehow?) French plantation in Cambodia, where the overarching politics that led to the war in Vietnam are heavily discussed. Both of these scenes are interesting; but, at the end of the day, neither of them adds a whole lot to the core of the picture. The bunnies scene merely reinforces the out-of-control sexuality of soldiers in Vietnam that was addressed earlier, and it’s therefore somewhat redundant. The plantation scene gives a unique history lesson (assuming what it says is accurate) but it drags on for far too long and doesn’t aesthetically feel like anything else in the movie. Having both of these scenes added into the picture definitely makes the journey up river more like an odyssey and fleshes a few things out more, but overall they make the film seem a little too long; and I think it was a reasonable choice not to include them in the theatrical version.
In addition to these two new scenes, we get a few new sequences (not sure if I’d call them scenes) with Kurtz towards the end that make him seem a little more three-dimensional, and we have a few extensions of scenes earlier on in the film, mostly involving surfing (which I haven’t mentioned up to this point because I honestly don’t care for that aspect of the movie). Again, it’s engaging, but it’s mostly unnecessary. There are also some scenes which appear in the theatrical cut but which have been re-edited into different parts of the movie. I’m not sure why, other than to show had editing can change the flow of a picture.
Perhaps I’m sounding too critical of Redux, it is quite intriguing and engaging, and I’m glad that it got released. It definitely makes a slightly different film than the theatrical cut, and it therefore is one of the few director’s cuts I’ve seen that feels non-superficial in nature; and I know some people absolutely love this version over the original. But overall, I guess it didn’t really tell me things I particularly wanted to know.
There’s also a (now-legendary) 289-minute (almost five hours) work print of the film floating around the Internet that has quite a bit more additional footage in it, particularly scenes in Kurtz’s compound. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it, but some of these additional scenes are captivating to watch, and I question why some of them never made it to either official cut of the film. One scene that I wish had made it is called the Monkey Sampan scene, which you can watch here if you want to. It shows the crew encountering a boat, floating down river, crawling with monkeys with a dead man, presumably having been tortured, hanging on the sail. Supposedly, Coppola said this summed up the entire film; which I interpret to mean that the film was about a bunch of people trying to control something they had no business controlling, with death hanging over them, incapable of changing course.
That seems to have been true for the characters in the film, the people making the film, and Vietnam itself.
Apocalypse Now really was a ground breaking achievement in cinema. If you are of an appropriate age and haven’t seen it, I recommend doing so. My advice, start with the theatrical cut, and then proceed from there to longer versions.