Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Screenplay: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola adapted from the novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad; Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro; Studio: American Zoetrope; Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt. Colonel William Kilgore), Albert Hall (Chief), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Laurence Fishburne (Mr. Clean), Sam Bottoms (Lance Johnson), Dennis Hopper (Photo Journalist), G.D. Spradlin (Lt. General Corman), Jerry Ziesmer (Intelligence Man), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Scott Glenn (Captain Richard M. Colby), Bill Graham (Announcer)
- “Charlie don’t surf!”
In the recently completed Best Films of the 1970s poll at Wonders in the Dark, I did the unthinkable. I shocked even myself when I submitted my Top 25 and did not place either The Godfather or The Godfather Part II in the #1 slot. Naturally, they were given the #2 and #3 spots, respectively, and I’ve subsequently chosen each film as the top movie in their years of release. So it is not as if either film had lost any stature in my eyes. The thing was, that as blasphemous as it felt, I had to be honest with myself and finally come to terms with the fact that my favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie is actually this 1979 release. There are a zillion adjectives I could use to express how strongly I feel that this movie truly is. Whether it is the original theatrical release or the restored Redux version – which is the one that I tend to favor – there are very few movies that can match the visceral, gut-level response that Apocalypse Now elicits in me.
Right from the unforgettable opening sequence, the tone for the entire movie is laid out. Rarely has pop music been used to such magnificent and haunting effect as Coppola’s use of the epic closer of The Doors debut album. Having not even been alive while the Vietnam War was being waged, I cannot use firsthand experience to make such a claim, but for me personally just hearing the music of The Doors brings images of the war to mind. But I have heard precisely such sentiments from those that were actually there. I am still struck by our very own visitor here, John Greco, who I remember relating that he was stationed in Vietnam in the late 60’s and that he too is basically incapable of separating the music of The Doors from the war. “The End” is a song that is evocative enough on its own, but put into the context of the bombs exploding and forests erupting in flames it is as if this music was created for just such a purpose. The music and the visuals make clear that this will be a journey toward a preordained catastrophic conclusion.
The amazing thing about Apocalypse Now is that right from the start of production it appeared that the movie itself was heading toward a preordained catastrophic conclusion. At the urging of Francis Ford Coppola for him to write a movie about Vietnam, the screenplay had actually been written by John Milius in the late 1960s. He in turn decided to use Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as a parable for the war. According to Coppola, he originally had no intention of directing the movie himself. This allowed George Lucas to acquire the rights and begin the early steps of film production (I have nothing against Lucas at all, but can you imagine that?). Fortunately for fans of this film, Lucas got sidetracked with the making and success of American Graffiti, and then would move ahead with creating a certain franchise that you may have heard of. This meant that by the mid-1970s, Milius’s script was lying dormant and without a director. Determined to see the film made, after completing The Godfather II, Coppola himself finally decided to take the reigns. Settling on the Philippines to shoot, production got underway early in 1976.
Yes, I said 1976, and since the movie wasn’t released until 1979, it underscores the problems that were experienced along the way. The story of the making of this movie is legendary and in fact resulted in the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness, which is highly recommended. You almost couldn’t make up how many things went wrong. Right from the start, casting was an issue. The role of Willard was supposedly offered to a wide-range of A-list stars that turned it down, leading to Harvey Keitel originally being cast. After just a few days of shooting, Coppola found himself unhappy with Keitel’s performance and quickly made the move to replace him, flying in Martin Sheen to take over.
A shoot that was originally supposed to last under six months was extended significantly when a typhoon destroyed large portions of the sets. When everyone finally returned to the Philippines and resumed shooting, the headliner Marlon Brando arrived and instantly proved himself to be as difficult as commonly labeled. He showed up out of shape, overweight for a man supposed to be playing an Army colonel. He also was unhappy with some of the dialogue written for Kurtz and began working with Coppola to rewrite some of it. Things took a dire turn in March of 1977 when Martin Sheen, only 35-years of age at the time, suffered a heart attack and was forced to miss weeks of shooting. Couple all of these problems with the fact that Coppola never felt comfortable with how to end the film, meaning that he was essentially going to have to wing it, and it sounds like a nightmare scenario. Post-production began in the summer of 1977, with Coppola experiencing even more obstacles during editing. These ranged from things such as vacillating on whether to use narration, soundtrack issues, and variety of others that I won’t fully go into. Needless to say, the story of the entire production process is nearly as entertaining as the film itself and again I definitely recommend checking out the documentary made by Coppola’s wife Eleanor.
While panned by some critics upon its initial release, the movie was still actually more successful than some seem to acknowledge. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979 and also did well at the box office. Still, this is a movie that has seen its reputation do nothing but grow over time. It is now widely regarded as being among the finest American films ever made, particularly from the 1970s on. I won’t argue at all with that assessment, and similar to what I did in write-ups concerning The Godfather films, I’ll go forward just by highlighting key elements of the movie that are most striking to me. And I’m going to go ahead and take for granted that I’m referring to the expanded Redux version.
For those that might not be aware, I suppose I can offer a short plot synopsis, as the plot itself is incredibly simple and some would argue unimportant. It is about a Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is sent on a secret mission deep into Cambodia in order to “terminate” the command of an officer that seems to have gone mad. The commander is Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who at one time was a rising star in the military but is now said to be controlling his own renegade force of native troops deep in the jungle. In order to make it to the Colonel, Willard is given a ride aboard a Navy patrol boat captained by George Phillips, known to his three man crew as Chief (Albert Hall). Accompanied by crew members Chef (Fredric Forest), Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Lance (Sam Bottoms), they begin an epic journey down the river, experiencing everything from Playboy playmates to French settlers to the usual violence associated with the struggle.
The thing that has always struck me is that movies this serious and heavy aren’t supposed to be this much fun. This is grave stuff being dealt with, addressing a conflict that remains controversial to this day. There is violence performed casually, inner-torment put on display for the audience to fully experience and yet the entire thing manages to be so… enjoyable. I almost feel ashamed saying this, but there is no other way to describe it. And I don’t know if I even have a valid explanation for why or how the movie manages to be so amusing. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it probably has to do with two things: the unique and quirky characters found throughout the story and the absolute absurdness of much of what happens. On the first point, one needs look no further than Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore, the surfing enthusiast who delivers the legendary “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. Or there is Dennis Hopper’s Photo Journalist, a manic sometime follower of Kurtz whose personality is all over the place. The second point – that of the absurdity of all that is happening – I also think is important, as there are certain situations that one can do nothing but take in and enjoy or even laugh. Things can be so heavy that to take them completely seriously is almost too much, if that makes any sense at all.
The other apparent characteristic in this movie and that seems to be a recurring theme in Coppola’s stellar 70s output, is the conglomeration of astounding performances. There are not just a few soaring performances that carry the entire production – everyone contributes. I know fans of Badlands will dispute this claim, but I feel that Martin Sheen was never better. While not on-screen for the majority of the film, Marlon Brando possessed the right persona and attitude needed for Colonel Kurtz. As already mentioned, Duvall’s Kilgore and Hopper as the photographer are unforgettable. I’m partial to Duvall anyway, but he is absolutely electric during the short amount of time that he is actually in the movie. His fawning over Lance the surfer is genuinely funny. Everybody involved with the patrol boat leaves an impression, particularly Fredric Forest as Chef and the young Laurence Fishburne as Clean. Clean’s death and burial is quite memorable.
Yet tons of praise has to be heaped on Coppola himself. For all of the difficulties and obstacles encountered along the way, he stuck it out. Facing the risk of personal financial ruin, he was determined to see that the film was ultimately finished and released. Looking at it now, it’s easy to recognize that it was no easy task to tackle the war in Vietnam in such a grandiose way and do it allegorically through Joseph Conrad. This certainly contributed to many audiences being puzzled over what they had just seen. But in the end, it is the main factor in the timelessness of it all. The fact that the story is taking place in Vietnam is incidental. It’s all about the journey and the struggle that Willard goes through in the process. It could be transplanted to other settings and time periods and still be effective. That being said, I don’t want to imagine it being located anywhere but in Vietnam. It just feels like such a perfect marriage of story and setting. The vision of Coppola is displayed beautifully by the great Vittorio Storaro. I have already professed my love for Storaro’s work when praising Bertolucci’s The Conformist, but his work here is just as impressive. There are shots of both unspeakable horror and unbelievable beauty.
I have said many times that I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of the Vietnam experience, but it perfectly captures the experience as I personally think it would have been. This is moviemaking of the highest degree and another film that I never tire of re-watching. The #1 film of a single year is too small a title for this and as I said at the beginning of this review, I consider it to be the best film of the entire decade.
Other Contenders for 1979: I'll be somewhat brief in this section, as nothing really approaches Apocalypse Now, but I'll list other favorites for the year -
- Manhattan (Woody Allen)
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (R.W. Fassbinder)
- Being There (Hal Ashby)
- Vengeance Is Mine (Shohei Imamura)