I've been sitting through a lot of "blockbusters" lately so I felt compelled to re-watch Apocalypse Now in order to cleanse the ol' palate.
Right from the first few frames of celluloid and the haunting strains of "The End" by The Doors, Coppola snags our attention and never lets go. In a scene designed to establish the main character's fragile mental state and foreshadow the insanity to come, we get a locked down shot of the jungle's treeline and glimpses of helicopters buzzing around in the fore and background. Then, mere seconds later, this lush, tropical vista is annihilated right before our unbelieving eyes.
It's a vivid and haunting flashback (foreshadowing?) courtesy of our ersatz protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), a military veteran who's constant diet of classified missions and black ops-style wetwork has twisted his definition of normalcy into something beyond repair. Via a haunting voice-over narration we learn that Willard's recent stateside leave resulted in nothing but the disintegration of his marriage:
"I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said 'yes' to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle."
Sequestered in a seedy hotel room in Saigon, Coppola conveys Willard's fragile mental state with a maestro-level use of composition, sound and lighting. Ihe set is dressed and lit like a squalid opium den. Images of a wide-eyed Willard bleed into scenes of pandemonium. The ceiling fan overhead beats the air like a helicopter blade.
During a self-destructive, booze-soaked rampage, we literally watch Martin Sheen mentally unravel right on screen. If we're to believe the claims made by the equally stellar behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, this is perhaps the most authentic example of method acting ever committed to celluloid. I'm stunned that Sheen wasn't nominated for an Oscar that year.
Eventually the M.P.'s are sent to retrieve Willard who by now resembles G.G. Allin after a particularly intense concert. They clean them up and drag him before the military brass who offer him a particularly dangerous covert mission. As a side note, film fans will be thrilled to see a ludicrously-youthful and moist-looking Harrison Ford in this scene as "Colonel G. Lucas", named after Coppola's budding protegee who was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now. Since Lucas was diagnosed with hypertension while making Star Wars, this movie probably would have killed him.
This mission is exactly what Willard's been waiting for, his lone raison d'être. But as he listens to his superiors nervously talk about how a highly-decorated and respected Army Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando) suddenly snapped and "went native", something just doesn't quite feel right. But knowing that refusal means more solitary confinement in his hotel holding cell, Willard agrees to terminate the rogue Colonel "with extreme prejudice".
Coppola slowly and stingily peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Kurtz and the effect is truly captivating. Despite the film's generous run time the experience is compulsively watchable and even more relevant now then it was in 1979. After all, what is Willard if not for a drone with some last vestiges of autonomous thought?
Willard hooks up with a PBR crew skippered by the no-nonsense Chief Quartermaster George Phillips, played instinctively by Albert Hall. Along for the ride is Jay "Chef" Hicks (Frederic Forrest), a high-strung sous chef from New Orleans, Lance J. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) an incongruous surfing champion from California and Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller a wet-behind-the-ears gunner played by a pubescent Laurence Fishburne. Exactly how young is Fishburn here? Well, put it this way, you get to see the culprit acne that resulted in his current pock-marked complexion.
By all accounts Coppola's decision to shoot on location in the Philippines resulted in a pretty hellish experience, but no film better embodies the ethos of " pain is temporary, art is permanent" then Apocalypse Now. As soon as Willard and company start heading upriver, everyone involved in the making of this film needs to rest assured that their misery wasn't in vain. There aren't very many movies that immerse the viewer in its milieu with such authenticity. Witness the scene in which Willard and Chef go hunting for supplies in the jungle. The setting is so grand, so beautiful, and so abstract that it almost feels like a sci-fi environment.
As a modern retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness filtered through the cynical sensibilities of the Vietnam War era, the film soon degenerates into a series of loosely-connected, increasingly-surreal and shockingly-violent vignettes. One of the most memorable, of course, is the group's encounter with the borderline psychotic Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore.
Robert Duvall is nothing short of brilliant as the Patton-esque, swaggering, tin-plated, cavalry-hat and aviators-sporting military madman. When we first see him, he's tossing "death cards" onto the bodies of fallen Vietcong, which begs the question if life imitates art or vice versa.
Kilgore refuses to help Willard until he learns that the famous Lance Johnson is with him. In a bizarre bid to impress the professional surfer, Kilgore offers to liberate a heavily-guarded enemy beach featuring a "good left slide" mainly because "Charlie don't surf". Immediately you start to wonder why Kilgore's unique brand of insanity is state-sanctioned while Kurtz has essentially been given a death sentence.
The resulting attack sequence is perhaps the most amazing action set piece in all of cinema history. To those readers out there weaned on shitty CGI-abetted action movies, this is the real deal right here. Employing a sizable fleet of Huey helicopters, a reconstructed Vietnamese village, hundreds of extras and more explosive firepower than Michael Bay's entire oeuvre, Coppola delivers a thrilling and horrifying visual riot that has, in my humble opinion, never been rivaled in its epic scope or terrible beauty.
Along the way Coppola weaves in some gloriously-subversive social commentary. En route to their meeting with Kilgore, the PRB overturns a Vietnamese fishing boat all to the tune of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones. Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, Willard and his team encounter a "documentary" filmmaker played by Coppola in a wonderfully self-effacing cameo. An impromptu Catholic Mass beaks out in the middle of a hot fire zone, contrasting wildly with the hellish surroundings. A stilted audio tape of a character's cheerfully optimistic mother drones on in the background long after he's been killed. Kilgore firebombs an entire swath of jungle just so he and his droogs can "Hang Ten" for awhile.
Kilgore: "Smell that? You smell that?"
Kilgore: "Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like...victory."
Music is applied brilliantly throughout the entire film.The aforementioned use of "The End" bookends the surreal opening and the darkly-chaotic finale. Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is the perfect aural accompaniment to Kilgore's "death from above" chopper attack. Copolla swings back and forth between classical pieces, contemporary tracks like "Suzie Q" by Flash Cadillac and an odd, discordant original electronic score by his father Carmine. All of these choices serve to punch up the drama and drive home important thematic elements.
The further Willard and his team go up river the weirder things get. When a twitchy Tyrone snaps, a routine inspection goes horribly awry and Willard is forced to show his true colors. During an ill-gauged U.S.O. show, Playboy playmates are dangled like meat in front of sex-starved Marines, leading to a moment presaging the fall of Saigon. Willard tries to make contact with a commanding officer at Du Lung Bridge, which the U.S. Army re-builds "every night" so the Vietcong can "blow it right back up again." The combat zone is completely rudderless, infused with a disjointed, hallucinogenic quality that feels as if it's been filtered through Johnson's acid trip.
In the final stretch of the film, the PRB plunges into an impenetrable fog bank as if it's crossing the River Styx and then re-emerges into Kurtz's realm. Copolla immediately clobbers us with a virtuoso combination of auditory minimalism, riotous color and gruesome spectacle. The first time I saw this, my mind was completely and utterly blown. The cavalier display of mutilated, half-naked bodies dangling from trees and decapitated heads lying around like macabre garden gnomes had me dreading the appearance of Kurtz.
Then, when Dennis Hopper picked up on Willard's agog reaction to the carnage it almost seemed as if he was addressing me directly:
"The heads. You're looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. He's the first one to admit it."
Hopper's hyperactive, slavish, spaced-out take on the role is completely fascinating to me. I don't see it so much as a brilliant performance as an honest and accurate snapshot of an amazing actor at that particular moment in his life. Apparently Brando didn't want to share any scenes with Hopper but I don't think that had anything to do with behind-the-scenes rancor. I just think that Brando was sharp enough to know that Kurtz would regard the photog as a pest to be ignored. This is born out somewhat in this exchange between Hopper and Sheen:
Photo Journalist: "I wish I had words, man. I wish I had words... I can tell ya something like the other day he wanted to kill me. Somethin' like that..."
Willard: "Why'd he wanna kill you?"
Photo Journalist: "Because I took his picture. He said 'If you take my picture again, I'm gonna kill you.' And he meant it."
Copolla's tactic of building up Kurtz's cult of personality works perfectly. By the time Willard sits down with him, the A.W.O.L. Colonel has become something inhuman, terrifying and mythic. As you might expect, their scenes together are completely riveting. At first, Kurtz asks a series of banal and innocuous questions about Willard's life back in Ohio. But things quickly turn dark, really dark. In his own inimitable and naturalistic way, Brando delivers a haunting monologue that further cements his reputation as one of the greatest actors of all time.
During an orgiastic montage of fire, rain, blood, murder and real animal sacrifice, Apocalypse Now comes to an appropriately Götterdämmerung climax. When I first saw this I was left reeling and devastated but each time I re-watch the film I realize that there could be no other way to end this story. In fact, I wouldn't change a single frame of this masterpiece.
Oddly Copolla himself released a Redux version of Apocalypse Now back in 2001. Unfortunately the changes were ill-gauged, leading me to believe that the director was seized by the same regrettable revisionist fever that his contemporaries George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fell prey to. Either that or he was merely trying to snag some quick and easy re-release money. Whatever the reason, I urge you to skip it and just stick with the original.
Before Star Wars came along and forever altered the model, Apocalypse Now was an event films. Epic in scale, chock-a-block with A-list acting talent, a master class in direction and rife with social commentary, a movie like this probably wouldn't even get made today and that makes me supremely sad. At least conditions once existed in Hollywood which gave rise to such tremendous cinematic art.
If Apocalypse Now didn't exist we'd all be the poorer for it.