Apocalypse Now (1979)

It was only logical that if I was going to re-watch Full Metal Jacket for my personal project of watching all 13 of Stanley Kubrick’s features in order, I was also going to have to give Apocalypse Now the same treatment. I had seen both movies in their first theatrical runs, and never again since; and despite Oliver Stone’s Platoon being the one that took a Best Picture Oscar, those were the two Vietnam movies that possessed any stature in my brain, the two that were usually singled out as “masterpieces”.

I really like Full Metal Jacket, but I am unsure as to its masterpiece status. Incredibly well-made, often gorgeous, but still emotionally distancing – which I think was the point. But then what about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, when, in 1979, I left the theater not sure whether I actually liked the movie or not. Surely now, over 30 years later, I would be able to give the movie a more balanced, assured viewing.



Okay, let’s start with the basics. We know that the movie started back in the 60s, as a John Milius script entitled The Psychedelic Soldier, which used the basic structure of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as an allegory on war. This was going to be American Zoetrope’s first big project, and the plans were big, high concept, as it were: George Lucas would direct cinema verite style, with 16mm cameras, using real soldiers… in Vietnam, with the actual war going on around them. This is the sort of audacious plan enthusiastic young men come up with, full of excitement and possibility. John Milius smilingly remembers friends who were planning to move to Canada and other draft-dodging techniques, who were ready and willing to go to Nam voluntarily to carry lights and camera equipment.

Somewhere in the very early 70s, that plan petered out… I strongly suspect some money man looking at Coppola and saying, “Are you fucking insane?” (and insane is a word we are going to be using a lot in discussing this movie) But, after two incredibly successful Godfather movies, Coppola was finally able to get this dream project, re-titled Apocalypse Now, green-lit. Lucas was working on something that would be called Star Wars, Milius wasn’t interested, so Coppola took up the direction himself, moving himself and his family to the Philippines for a projected five-month shoot.

Therein lies the stuff of legend; Replacing Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen was the smallest of stumbling blocks that beset the shoot. The Marcos regime would pull out helicopters in mid-shot to pursue rebels (or, it was felt, to milk more bribes from the production). A typhoon destroyed sets and put the already-besieged production back six weeks. Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack, sidelining him for another six weeks (apparently there are some scenes where we only see Sheen’s character, Willard, from the back, and that’s Emilio Estevez subbing for his dad). Coppola must be feeling that he is in an arm-wrestling contest with the universe to finish this picture. Then Marlon Brando, receiving an at-the-time record 3.5 million dollar paycheck for three week’s work, shows up without losing weight as he had promised, having neither read the script nor the novella.

At some point in all this, Coppola had taken on the mounting debt of the production using his own resources. He, rather understandably, becomes suicidal more than once.

If you’re going to watch Apocalypse Now, I absolutely recommend that you also watch Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of the movie, which is composed mainly of footage shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor during the grueling process. In the opening, taken, I think from Cannes, Coppola states that the movie parallels Vietnam in that “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

And what is astonishing – even beyond the fact that the movie ever got finished, that Coppola never truly gave in and just walked away from the whole chaotic mess – is that after two years of editing nearly a million feet of film, the movie is gorgeous and compelling. All that money is on the screen.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the third act disappointing, as Willard finally finds his target, Kurtz, in the ruins he and his Montagnard minions have turned into a base of operations festooned with decapitated heads and dead bodies. An absorbing story suddenly becomes murky and confusing, and if you watch Hearts of Darkness, you will find yourself infuriated by Brando. You also realize that the third act is in about as coherent form as anybody could have gotten out of that mess.

Also found out I had a non-typical experience on my first viewing, back in ’79. The Lionsgate Blu-Ray preserves the original intention of Coppola, fading to black at the end with a copyright notice. The movie was meant to be toured about, with the credits on programs to be handed out to the audience. When that wasn’t practical, there were simple white credits on black appended to the end. But when I saw it, the credits played over footage of Kurtz’s base being blown to smithereens by an airstrike. The footage basically existed because it was in the contract with the Philippine government that the fake temple be removed at shooting’s end, and if you’re going to destroy something like that, might as well film it, right? And you’ve got such spectacular footage, you might as well use it, right?

Except that the airstrike totally contradicts Coppola’s intended ending, which I have now, thanks to the Lionsgate disc, seen, and it sat better with me. I do believe that final bit of confusion at the end there really killed the movie for me back in ’79. Or at least finally administered the coup de grace after Brando’s segment had mortally wounded it.

One final bit about the insanity of the project and its final form, possessing no title card and no end credits: for a while it was Coppola’s intention, if not to tour it, then to build a special theater for it in the exact geographical center of America, where it would be shown year-round, and you would visit it like you visit Mount Rushmore. Much easier to do the program thing there, but still: insane.

Apocalypse Now isn’t truly Vietnam, isn’t truly Heart of Darkness; it uses a phantasmagorical version of Vietnam as a backdrop to a tale of personal concepts of right and wrong challenged by a world of values shifting so quickly that the word values no longer even has any meaning. The deeper Willard gets into this Vietnam fantasia – a world he volunteers to get back into, that when he cannot get back into it with a long-awaited “mission”, he spends long hours slowly killing himself in a Saigon hotel room – the deeper Willard gets into the jungle, the fewer pieces of the chain of command even exist anymore. It’s the Vietnam war as related by Hunter S. Thompson, hardly realistic but nonetheless engrossing.

And it’s taken me a week and a half to get even this coherent about it. Can I please watch another movie now?

1 Comment

  1. […] enters the stage, the movie is suddenly struggling through hardening amber. Yeah, I also watched Apocalypse Now again. Sort of had […]

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