Picking apart Apocalypse Now is one tall order but I guess it’s best to start with a bit trivia. Prior to its release, the film endured oodles of revamps and setbacks. Some serious (the lead man had a heart attack), some not (it rained). Even so these snags led to a whole host of physical and emotional breakdowns across the entire cast and crew with Coppola, himself, questioning his own work and sanity at every turn. Some say he even threatened suicide. This, after all, was THE film a cash strapped Coppola had wanted to make since the mid 1960’s with pal George Lucas, way before the likes of The Godfather or The Conversation or even Star Wars were even thought of.
When shooting finally began in 1976, Apocalypse Now was nearly a decade in the making. Then it went and took a year to shoot, three years to cut and ended up costing a then whopping $30million. And if shooting 370 hours worth of footage in the grueling Philipino jungle wasn’t enough, the film starred the single most frustrating actor of its time in Marlon Brando and had a thing or two to say about the infamous Vietnam War. So there you have it, Apocalypse became almost mythical in stature before it graced a single screen.
Onto the film itself then, and that revered opening. After a fade in from black, we’re presented with an extreme long shot of an exotic jungle landscape. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. The soft, psychedelic guitar solo that opens The Doors’ era defining rock track (The End) stirs in the background as the decelerated sound and imagery of helicopters rove from left to right and back again. Then, as Jim Morrison declares “this is the end”: destruction. A blanket of noxious flames shroud the screen as the once peaceful jungle vista explodes before our very eyes. This is Vietnam. The camera then pans tantalisingly from side to side as the smoke, flames and helicopter blades gradually dissolve into those of an electric fan on the ceiling above our protagonist/narrator, Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen): a broken and wasted US army Captain who’s been holed up in a dingy Saigon motel room longing for a new mission, and for his sins he got one: jump aboard a navy patrol boat, proceed up the ominous Nung river into Cambodia and “terminate” the “insane” renegade Green Beret-cum-tribal God, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando).
A film about war Apocalypse may be but a “war film” it is not. I’ve always considered Coppola’s haunting opus a sturdy psychological drama with a semi-surreal edge. A dark adventure, an optical nightmare; an hallucinogenic, anti-war classic peppered with bouts of blazing action.
Apocalypse is a film cloaked in fog, dust and darkness. It is a vicious yet poetic experience that assaults the soul, self and senses in so many different ways. The rich, orange palette combined with the shadow shrouded mise-en-scene symbolises the presence of pure evil, the absence of all civilisation and how the self, in the harsh face of war, can darken beyond all comprehension.
As Willard and his small naval crew slither down the dicey river towards Kurtz, edging deeper and deeper into the bloody heart of hell (on earth) the sheer horror and lunacy brought about by the war in Vietnam permeates the embedded tale to lingering effect. Though renowned for its ambitious visual:audio approach, Apocalypse is often praised for its seemingly fearless depiction of the domestic and universal criticisms that circled the controversial War; the hypocrisy of Western imperialism, the shallowness of American ideals (surfing, moviemaking, sex, drugs, rock and roll) and the atrocities of a conflict fought by a nation in the name of liberty.
Apocalypse was only the second major American movie made about the Vietnam war yet it’s still considered by most as the one at which all others should measure themselves against. Coppola doesn’t so much show you the grave and disturbing ironies of ‘Nam as he does shove a handgun in your face while screaming that you acknowledge the themes, the horror and the madness over and over again.
Even our protagonist’s focal motive (his mission) is the essence of hypocrisy: in the midst of a war bathed in senseless killings, the US military opt to waste more time, money and lives on the assassination of a veteran officer who’s been persecuted for doing something the military would appear to encourage. “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the indie 500.” This: the first of many doubts Willard mulls over in his hardboiled narration. That said, Sheen’s unstable Captain becomes obsessed with getting to the enigmatic Kurtz whose pedestal is cranked up notch after notch as we learn more and more about his antics, his reputation, his past and present through little more than paperwork. Even when Willard finally locates the evil genius, Coppola delays Kurtz’s unveiling a little while longer by wrapping him in shadows.
Brando doesn’t get a great deal of screen time, he doesn’t need it. His chilling portrayal of the gibbering Colonel-cum-philosopher is up there with some of the most memorable efforts ever given up to the movies. Which, in fitting retrospect, brings me full circle to the timeless classic that Francis Ford Coppola and countless other cast and crew members committed to the complex art form some 3 decades ago.
So, if you’ve got an hour or three to spare one night and you fancy a film that still rings relevant today with pockets of the middle east in meltdown. If you fancy a film that’ll arrest you, immerse you; confront you with a rigorous intellectual, historical and aesthetic experience then take a chance on this groundbreaking masterpiece. Plus, it’s now available in glorious Blu-ray so you’ve really no excuse.