Joseph Conrad’s 1899 publication Heart of Darkness told the tale of a man dispatched to the then-British-colonised Congo with a secret mission to go down-river and find a certain Mr Kurtz, a notorious ivory trader, and return him to civilisation. An ostensibly simple story, it soon became regarded as a literary classic for its framed narrative (the story is recounted by the lead character to a group of men) and for its deeper resonance as an insight into not only the ‘darkness’ that was inherent in colonisation, but also the very darkness that it suggests was in the hearts of all men – the capability to commit horrific acts of pure evil.
Some 70 years later, the book was adapted to a more current setting, namely, Vietnam. Maintaining the same symbolism of the horror within each and every one of us, it posited a critique on the horrors of war – primarily the Vietnam War – as opposed to colonisation, and told the tale of a veteran soldier sent downriver into the deep Cambodian jungle on a clandestine mission to find a mysterious Colonel Kurtz, who his superiors believed to have gone rogue.
“In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.”
After his success on two Godfather movies, and with the recommendation and funding of a certain George Lucas (who was too busy with Star Wars to direct it himself), Francis Ford Coppola began work on this adaptation, entitled Apocalypse Now, a production which would soon turn into one of the most troubled projects in film history. The original cast – Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando – soon became Harvey Keitel and Marlon Brando, with Keitel eventually replaced (3 weeks into filming) with Martin Sheen who himself went on to suffer a heart attack during production. Reportedly Brando turned up on set massively overweight, ruining the planned ending that Writer John Milius had scripted and leaving Coppola with little idea how to finish the film. Throw in a typhoon – which destroyed many of the expensive sets – on a production which was already over-budget and running a year off schedule, and many feared Coppola himself would go crazy trying to finish this film. Of course, with 20:20 hindsight most would argue that, whatever happened during the making of this movie, it was worth it, for the end result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The narrative follows a certain Captain Willard, who – clearly used to combat – is suffering somewhat from a relatively stagnant stay on an Army base. Given a covert op to travel deep into enemy territory and seek out a man named Kurtz, a decorated Colonel who has apparently gone off the reservation and commenced conducting unsanctioned operations of his own, Willard’s mission is simple – find the man, assess whether he can be brought back into the fold and, if not, terminate with extreme prejudice. What follows is something of an existential journey into hell, with Willard travelling downriver, amongst a small boat-full of blissfully ignorant soldiers, stopping along the way to see the Vietnam War in full flight and experience many of the horrors that entails, and eventually catching up with Kurtz, a man who has been elevated to something more like a God amidst the native people, and is closer to madness himself as a result. Whatever Willard thought he would find when he got to his destination, he was not prepared for this.
Do I really have to wax lyrical to prove to you what a great movie this is? It’s philosophical and socio-political musings on the futility of war and the ultimate evil within all humans, coupled with standout performances, intricately constructed characters, authentic and haunting sets, a powerful soundtrack and a timeless story have elevated this to be not only one of the greatest war movies ever made, but actually – transcending genre restrictions – one of the greatest movies ever made full stop. There are surely scant few people who have gone more than two decades on this planet without discovering this absolute masterpiece.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.”
The casting was perfect. Martin Sheen may not have been first choice for the lead role, and may have previously just missed out on Al Pacino’s part in Coppola’s earlier Godfather movies, but he is clearly the best candidate for the part of the beleaguered Captain Willard, an almost apathetic anti-hero who epitomises everything you need from a good narrator – which is essentially what his character, in both the book and the film, represents. You can see why he won the part over Harvey Keitel, Keitel reportedly unable to bring the required ‘passive observer’ aspect to the character. But it’s not like Sheen phoned in his performance – right from the opening set-up, where he trashes his hotel room, you realise just how much he put into the part. Still, it is a very nuanced, subtle reflection on a war veteran role, and one which only a more restrained actor could pull off (which Keitel hadn’t yet proved himself to be). We see things through Willard’s eyes – meeting his companions for the journey, as well as the various colourful individuals he encounters along the way – and we follow his reaction to everything, the horrors that he sees; the way in which he has become desensitised to much of which he experiences. Quiet and reflective, yet assured and resolute, he makes for the perfect antithesis to his target, the reclusive Colonel Kurtz – even if they both have some undeniable similarities, and Willard often feels like he is just one step away from crossing over into the wild yet free world that Kurtz lives in. It’s a strong performance from Sheen, perfect opposite Brando’s overbearing Kurtz.
Peppering the long journey, we encounter numerous interesting individuals, as Willard and his crew – a no-nonsense boat-captain, a surfing hippie, a cynical aloof chef, and an extremely young newcomer (played by the then 14 year-old Lawrence Fishburne, who had lied his way into the production, saying he was 18) – make their voyage. Amidst the most memorable of those they come across are the late Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed, fast-talking reporter (Coppola apparently heard Hopper ranting on set and wrote in a more expansive role for him to basically babble his way through), and Robert Duvall’s oft-quoted Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, best remembered for both one of the film’s most striking scenes (the Ride of the Valkyrie-themed helicopter assault) and the film’s most popular quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” My personal favourite character has got to be The Roach, a somewhat threatening individual who appears to be comatose from smoking himself into oblivion, but wields a powerful 35mm high explosive grenade launcher with almost supernatural pinpoint accuracy.
Coppola infuses his rich journey, which comes complete with ludicrously authentic sets (no wonder the film went so massively over-budget, half of them got destroyed by a typhoon, and some of them weren’t even used for the final cut!), with such myriad characters that you get a full flavour of the ensuing war, without actually spending much time on the front line. From the gung-ho to the disdained and resigned-to-their-fate; from the fresh newbies to the embittered veterans and their corrupt superiors; from the victims of the war to the tribal natives living down the river in Cambodia – it gives you a wider vision of the true horrors of the conflict, and a better grounding in the true futility of it all. Whether you fight for it, or against it, or just sit on the fence, the end result still seems so damn pointless – almost like Willard’s journey itself: to execute a rogue Green Beret not because he is causing the US any trouble and not because he is affecting the war, but really because he is just an embarrassment to the US government. They don’t want their top soldier to just up and disappear off the reservation to become Gods amidst the natives – it’s bad PR.
“Those master liars, they want to win this war, but they can’t bear to be thought of as cruel. They want to destroy the enemy, but they hate to admit that they’re simply... murdering them. And they insist that they are civilised. They insist that they are moral. They insist that they are ethical. And you will find, later or sooner Captain, that those words are meaningless in this wilderness.”
Which brings me to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Honestly, I’d never noticed his weight being an issue, but perhaps that’s a testament to Coppola’s clever camerawork and use of shadow, rather than any exaggeration over Brando’s true stature. I’m sure that if they had planned to film an ending more comparable to the book, where Kurtz accompanies Willard on the boat-ride home, and dies during the voyage, his weight would have been a serious issue, but it goes by totally unnoticed thanks to Coppola’s quick-thinking. Considering that the original ending (whatever it was), had to be scrapped, supposedly because of Brando, it is a relief to find that the final ending they went with is much better than that in the book, and far more suitable to the subject-matter.
As is, the late Brando – still considered one of the greatest actors of all time – pulls off a powerhouse performance in the short filming time he agreed to for the movie; creating one of the greatest film characters, a darkly mysterious philosophical leader who seems totally calm and poised in his behaviour, but who is also capable of some truly horrific acts. I almost wish I hadn’t found out that Coppola used a body double for some of the longer shots, to give Brando a taller, more God-like stature, as it feels all a part of the character that Brando embodies. And it is interesting to see the parallels between the beliefs of his twisted Kurtz – who has accepted the corruption of his seniors back home, and escaped to be free amidst those who are more ‘at one’ with nature – and those of the assassin Willard, who has just as much disdain for authority and corruption, sees exactly the same horrors of war that Kurtz has experienced whilst making his journey upriver, and yet is still fuelled by a simple compulsion to obey his orders, despite the darkness within his own heart. They are two sides of the same coin.
“What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin?”
Combining Walter Murch’s Oscar-winning sound work with Vittorio Storaro’s epic cinematography, Coppola delivers on all fronts with what is a powerful, personal reflection on war, society, political corruption, humanity, morality, loyalty, the sanctity of life and the horrors within each and every one of us. He paints broad strokes but fills in intricate detail for every single frame; telling his tale over a long and expansive runtime which never drags but will leave you feeling like you’ve had your own personal tour of duty (as much as any movie could). And this is a masterpiece at every level, with almost every scene – from the opening napalm-run sequence (which remains, to this day, one of the most striking sequences ever committed to film), to the proud march of the seemingly untouchable Colonel Kilgore, as the shells land all around him, to the striking final act, peppered with scenes of an almost-mythical Kurtz dipping in and out of the light and shadow, his huge shaven granite-like skull reminiscent of the moon itself, and it’s very dark side. And who can forget the final sequence, played out to The Doors ‘This is the end’, and interspliced with the apt slaying of a water buffalo. It’s tremendously powerful stuff, from start to finish.
Of course, 1979 did not see the final cut of Apocalypse Now. Never known for being pressured by Studios, Coppola had largely funded the production himself (almost to the point of bankruptcy) but he was compelled to borrow some funds from Universal Studios, who subsequently pushed him to produce a cut sooner than he wanted to. It’s understandable really, since Coppola had so much damn footage it may have taken him a decade to be happy with his final product (as it happens, it took three times as long for him to finally reach closure) and the Studios had a right to get their hands on some kind of marketable product while the project could still turn a profit. It was not until 2001 that fans finally got to see what Coppola apparently intended first time around, extending his already-hefty 153-minute version to a mammoth 202-minute Redux cut. Whole new generations got to see this classic on the Big Screen, and all those millions of fans out there could revisit one of their favourite movies once again.
I've seen horrors … horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that … but you have no right to judge me.
Is Redux a better movie? Well, most would argue that the answer is quite simply ‘no’. At least not definitively. But it is certainly a valuable alternative edit, which will engage those who loved the original cut and take them on an even longer and more eventful voyage downriver. Taking a more detailed look, the inclusions vary from minor to expansive, but the highlights include greater screentime for Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore and more time to flesh out Willard’s shipmates. Unfortunately the larger segments do not sit quite as well – more time with the Playboy bunnies seems largely wasted; and the extended stopover at a French plantation is stylish but ultimately fairly redundant. One of the most costly sets during the production, the French plantation, enshrouded in almost supernatural mist, is a fantastic setting, but the ensuing scenes – mainly cementing philosophical ideas and the “hero’s” inner turmoil – don’t really go anywhere. Worse still, they bring the proceedings almost to a halt.
The final big addition, a daytime, fully-lit scene showcasing Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in all his glory, caused some uproar amidst fans, who felt that it demystified this almost God-like character. By keeping him in the shadows, aside from reducing the impact of Brando’s girth, Coppola accentuated the darkness and mystery behind Kurtz. Some felt showing the man in full-length shot during the daytime ruined this mystique. I can see what they mean, but since I consider Redux to be a companion-piece, rather than a definitive cut, I am quite happy just getting more Brando for my buck. And it’s not like the scene is pointless – Brando’s rambling reflection on Time magazine articles only adds to the mythos of the character.
Apocalypse Now is an absolute masterpiece, a landmark cinematic creation that has engaged audiences on multiple viewings for over three decades. It transcends the war genre, despite remaining one of the all-time best war movies, and has earned a place in film history as one of the greatest movies ever made. Timeless, trance-like and powerfully evocative, it is a haunting portrayal of war – and mankind itself – at its very worst, a transcendental look at the heart of darkness within each and every one of us. Astounding.
“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream; that's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor... and surviving.”
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