First we see the stillness of the forest. Then the surround sound introduces the nearing hum of choppers. This is married to the haunting and ominous opening verse from The Doors’ The End. Then the bush goes infernal with crimson flames and we simultaneously meet ‘Willard’ transposed on the left side of our screen, upside down, staring up at a ceiling fan that is brilliantly blended with the helicopter propellers.
So much is accomplished in the first five minutes of this film. The tone is set. The setting. The protagonist is introduced through narration: “Saigon – shit – I’m still only in Saigon. I’m here a week now – waiting for a mission – every minute I get softer.” We see ‘Willard’ in contemplative stillness – and then madness. Violence is foreshadowed. This is Francis Ford Coppola at his very best. He delivered The Godfather in 1972 – widely considered an American classic. He dropped Apocalypse Now on us in 1979. And I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered.
Every time I turn on my television nowadays it seems something is on fire. From Libya to Japan. Kabul to Cairo. Chaos is presently dominating the global landscape.
Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s slim novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the simple story of Army ‘Captain Willard’ (Martin Sheen) sent on a mission down river to assassinate A.W.O.L. ‘Colonel Kurtz’ (Marlon Brando), who has apparently lost his mind in the dense bush of off-limits Cambodia.
“I wanted a mission – and for my sins they gave me one,” ‘Willard’ narrates. “I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet.”
A typhoon that destroyed sets, a heart attack by Sheen (37 at the time), and the ever unpredictable and relatively uncooperative Brando, all contributed to what amounted to a debacle of a production. Apocalypse Now was originally scheduled to shoot out in six weeks, and ended up taking nearly 16 months. Ouch. And once the film finally did wrap, the sound mix alone took nine months to complete.
But all of that really just adds to the cultural magnificence that is Apocalypse Now, a film that continues to attract new audiences every year. And for good reason.
Just look at the cast. Along with Sheen and Brando, there’s Robert Duvall who gives us “Charlie don’t surf” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” earning him an Oscar nomination; Dennis Hopper in one of his most manic but thoughtful performances as ‘Col. Kurtz’s’ sycophant court jester photojournalist; Coppola favorite Frederick Forrest (“Never get out of the boat!!!”) who rides in the doomed river patrol boat alongside a 14-year-old Larry Fishburne – the boat helmed by unsung character actor Albert Hall. And there’s also Sam Bottoms, giving the performance of his uneventful career; not to mention brief cameos from Scott Glenn and Harrison Ford. George Lucas, who was originally in line to direct the film, had discovered Ford and inserted him into American Graffiti (1973). Then Lucas’ UCLA film school pal Coppola gave Ford a few minutes of screen time in The Conversation (1974). Maybe it’s just me, but I always find it interesting to see how directors use actors repeatedly in projects, almost nurturing them to stardom – or otherwise.
And there’s the cagey veteran J.D. Spradlin, cast as ‘General Corman’ (pioneering low-budget film producer Roger Corman a close friend and mentor to both Coppola and Lucas), who sits ‘Capt. Willard’ down to a civilized meal before sending him on a very uncivilized mission.
The brilliance of Apocalypse Now is in such juxtapositions. The refined versus the vulgar. The civilized versus the barbaric. The helicopters flying in unison to Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” hard cut against the tranquil school yard setting of the Vietnamese village. The Playboy bunnies being choppered in to a star spangled stage in the middle of the jungle in the dead of night. Surreal. Sexy. Savage. So good.
“In this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, no morality,” Spradlin’s ‘General Corman’ instructs ‘Capt. Willard. “Because there’s a conflict in every human heart. Between good and evil. Good does not always triumph.”
All of the war films that came out of Hollywood following the Vietnam War were similarly bleak and pessimistic. And embraced. Platoon (1987) won Oliver Stone an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director and starred Martin’s son, Charlie. Surely you have heard of Charlie Sheen so no need to digress. Tom Cruise was nominated for an Oscar for portraying the true story of paraplegic veteran Ron Kovics in Born On the Fourth of July (1989), which won Stone his second Oscar for direction (he also won a screenplay Oscar for Midnight Express, ’78). Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and a Supporting Actor trophy for a relatively unknown young actor named Christopher Walken. The Deer Hunter beat out another Vietnam film, Coming Home; but that film won Oscars for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, as well as for its screenplay. Stanley Kubrick’s powerful and disturbing Full Metal Jacket (1987) was nominated for its screenplay.
But…can you come up with your favorite line of dialogue or single image from any of the above mentioned Oscar winning films?
Apocalypse Now won two Oscars, one for legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and the other for Best Sound. Both very well deserved. The slow camera push in on Duvall’s “Smelled like victory” monologue – so simple but so profound. And the sound. I saw the redux release of Apocalypse Now at Hollywood’s famed Cinerama Dome on Sunset. Wow.
But the best evidence of its significance is how iconic it has become. Unlike the other films, all solid, Apocalypse Now holds up as both brutal commentary and cinematic euphoria.
“Never get out of the boat. Absolutely Goddamned right. Unless you were going all the way,” says ‘Willard.’ “Kurtz got off the boat.”
“He could have gone for General. But he went for himself instead.”
The script, through ‘Willard’s’ narration, relentlessly warns the viewer that things are going to get ugly. Or “hairy” as Fishburne’s adolescent grunt says. Coppola, having resurrected Brando’s career by going to bat for him against the studio’s wishes in casting The Godfather, knew that casting ‘Col. Walter E. Kurtz’ was a tall order to say the least. He needed an actor with larger than life gravitas to pull off the oft foreshadowed confrontation. He needed Brando.
Marlon Brando, for all of his personal baggage (and unexpected girth), delivered exactly what the film needed: a human monster at the end of the river.
By the time ‘Willard’ meets ‘Kurtz’ we are certain how it will end (from Conrad’s novel: “I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end.”). But this certainty does not for one second diminish our perverse curiosity to see just how the guillotine will fall. And the moral equivalency theme keeps us in check, constantly questioning the cliché “All is fair in love and war.”
Or, as ‘Willard’ states…
“Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”
Hopper’s character tries to explain to ‘Willard’ (and us) that we can’t possibly understand the logic or wisdom of such a “great man.”
Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, captured amazing behind the scenes 16mm footage during the marathon production, which became an amazing documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). The exchanges between director Coppola and Hopper are classic. Hopper tried to pull a Brando and make excuses for not knowing his lines. Coppola, frustrated beyond words after weeks of Brando up to his eyeballs, calmly tells the tweaked Hopper “You have to learn the lines before you can forget them.”
But as Brando did, Hopper delivered a gem of a performance.
“I wish I had words, man. I could tell you something like “The other day he wanted to kill me,”‘ he explains to ‘Willard.’ “You don’t judge the Colonel like an ordinary man.”
“He feels comfortable with his people. He forgets himself with his people. He forgets himself.”
We are reminded of ‘Willard’s’ narration from earlier in the picture: “The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam you needed wings to stay above it.”
Another observation: “Pagan idolatry!” Forrest’s ‘Chef’ yells. “I used to think if I died in an evil place my soul wouldn’t go to heaven.”
When ‘Willard’ finally enters the pagan lair of ‘Kurtz:’ “It smelled like slow death in there. This was the end of the river alright.”
And what a star’s entrance. ‘Col. Kurtz’ at long last. Brando in shadows, splashing water on his enormous bald dome. Speaking softly. We lean in, not to miss a word. Worth the wait? You betcha.
“Are my methods unsound?” ‘Kurtz’ asks ‘Willard,’ to which he responds “I don’t see any methods…at all.”
The images are so enduring. The language so provocative. The music so well married to the visuals.
“You’re not an assassin. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks…to collect a bill.”
And collect he does.
From Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness:
“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:”
“The horror. The horror.”