Apocalypse Now (1979)
Release Date: August 15th, 1979 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Francis Ford Coppola Actors: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Scott Glenn
dismal, dark, and visually stunning masterpiece that rivetingly examines the chaos of war, “Apocalypse Now” is often considered the most realistically shocking Vietnam picture of all time – despite numerous hallucinatory sequences and ambiguity at the conclusion. Dozens of iconic moments exist throughout, almost as if the plot was designed around still images of startling contrast, jarring violence, and awe-inspiring action. It’s also notorious for being one of the most difficult of all movie productions undertaken (chronicled in the documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”), with the crew facing unprepared and exhausted cast members (Sheen suffered a heart attack while Brando arrived on set overweight and unfamiliar with the script), natural disasters, and predicaments with equipment and locations. Emerging triumphant, this highly honored and critically acclaimed film marks another important and influential chapter for director Francis Ford Coppola, the mastermind behind “The Godfather.”
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is slowly losing his grip on reality in his seedy Saigon hotel room, anxious for another mission as he comes to terms with the fact that his life outside of war will never be the same after experiencing the horrors of Vietnam. A new task does arrive, and he quickly accepts. It involves accompanying a patrol boat up the Nung River to Cambodia where the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has become a god amongst the natives and governs his own personal army in the jungles. Willard must infiltrate the area using whatever means necessary and assassinate Kurtz. Curious to confront the crazed commander, whom he studies during the adventure upstream, Willard is also fearful of what he might do as he struggles to make sense of an environment that functions on utter discord.
Perfectly capturing the miscommunications, unpreparedness, and general pandemonium of war (Vietnam in particular), “Apocalypse Now” builds a fiercely fascinating tale of adventure and madness. The film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness,” which sets the mood for scrutinizing the morbidity and delirium of armed conflict. Willard struggles with his sanity, completely alienated from a normal life. The irrational, stoic, and surf-crazed Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duval) represents the opposite end of the spectrum, traumatized with a façade of macho invincibility. Famously enjoying the smell of napalm in the morning and spouting poetically lingering speeches that abruptly cut off, he never flinches at the explosions or bullets that crackle around him. In a powerful scene of irony, Kilgore, intent on preserving a heroic leadership image, offers water to a dying Viet Cong soldier, only to spill it on the ground as he speaks with another officer. In the most electrifying sequence, the lieutenant orders the classical piece “Ride of the Valkyries” to be blasted across the village he simultaneously bombards with machinegun fire.
The cinematography is mesmerizing, with hazy oranges and greens blanketing the daytime shots while fireballs illuminate the trees at night as soldiers frantically scurry about. Toward the conclusion, expressions are masked in penumbras with only glowing eyes piercing the darkness and sudden flashes of light sporadically dance across the backs of heads or along the tops of visages. Camouflaged faces distorted with fear or rage light up as sirens blare and flares ignite, creating extreme photographic clashes of bright whites and sooty blacks. Artistically, it’s quite reminiscent of film noir, with an abundance of deep shadows, a desolate voiceover by Willard, and a cast of morally unstructured antiheroes.
The film doesn’t try to make sense of war, instead showcasing its many effects on the conscience and the resulting shifts in human values. An entire village is wiped out so Kilgore can surf; young soldiers such as Chef (Fred Forrest) have no idea what’s in store for them and couldn’t be less mentally prepared; and in the midst of battle, commanding officers cannot be located. The entire journey is an unhurried decent into hell (the Redux cut adds an additional 49 minutes of footage), with Willard eventually sacrificing the psychological qualities that separate him from Kurtz – morphing into the very thing he was sent to destroy. At the disquieting conclusion, it’s apparent there are no heroes – only survivors – and they are all guilty of the same atrocities.
Filled with unforgettable imagery, including the napalm raid on the Vietnamese village, Willard slowly yet breathtakingly rising up out of oily black water, and Kurtz sputtering part-poetry, mostly-insanity about his command (and perishing to the whispered words “the horror… the horror”), “Apocalypse Now” is a challenging yet rewarding vision of anguish and topsy-turvydom. It’s not entirely pro-war or anti-war, instead focusing on the unveiling of bloody lawlessness suppressed by political and governmental interests and the often-indistinguishable tragedies encountered by – or inflicted upon – all sides. But the entertainment value and poignancy never falter for this singular epic, which took the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Best Director at the Golden Globes, and a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
– Mike Massie