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Back in 1979, $31 million, much of it from director Francis Ford Coppola's own pocket, was considered overly indulgent by critics and poo-pooers, as was everything about Apocalypse Now. Many cinefiles were outraged over the vastness of the film and Marlon Brando's big paycheck for his supporting role. And then they were disappointed, calling the film empty and void of ideas or, worse, solutions. But now, decades later, it can be seen for what it is, a big, exciting masterpiece. Coppola was a major filmmaker working at the peak of his powers; the spectacle is as good as it gets, especially in a pre-computer manufactured effects era.
Kinda-sorta based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now opens with a distraught and drunken Captain Willard in a Saigon hotel room battling his demons. We now know from Eleanor Coppola's book on the making of the film and the brilliant documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse that actor Martin Sheen was actually drunk on the set and fighting his own personal demons which helped lead to his astounding performance (he replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into shooting). Willard is one of the black-op soldiers brought in to do dirty jobs for his handlers. After getting cleaned up, he is given a new assignment: get a boat crew together, travel up the river (into the heart of darkness), out of Vietnam and into Cambodia, and assassinate a decorated American Colonel, Kurtz (Brando), who, with a ragtag army of followers, has gone AWOL, gone native, and gone quite mad.
Willard's small boat team, mostly young stoners (including a teenager Laurence Fishburne) are out of their league with this trained killer. Their experiences as they travel up river get more and more bizarre, including a jungle encounter with a tiger, a USO show of dancing Playboy bunnies, a surreal acid trip, and a tragic scene based on the infamous My Lai massacre. The ride may play like a metaphor for the actual war - the deeper and longer it went on, the harder and more skeptical the soldiers became. The characters may reference poems with a political bent (for the literature doctorates in the audience), but other than showing the madness of war the film plays better as a solid adventure film than a political allegory.
Robert Duvall almost steals the film as a gung-ho air Calvary officer obsessed with surfing. He takes Willard's team on a helicopter attack on a village to the blaring sound of Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" over their helicopter speakers. That's the greatest battle sequence EVER filmed (certainly up there with the opening of Saving Private Ryan). Apparently the helicopters and pilots were on loan to Coppola from Philippines President Marcos, but shooting was constantly interrupted, as they would have to leave to go fight rebel guerrillas just over the hills. Duvall’s now legendary speech - "I love the smell of napalm... It's the smell of victory" - is one of the most memorable film lines of the era, but as bombs go off around him and he finishes the speech on a cliffhanger ("Someday this war is going to end…") it becomes apparent this is black comedy. Was Coppola originally intending for a more brutal Dr. Strangelove vibe? The film does have many moments of humor, usually on the more ironic or absurd side, perhaps like the absurdity of war itself.
Finally reaching Kurtz's nightmare jungle hideaway, a ruined ancient temple, they are greeted by hundreds of native soldiers (with Americans mixed in), dead bodies, and skulls - it's straight out of an Indiana Jones film. Though apparently Coppola was driven mad by the insane on-set antics of Dennis Hopper, he’s terrific as a mad, lost photojournalist who now worships Kurtz as a deity. And as Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s misperformance has become mythical. He showed up on the set ill prepared, having not read the book or the script, and massively overweight. Half of the criticism at the time was also shoveled at Brando. But the trivia aside, with the outrage of the day subsided, what we get on screen is Brando in an electric, mesmerizing performance.
The Vietnam War had only officially ended a few years earlier. It was still considered a hot button when Apocalypse Now was released. A year earlier in '78, two films on the subject cleaned up at the Oscars. Coming Home was obviously anti-military while The Deer Hunter's politics and point of view were much more muddled. Apocalypse Now is more of a surreal experience. It’s much closer in heart to Elem Klimov's hauntingly dreamy WWII Russian film, Come And See, in '85 or William Friedkin's massive downer, Sorcerer, of the same year, with its eerie epic electronic score. A decade later Platoon may have given viewers a closer bird’s eye view of the grunt's life in ‘Nam (though the actors' '80s blow-dried 'dos can be a distraction). I always preferred Stanley Kubrick’s cruel Full Metal Jacket to Oliver Stone’s more obvious morality tale.
The film was originally written by John Milius (Red Dawn) and conceived as a little experimental film for the young pre-Star Wars George Lucas. When it moved into Coppola’s hands it became anything but little, going massively over budget and over schedule. Both on and off camera Coppola assembled a dream team. The script, besides being rewritten by Coppola, had dialogue punched-up by Michael Herr (writer of the classic Vietnam war book, Dispatches). It is shot impeccably by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (known for many films, but besides Apocalypse Now, maybe most importantly for his ground breaking work with Bernardo Bertolucci). The sets were masterfully conceived and constructed by Dean Tavoularis (another guy with a monster-resume, most notably the first two Godfather flicks). Besides Sheen, Brando, Fishburne, Hopper, and Duvall, the cast includes Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, and Frederic Forrest, who would star in Coppola’s awful follow-up, One From The Heart.
Apocalypse Now is a must see for any film lover. The feature-length documentary on the making of it, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, may be equally as dramatic, documenting just how hard it was for director Coppola to pull off so brilliantly. Apocalypse Now followed the first two Godfather films and The Conversation. Coppola would never match the creative brilliance of those four films, unless you count the terrific wine his personal vineyards produce. If it's your first time seeing the film do stay away from the director's recut known as Apocalypse Now Redux. Though important to cinema historians, with the exception of a scene in which Brando reads a Time magazine article about the war, the extra footage does not help tell the story better and some of it is downright bad. Apocalypse Now is the film to test out a brand new Blu-ray and mega television system with. The film opens and ends with the spooky tune "The End" by The Doors. Plug in your hi-fi system and blast it. This is the film that defines spectacular in the filmmaking dictionary.
Apocalypse Now won two Oscars for Best Sound and Best Cinematography. It was nominated for an additional six Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Film Making, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction-Set Direction.