Apocalypse Now 1979
Say it with a sting.....
Apocalypse Now (1979)page 1 of 1 "This is the end… my only friend, the end." Or perhaps more accurately: the beginning of the end. Jim Morrison’s lines intoned over the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now hint at the trip that is to follow: a journey to the end of a river, to the end of civilisation, to the end of sanity.
The Vietnam War has been covered in films in any number of ways in the past few decades. What sets Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece apart is that the film doesn’t use war itself as the focal point of the plot. The typical war movie tropes of brothers in arms, courage under fire, and never-say-die patriotism are given short shrift in this sprawling, beautiful mess of a picture. This film explores nothing less than the sweaty, rotting, dank jungles of the mind.
The script of Apocalypse Now is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. The book narrates a steamboat trip up a river in the Congo into the uncharted African hinterland. There they will find the mysterious Mister Kurtz, who has set himself up as a demi-god to the native inhabitants. In John Milius’s script, transplanted to the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a renegade colonel from the US Special Forces who has become a warlord surrounded by an army of deserters and Cambodian tribespeople. "Marlon Brando, after threatening to pull out, eventually arrived on set drunk, unprepared and 40kg overweight"
This self-styled philosopher king is conducting sorties against the Viet Cong, but isn’t too picky about who gets massacred in the process. Unable to control him, military intelligence sends Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) to terminate him – "with extreme prejudice".
Willard is a troubled, drunk, shell-shocked wash-out in the opening scene of the movie. He only emerges from his drunken stupor long enough to register that he is still in Saigon. Unfit for civilian life and unravelling mentally, he accepts the mission with nothing to lose. After meeting up with his swiftboat crew, he heads up the river on a journey into the black depths of his soul.
It’s a journey that is harrowing for the viewer, too. At 153 minutes in its original cut, it’s a pretty lengthy work and takes some dedication from the audience to stomach the ride. When the extended cut of Apocalypse Now: Redux was released in 2001, it had been stretched to an exhausting 202 minutes. That said, it’s worth every queasy, unnerving minute. While the film holds up as a modern masterpiece on its own, it is also a fascinating case study of filmmaking at its chaotic, combustible worst – and ultimately, best.
Coppola was besieged by self-doubt as he worked his way into the project, and constantly rewrote scenes on the fly. In a case of life imitating art, it turned into a logistical and mental hell. The planned six-week shoot stretched into 16 months plagued by typhoons, helicopters being recalled to fight an actual insurgency in the Philippines, and troubles with his actors.
After two weeks of filming Harvey Keitel as Willard, the actor was fired to be replaced by Martin Sheen. Marlon Brando, after threatening to pull out, eventually arrived on set drunk, unprepared and 40kg overweight. He hadn't even read the script. After the legendary actor and the director spent days squabbling over single lines, they eventually decided to shoot Brando ad-libbing his ponderous, philosophical musings while keeping most of his body in the dark to hide his bulk. And the result is mesmerising.
Coppola’s troubles with his actors were far from over. Martin Sheen suffered under the strain of taking on the role of assassin to such a degree that he had an emotional breakdown on camera. The opening scene of the film, where he lurches around in a hotel room in a naked drunken stupor, punching a mirror and cutting himself, and collapsing in a weeping, bloody mess, was shot exactly as it happened. He then suffered a major heart attack, and came close to dying in the jungles of the Philippines.
The stupendous background to the film is all documented by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, in her tell-all documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Unbeknownst to her husband, she recorded their personal conversations during the making of the film, and we are given a voyeur’s glimpse into Coppola’s descent into near-madness. He agonises about the pretentiousness of his work, rants about the information that is being leaked back to the Hollywood press, and, on more than one occasion, wishes to kill himself. He lost 45kg during the filming of Apocalypse Now. And all this from the superstar director fresh off The Godfather Parts I and II.
After two years of editing, the film was finally released to incredible critical acclaim. Moments jump off the celluloid and get lodged in your memory: Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore, the surfing afficionado who rains hell on a village while Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" blares from the chopper speakers – and who utters the immortal line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Dennis Hopper’s drug-addled photographer, which we see is not, in fact, far from his real personality. And Marlon Brando’s chilling recognition of "The horror… the horror."
Apocalypse Now marked one of the last films to be made during the Golden Age of the Hollywood Auteurs. Wildly over budget, irresponsibly made, and unflinchingly brutal, you couldn’t imagine seeing live buffalo being hacked to death in any contemporary American film. But then again, I don’t think Hollywood has reached the high-water mark of this classic many times since.
Whether seen in the extended Redux version (where, in my opinion, the French Plantation scene slows down the pace too much) or in the original, tighter cut, this is one film that won’t leave the viewer unmarked. Like Willard’s journey into the jungle, like Coppola’s struggle to give birth to his art, you’ll emerge from Apocalypse Now as a somewhat changed person.
- Finn Gregory
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