First, a confession of cinematic unhipness: Until sometime earlier this week I never did watch Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now all the way through, beginning to end. Only fragments on TV, or maybe a few minutes glimpsed over someone's shoulder when they watched it. Somehow I kept kicking the can of that experience down the road, until finally Coppola brought out a 4K restoration of his preferred cut of the film and I stopped procrastinating and gave it an evening of my time. The film is worthy of the best kind of jealousy, the kind that makes you want to go out and do something just as visionary and overwhelming, even if it you can't quite cinch shut the bag it's packed in.
Most great "war films" are not about war but some other subject we can only approach fully through the context of war. Paths Of Glory was about the kind of cowardice only possible in the power structures that prosecute war. The Grand Illusion was about how men of principle and discipline are set against each other because war demands it. Apocalypse Now is about how war's insanity is normalizing, both on the individual and collective level. War, especially one as ambiguous and protracted as the one in Vietnam, does something worse than make us mad: it makes us wonder if it was ever a good idea to be sane in the first place, when things can become this broken.
War has already left intelligence officer Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) a husk, so much so that he found civilian life untenable and re-enlisted. By the time a security detail comes to his hotel room to escort him to field command for new orders, he's on the verge of pitching himself out the window onto the pavement. His assignment, which he accepts with the stone-faced resignation of every good soldier, is simple enough on the face of it: Go up the Nung River to Cambodia, where a rogue Special Forces colonel, Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has holed up with a renegade detachment of troops under his command.
Nothing about Kurtz's behavior makes sense in the context of the rest of his life, at first. Here is a man who gave up a possible career at the Pentagon at the age of thirty-five, the better to all the more fanatically practice his brand of warfare. Now Willard is to hop on a river patrol boat, find him, and "terminate with extreme prejudice". This is not the first time Willard has performed this function, but it's the first time he's been sent after a fellow officer -- and the first time he's found himself becoming so psychologically attuned to his target.
This is also not the first time Willard has experienced the dangers of war, but the way Vietnam explodes around us, it feels like it's mean to be the first time. When Willard rendezvouses with the gung-ho Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), head of an air-cavalry division who might be able to provide him transport to the mouth of the river, it's during a chaotic mop-up operation in a waterside village, with civilians being hustled to safety over the bodies of VC and cows choplifted out. Willard's price for safe passage is to be part of Kilgore's terrifying, infernal morning air raid on a VC nest -- the better to retake the beach so his men can surf.
If no one told me the main text for the film was Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (which screenwriter John Milius had long wanted to adapt), I imagine I would lose no points for assuming The Inferno. Willard's trip up the Nung takes him through one Dantean circle after another, each one stripping away yet another bit of his trust in others, his centering within himself, his need to make sense of the mission and his subject. A "routine" inspection of another boat, ordered by the CPO, turns into a massacre, one Willard participates in to assert that his mission comes first. A pitstop for a U.S.O. function with Playboy centerfolds choppered in for the troops turns into a riot. Another stop at a bridge under siege shows how the war has devolved into anarchy at its fringes.
By the time Willard arrives in Kurtz's jungle compound, surrounded by his renegade Montagnard army and attended on by a spaced-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), the only thing he expects is death. He also finds Kurtz, now a brooding figure keeping to the shadows, light-years removed from the noble-chinned figure in Willard's dossier, resentful of the military establishment that wanted him to win and spurned him when he did it on his terms and not theirs. Why were they so surprised when they asked for a war and got it good and hard? And what Kurtz wants most is not to do away with the "errand boy" sent to dispatch him, but to send him back with a message of his own, that the world might better understand. To die, to kill, is bad enough; to be misunderstood, despised, is the greater damnation in Kurtz's mind, and perhaps also Willard's.
The making of Apocalypse Now is infamy that exceeds the film itself, documented first by Coppola's own wife and then later in the film Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, included as a bonus in the movie's new 4K edition. What was originally intended to be a small-scale George Lucas (!) film mutated immensely once in Coppola's hands. A five-month shoot stretched out into a year and ran up a staggering $31 million budget (easily $200M+ today, when adjusting for both inflation and costs). Hurricanes destroyed sets. Martin Sheen endured a heart attack; Sam Bottoms (the surfer Johnson on the patrol boat) suffered hookworm. Worst of all, Brando showed up in no shape to play the role he'd been cast, forcing Coppola to improvise a far more dialed-down ending. Early reactions to a work-in-progress cut were either muted or hostile. Critics wrinkled their mouths at the movie's intellectual murk. Coppola's uncertainty about how to present the film's credits mushroomed into urban legend. And over the years, Coppola revisited and recut the film, further fueling speculation about his intentions for it.
What most people did believe, even if grudgingly, was how the film's sheer bravado and visionary status would allow it to outlive most other movies of any era. Roger Ebert was one of its defenders from the beginning, dismissing criticisms of the movie's lack of intellectual rigor in favor of its qualities as an experience. Time and again he argued in favor of the movies as engines of experience rather than conveyors of ideas, and Apocalypse Now is one of the best examples. We don't need to be told how "unsound" Kurtz's methods are, or why the army elected to give him a chance to use them; the environment the movie creates for us explains everything. Kurtz's presence hovers over every scene even though he's not present for the vast majority of the film. By the time he does show up, and even then only to be hinted at (like the shark in Jaws, another game-changing 1970s film), his impact is only heightened, allowing few whispered words from Brando go a long way.
Aside from Kurtz, it's Kilgore who most emblemizes the film. His frothing-mad Patton-isms are fascinating both for their outlandishness and contradiction. He savagely guns down a Vietnamese sapper who blows apart a medevac chopper, but he offers medical aid to a downed VC because the poor man's brave enough to hold in his wounded guts with nothing but a pot lid. He self-indulgently blasts Wagner from his chopper as he razes gunnery nests, but goes out of his way to ensure a woman and her child are escorted to safety. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" he enthuses, shortly before adding, "Someday this war's going to end," and we sense that when that happens he, like Willard found out himself, will have little left to do. War and its contradictions are all he has.
The one sequence restored to the Final Cut that does not work at all for me is the one most widely discussed in the days when bootleg editions of the film's five-plus-hour workprint traded hands. It is, I guess, a dream sequence or fantasy (what else could it be?), where Willard and the rest of the patrol boat crew happen across a plantation, still run and defended by the French family that founded it. There the head of the family fulminates over dinner about how they will never let this piece of soil go, not when France has lost so much since the Nazis marched into Paris. The first part of the sequence, where they bury Clean with honors, does work. But the rest does not: it is tonally and conceptually at odds with everything else in the film, and what few points it has to make are better made by example, not lecture. A director does not always know what is best for his work, and my sympathies are with those who prefer the original 1979 version.
The movies that stay with me most do so not necessarily because they tell the best stories, in the sense that they have the narrative construction of written fiction. The experience, the imagery, becomes its own narrative and its own drama (see: Koyaanisqatsi), and my favorite movies are able to either enter into that fully, or meld it with more conventional drama. I admire the film not because it is intellectually coherent or "perfect" (a meaningless affirmation), but because it consists of, in the face of its own odds against itself, one entirely correct aesthetic and artistic decision after another.
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