THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 13: APOCALYPSE NOW

by Dan Suddes 

Apocalypse Now (1979) Produced and Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola Written by: Coppola, John Milius and Michael Herr Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad  Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Lawrence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando. Oscar Count: 2 (Best Sound, Best Cinematography. Also Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Duvall),Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay)

Apocalypse Now, for all intents and purposes, should have been an outright disaster a la Heaven’s Gate. Indeed, that famous bomb’s shoot tried to emulate Now as much as possible. But Cimino’s flop turned into one of the most incomprehensible films ever made; a film that so recklessly tried to be the definitive statement of a shameful time in America that ended up feeling like a drugged teenager’s graffiti mural painted on the side of the National Museum of The American Indian.

Apocalypse Now turned out to be the opposite. It is the definitive war film and shows how easy it is for people to turn into savages in the backdrop of hideous violence. The story of a hit squad that is sent down the river to remove a rogue military officer from command, Apocalypse Now is difficult to describe but very easy to understand. Colonel Kurtz, the officer in question, feels that making civilization return to its most basic state seemed to make sense, not just during the Vietnam War, but during an examination of the entire 20th century. Human society had fought two world wars, used weapons that were capable of destroying cities in a matter of seconds, and was seemingly eager to do it all again. Kurtz’s tribe and his fight made just as much sense as Willard’s assassination squad and the actions of the U.S. government at the time.

The shoot of Apocalypse Now parallels the themes of the finished work in so many ways that it has become impossible not to discuss it here. It was captured in the filmHeart of Darkness and shows Coppola slowly becoming a Kurtz like figure – going mad at the destruction his film is causing. In many ways, the documentary is Coppola’s own journey down the river – albeit one with a better goal than bringing death. What this does is demonstrate how the film is far more relatable than it may seem. But the idea of dissatisfaction with modern society and the madness it brings inspired countless works and has been featured in dozens of other films since then – from American Psycho to Fight Club.

But Apocalypse Now is not just noteworthy for its shoot – this just emphasizes the film’s central idea of devolution. The journey down the river is essentially the journey from the present to the savage past, which includes and early 20th century style cavalry attack, to a music hall scene from the 19th century (which turns chaotic as men cannot control their urges) to an examination of the colonial period (this scene was only present in the re-edit, but it works so well that it is a wonder Coppola ever left it out).  All of this was present in the Heart of Darkness novella and could have worked without changing the 19th century colonial Africa setting. But the Vietnam War had made Conrad’s work seem that much more poignant. Coppola managed to take a classic but difficult work and make it more accessible to people who know nothing of European colonization of Africa.

That fact is why the film has transcended the circumstances of its making. The film is such a revealing portrait of human nature that anyone would have gone crazy trying to make it. It is a good thing that Coppola did. Even if most audiences are unable to process the anti-war sentiments today, the film has had a tremendous impact on the way that subsequent epics were shot and released. Besides, Apocalypse Now represents something dead in American cinema. No one director would ever be able to craft the film today without significant compromise with studios. But a compromise would harm the film irreparably. Apocalypse Now is such a singular vision of the end of civilization that it could never be crafted by the same sort of committee that allowed the Vietnam War to occur.

 

Most of the film flows so smoothly that it is difficult to separate scenes. But the famous surfing scene with Kilgore (Robert Duvall) has become a famous “mini movie” in its own right. Indeed, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is among the most famous film quotes ever. But most people do not remember the actual context of the scene. Indeed, most combat veterans celebrate the sequence as a macho action scene that celebrates death and destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. The scene encapsulates what Coppola wanted to accomplish with the film. Kilgore is a man with a singular vision that blocks what is happening around him. Yes, he loves “napalm” but never stops to think about how this is the chemical would be used to kill many people – a majority of whom were undeserving civilians. In addition, like many other people in the military, Kilgore is obsessed with one thing that reminds him of home – his surfing obsession (I cannot use the word hobby). Of course, it is unlikely that he will find the same joy in that world when he comes home. Every other character in the film admits as much. Kilgore seems to possess this knowledge, but lives in a state of denial. If Kilgore ever comes to his senses, then he becomes Colonel Kurtz, a man so entrenched in savagery and murder that he cannot imagine life without it.

 

Did You Know: This film was originally set to be directed by none other than George Lucas. He wanted to get permission to shoot the film on location while the Vietnam War was still going on, but the studio refused and the project was put on the back burner. Coppola, at that time, was the film’s executive producer. By the time development was revived, Lucas was busy making Star Wars.

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