by Brek the David
Apocalypse Now (1979) – Director: Francis Ford Coppola Adapted Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola and John Millius Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Frederic Forrest OSCAR COUNT (2) – Best Cinematography, Best Sound
I’m not a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s films save three: Godfather Part I and Part II, and Apocalypse Now. I’m not even sure he intended for Apocalypse Now to be seen the way it is by some. Before delving into this bizarre picture, first praise must set at the feet of the actors of this film. This is one of the best ensemble casts in motion picture history. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and a very young and green Laurence Fishburne. Albert Hall as the Chief might be the best of the bunch. Finally, there’s the late great Dennis Hopper as the spaced out photojournalist who believes in Kurtz’s greatness. This film has little middle ground; people seem to love or hate it, but most everyone would agree that the performances of Apocalypse Now are stellar. All the performances taken together as a whole, this is easily one of the best acted films of all time.
Apocalypse Now follows Captain Willard on a mission to terminate the command of the rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz somewhere in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It comes with the assumption and stance that war is the most awful aspect of our existence. It’s definitely an anti-war film, but it never beats you over the head with this stance. Most people will simply view the film and let the images bring them to this obvious conclusion. At the same time, these images are hypnotic, surreal in execution and tone. This is not a sobering look at war, but an intoxicating one. This is a noxious, septic, even absurd look at how debase humanity can be.
What might be most sickening is the fact that there are “rules” for slaughtering countless people for a “cause”. Kurtz slaughters people with such efficiency that he is outside the rules of engagement. Fittingly, this means he must die. Really it’s not about how well Kurtz kills his enemies, it’s that he no longer kills in the “right way”. Kurtz is still waging war against the NVA and Viet Cong, but he’s doing so in a way the US cannot and will not tolerate. They’ll drop bombs by the ton. They’ll send men to their deaths by the thousands, but if one Colonel begins to wage the war in different way, then this man MUST be dealt with. The absurdity could be comical if the film wasn’t so damn serious and harrowing.
As mentioned the imagery in Apocalypse Now is often odd and disorienting. Colonel Kilgore agrees to take a beach once he finds out how good the surf is. Yes, men literally go surfing while battle rages around them. At the end of this iconic battle sequence of lunacy, where Kilgore’s air cav has decimated a Viet Cong village, we get Kilgore’s equally iconic speech about his take on war. Delivered by Robert Duvall, this is probably the most memorable scene of the film and remains ones of the greatest scenes of all time.
The further Willard and the men get up the river, the more strange and dreamlike the film becomes, as it devolves into a waking nightmare. Besides the eerie final moments of the film, the most chilling is when Captain Willard comes across an Army unit with no commanding officer. The men are seemingly on all kinds of drugs (Lance and Chef definitely are), and one soldier seems to be able to feel the enemies out in the darkness, just as he knows how and where to aim his grenade launcher to kill those same enemies in the pitch black.
I’m really not doing this film justice here, as it’s much more than a war film. Really, war is the setting and humanity is the subject. This isn’t groundbreaking, or new subject matter to be sure, but the execution and delivery of the film is nothing short of brilliant. It works on a conscious level, but there is something (or a lot of things) universal here that appeals to the subconscious as well. It’s the unspoken that affects the viewer the most while watching Apocalypse Now. This is one reason why most everyone loves or hates this film. As a lover, Apocalypse Now ranks high among the greatest films of all time, so great that it’s absolutely mandatory viewing.