Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Lawrence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G. D. Spradlin
Apocalypse Now is as renowned for its disastrous three-year production as it is for its stark, realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War. Never straying far from any critic or fan’s top ten list, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war epic has achieved almost a cult-like status. The initial six-week shoot in the Philippines turned into sixteen months with the entire production taking three years to complete. Harvey Keitel, originally portraying Willard, was fired after a month and replaced by Sheen; the cast and crew were surviving on a deadly cocktail of drugs and booze and the heat and stress from production did them no favours; Coppola suffered a breakdown and a typhoon destroyed sets and equipment. The film’s biggest money draw, Brando, turned up on-set overweight and unprepared and, later on in production, Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack, delaying filming for several weeks. Coppola later stated “the film was made the way the war was fought. There were too many of us, too much money, too much equipment.” It’s not hard to see why the film spawned the 1991 documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, chronicling the hellish process.
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone insane and taken control of the indigenous Montagnard people deep in the Cambodian jungle. The burnt out Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered by the military to take a dangerous journey upriver to terminate Kurtz with extreme prejudice.
Opening to the haunting sound of a helicopter’s blade and The Doors’ ‘The End’, Apocalypse Now immediately informs us that this is a film like no other. Exploding napalm intercuts with our protagonist’s(?) weary face and the proceeding seven-minute montage of a haunted Willard foreshadows the nightmare he is about to endure. The journey itself is primarily an action adventure; however, it’s only as we follow Willard and his crew that we see their trip upriver is really an allegory for the insanity of war and the darkest parts of oneself. Willard’s crew, comprising of the Chief, surfer dude Lance, New Orleans ‘saucier’ Chef and cocky teenager Mr. Clean (Hall, Bottoms, Forrest and Fishburne), rendezvous with an Oscar-nominated Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore. With less than twenty minutes of screen-time, Kilgore leaves quite an impression, famously uttering “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Caring, oblivious to gunfire and completely nuts, Kilgore just wants to surf and Willard isn’t having any of it. Ensuing is an incredible spectacle of rainbow-tinged smoke, fire and chaos after Kilgore drops napalm on a Vietnamese village. It’s a haunting, yet exhilarating site to behold and Willard, sensibly, gets his crew the hell out of there; the first, but certainly not the last of nightmarish encounters for him and his men. Playboy bunnies, a family massacre, a tiger and, lastly, Kurtz’ hideaway await the men. It isn’t until the last thirty minutes, when Brando finally emerges from the shadows, that the tense uncertainty really starts to hit home and the possibility of redemption dies.
The bigger question, however, remains whether Willard is a protagonist or antagonist. He’s a soldier sent to kill one of his own. The moral lines are blurred and dark truths are revealed. Willard, himself, is detached from those around him and relaxed at the prospect of murder, hinting at his unease back home and that his natural state is in combat. Sheen shines in a subtly haunting performance, often overshadowed by his fellow castmates, but Willard is the one who remains seared into your memory. New viewers will be surprised by Brando’s bloated cameo and the near two-hour wait to see the pursued. However, Coppola does his best to utilise his best qualities, namely his mumbling. No drawling monologues have ever appeared quite so unnerving than the ones delivered by Kurtz just hours before his demise.
One of the film’s greatest scenes comes with the butchering of Kurtz, which is brutally interwoven with the sacrificial slaughter of an ox by the Montagnards. It is an ending already implied in the beginning, but its eventual unfolding reveals the full force of the film’s brutality.
The suffering behind the production certainly paid off and the film, to this day, remains a masterpiece of the horrors of war and for coming so close to manifesting the true realities. After the film’s première at Cannes, Coppola famously stated: “My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam.” The now legendary production is almost just as horrific as the film itself and the realities of war have never felt more real or unnerving despite the somewhat blurred lines between fiction and reality. “The horror. The horror.”
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”