Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
If Apocalypse Now‘s noteworthy aspects are thoroughly accidental, it’s not for lack of trying. The very notion of a “dream” movie, a surrealist art film, a 2001: A Space Odyssey set in the Vietnam War and based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is ambitious and ballsy like few other wild ideas. But this vivid dream on celluloid is one of those situations in which the story of the making of the film managed to become far more interesting than the story in the movie itself. Perhaps that’s simply because director Francis Ford Coppola is so determined to justify the film’s extravagance that he throws every idea he can think of at it to see what sticks — and ends up essentially with, by turns, a claustrophobic and sort of hackneyed character study, a compelling and even-handed chronicle of the chaos and hell of the war on both sides, a masturbation over its own sheer outlandish logistics, a pointlessly violent and vindictive story, and a foreboding but vaguely silly creepshow with a lot of empty philosophizing. Unfortunately, that last bit is positioned as the climax, the revelation, the “what it’s all about.”
George Lucas was set to direct — intending to stage the film as a documentary amid the actual war, a stunt surprisingly far ahead of its time but not lacking in (Cooper/Schoedsack) precedent — but predictably opted out in favor of the more commercially promising Star Wars. Coppola set to work right after finishing The Godfather, Part II and spent almost a year and a half between 1975 and 1976 shooting in hellish conditions in Cambodia. Legend has it (as legend always seems to with sprawling films like this) that hundreds of hours of footage were shot, and consequently Coppola spent a whopping three years editing the film, with the result that Vietnam was no longer the hot-button issue it had been during shooting by the time of release, but Hollywood sure was obsessed with it. The Deer Hunter and Coming Home were both issued to massive acclaim while Coppola floundered in the editing room, where he remained until ’79.
Inevitably, the result is a mess, and hardly any kind of a Vietnam story; the war is peripheral to the macho taming and conquest of a volatile environment to reach a specific target, AWOL soldier Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who’s taken up like King Kong, eventually recruiting an associate and a disciple (an inhumanely annoying acid-tripped journalist played, of course, by Dennis Hopper), as some sort of a crazed tyrant in his filthy, unforgiving corner of the world. Kurtz is God among the natives, he is a wholly separate entity from the U.S. military, he no longer has any real interest in fighting wars or making conquests, much less communism, but most importantly, he is Marlon Brando, which means he mumbles a whole hell of a lot. He mumbles about the end of the world, he mumbles about power, he mumbles poetry, and all the while Dennis Hopper stands around in awe like Oliver Stone buying into Jim Morrison’s (and everyone else’s) bullshit and taking far too much pleasure in generating a mountain of his own.
The man sent into the depths of the jungle and the war (“the asshole of the world,” one character calls it, not inappropriately) to find him is Willard (Martin Sheen, excellent) who went home from the war only to find he needed it again, only to find he didn’t want it at all, all turns announced in voiceover. To get to Kurtz he rides along with a brigade of horribly young soldiers, most of whom are met with tragedy, yelling along with Rolling Stones songs totally oblivious to their fate. (Don’t they know they’re in a movie!? Coppola, in one of the best scenes, shows up to try and tell them, to no avail.)
Initially, both Willard’s quest and the flamboyant war movie interludes — encompassing surfing under fire courtesy of the psychotic Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), among other things — are compelling and absorbing, but the denouement, if it can even be called that, is unworthy of the setup, which itself is clearly the result of arduous, aimless shooting and painfully protracted editing. The film is ridiculously, needlessly overlong; even keeping the story as it is, it could easily lose forty-five minutes, starting with the pointless Playmate sequence and including but not limited to the eternal, shiftless walking-in-circles of the third act. Coppola did the best he could, then was blind enough to the bloat that a second attempt decades later left him with a 195-minute version (up from 150), and he still doesn’t seem exceptionally satisfied.
Though, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his review of the “Redux” version of the film (which I have not seen), the politics of Apocalypse Now are far more compassionate and respectful of the Vietnamese people than the disgustingly jingoistic The Deer Hunter, it’s still in line with the unfeeling tropes of the typical American war movie that makes little time for so much as a nuanced, much less actually critical, view of the role of the U.S. in foreign occupations. Up to a point, the film shows signs of considerable empathy toward the human cost of the war and seems observant of the tragedies and surreal insanity of the battles it documents, though it’s a far cry from something as brilliant and multifaceted as All Quiet on the Western Front.
Many of the finer elements of the narrative result from the last-minute narration added by author Michael Herr, and they exist from a framework of awareness of and involvement with the intricacies of Vietnam. But as Willard’s inner dialogue moves suddenly from the solver of a mystery and audience vessel — he’s as stunned and horrified by the things he sees as we are — to sociopath, with the needless slaughter of an innocent woman on a boat after he refuses to postpone his journey to get her medical attention, our sense of serious involvement with the film is rendered null and void, as if it transforms from Chinatown to Taxi Driver halfway through. When we’re in the dark and expected to respond to the poetics of Coppola, Herr, and John Milius’ (ugh) narrative, the film has vastly less to say, and sadly this is where it takes us by the hand and leads us. You’re reeled in with an enigma, then the enigma is nothing more than slam poetry night in a swamp with decapitations, and the audience is virtually abandoned.
But the elements of weirdness are what really give the film its mystical, eccentric quality; it is a filmed nightmare of stunning sights and sounds (its sound design by Walter Murch is, as in Coppola’s earlier The Conversation, possibly the most impressive element of the film) and manages a more palpable atmosphere of menace, dread, and fear than any other war movie I have seen. There are times when it is genuinely unnerving and scary; more often, it’s confusing, and hey, so is war. The degree to which Coppola is spending every moment creating and addressing a specific world somewhat excuses the running time, but it’s hard to get past how stylistically pretty he attempts to make everything, to say nothing of the emotional manipulation in diversions like the death of a young solider as a tape recorded message from his mother continues to play. And as Coppola himself seems to have known, the film builds to an anticlimax; Brando isn’t enough of a behemoth to be a proper bravura fruition for a film of such dazzling, sumptuous sights and colors (my god, the colors). But should a war film really be beautiful anyway? Dazzling and sumptuous? It’s what Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro leave us with, but I still have my questions.
Coppola was suicidal during much of the making of Apocalypse Now, as documented by the footage his wife recorded and shot and later used in George Hickenlooper’s extraordinary documentary Hearts of Darkness, which frankly is a superior movie to this one. Truthfully, the film is hardly worth dying for, and it’s certainly too flawed to be considered a masterpiece of any sort, the ride impossibly bumpy, the thesis muddled, almost futile. But it goes out farther on the limb for the sake of nothing more than cinema than almost any other movie I can think of. Watching it for the second time recently on a bleak, stormy Sunday afternoon was among the more appropriately nerve-racking and enveloping home viewing experiences I can think of. A round of applause, unqualified and sincere, for the agony of creation and the explosion of brilliance, however bumpy, that results.
[Revised from a review initially posted in 2006.]