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Apocalypse Now

There have been many classic movies about the Vietnam war – The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket – but it is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, the first of the Vietnam movies, which remains the definitive film of the era. It was the first American movie to deal with the war, made when Vietnam was still winding down within American consciousness and no studio wanted to touch it, and the movie became infamous at the time for its over-blown and near disastrous production. martin sheenThe movie, shot in the Philippines with the aid of an actual army, become a monster in itself – Coppola, looking into the darkness of his subject, crafted an insane film which basically drained him artistically and pushed him over the edge, creatively and emotionally; to say the man has never made anything worthwhile since is an overstatement, but Apocalypse Now certainly changed The Godfather director for the worse. He never really came back from it. Other problems related to the cast – Harvey Keitel was fired mid-shoot, replaced by Martin Sheen, who pushed himself so far he had a heart attack on set and nearly died. Marlon Brando showed up wildly overweight and refused to learn his lines. Hurricanes destroyed expensive sets and the movie’s large (at the time) 14 million budget doubled as the shoot ran on and on. When the movie was finally released, critics were not kind, focusing upon the expense and insanity of the production. Nowadays, with such context in the past, it’s easy to focus on the masterpiece that Apocalypse Now is; this is by far the best Vietnam movie ever made, possibly the best war movie ever made, and arguably, better than Coppola’s own first two Godfathers. It’s a stunning, nightmarish look into hell, and one of the most awe inspiring things ever put on film.apocalypse now The film is adapted from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a turn of the century novel focusing on atrocities committed by British colonists in the Congo. It’s a fitting twist on the material – scriptwriter John Millius does not adapt the material directly but uses its sense of allegory and works on shared themes, turning the Meekong River into a spiritual journey into the depths of humanity. Both the novel and the film focus on the depravity of humanity and though historically, the two pieces are vastly unrelated, the shared look into darkness fits the Vietnam war setting extremely well. Originally named The Psychedelic Solider but altered after Millius noticed a hippie-slogan Nirvana Now, Coppola basically told the writer to include every sense he ever wanted to see in a war movie, and as such, the script ballooned to over a thousand pages. Already, before the movie had even begun filming, the sense of scale was set; the sense that this movie was going to escalate into something huge. apocalypse nowAs a war movie, this is extremely impressive. Coppola is a stunning director and crafts some of the finest scenes ever put on film. The opening scene, set to the The Doors iconic This is the End, is one of the finest openings in all of cinema, instantly setting up the sense of doom, drugs, and madness. The early attack scored by Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries is the best battle scene of all time. Coppola remains remarkably restrained during the scene, able to pause and focus on smaller details, but is able to layer his frames with almost endless detail; the sheer amount happening on screen – bombs exploding, helicopters everywhere, soldiers running and firing – is almost incomprehensible in scale and very operatic; it’s easy to be completely absorbed into Apocalypse Now with its impressive hugeness. Watching the movie in these days, what’s most striking is the sense of authenticity – there’s no CGI here, and the amount of work and money which must have gone into every shot is mindblowing. It really feels like the audience is there, in Vietnam, and there’s a visual weight to everything rarely seen in modern cinema. If you get the chance, make sure you watch Apocalypse Now in cinematic reruns. apocalypse nowCoppola contrasts huge moments of insane war scale with smaller, tighter scenes which carry huge emotional impact. It’s an episodic semi road movie, following Martin Sheen’s small crew on their adventures up the Meekong, and everything becomes increasingly fragmented and surreal as the journey progresses. Tiger attacks, bizarre USO shows with Playboy Bunnies, random Vietcong strikes – the scenes fall on top of each other, almost in a haze; it’s easy to feel like you’re losing yourself watching Apocalypse Now, drifting deeper into the chaos. The investigation on an unknown boat which comes mid-movie is shocking, quiet and restrained but punctuated with sudden violence which highlights the on edge tensions of Sheen’s crew. The cinematography is amazing; the film is beautiful to look at, working with striking colour, purple haze fog, and the mist shrouded ruins of fallen war vehicles. The jungle looks ominous, foreboding and impenetrable, and the later scenes at Kurtz’s make-shift deity camp – with an authentic tribe standing in as his army – are really something to behold.apoc7It’s a visceral, dizzying experience, something like an acid trip undercut with a lot of weed, making the audience feel high when watching it. Vietnam was the first war with a heavy drugs influence and the movie captures that feeling perfectly; there’s a disorientating aspect to everything here, which makes Apocalypse Now one of the trippiest movies of all time. It captures a great sense of contextual mood. Music throughout is hugely important, from contemporary tunes by The Doors and The Rolling Stones, to opera pieces and haunting synthesisers, the latter of which gives a real sense of unease and menace. You get the sense that through his images and sound, Coppola was seeking to capture the contrasts of the world; its sense of beauty and terror, which makes Apocalypse Now an aesthetically intense ride. apocalypse nowThematically, the movie’s main point is fairly simple – war is terrible – but it explores this perfectly. There’s a tremendously dark atmosphere to the movie, backed up by brilliant dialogue throughout. On a deeper level though, Apocalypse Now looks into the darker elements of human nature, using the Vietnam war – one of humanity’s bleakest moments – as a lens to examine man’s breaking point. It’s almost fitting that Coppola essentially had a breakdown making the film; he went too far into the void, and it’s hard to come back from that. There’s a sense of social norms being corrupted by the horrors of war – this best represented in Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, a man who has clearly gone insane, but who’s rhetoric has an uncanny and eerily spot-on vibe of logic. The most insane of us are the closest to the truth. apocalypse nowThe movie wants to know what pushes a man to the edge, what drives men to do the things they do, and works in ambigiouty; Kurtz is vilified but also admired, and the movie ends without providing any real answers, something it has been criticised for. But that’s missing the point – Apocalypse Now raises its points but works on the fact that such notions – the evil of man – cannot be rationalised or explained. When reason breaks, it cannot be categorised. This is a dark, horrific and beautiful movie, working with literary illusions – primarily TS Eliot – psychology, sociology and politics to paint a broadly terrifying picture which can’t, and shouldn’t really, make sense. This is perhaps why – when coupled with the striking authenticity and sense of scale – Apocalypse Now remains the definitive war movie. It captures the terror and almost comic absurdity of war. apocalypse nowThe movie is so huge that it would be easy to think the cast are overshadowed in a haze of napalm and jungles. But everyone is of course spot on. Martin Sheen pushed himself to the physical and emotional limit whilst filming and you really get the sense of this whilst watching; his character looks insane. Powerful, but with a barely restrained sense of anger and violence, separated from Kurtz by the thinnest of threads. He’s distant, despite being the narrator, but makes a large impact and has some very iconic scenes. We follow him into the darkness. apocalypse nowRobert Duvall’s cocky, confident Lt. gets the movie’s most famous lines, and plays into the film’s sense of escalating insanity and madness. Duvall’s performance is brief but memorable, similar to Dennis Hopper’s. Hopper’s on-edge photojournalist – a Zeitgeist-themed and very 60s mishmash of the beat generation and hippie propaganda is fascinating to watch and the man gets some stunning lines. This is one of Hopper’s best performances. A young Laurence Fishburne makes an appearance as a naive young soldier, Frederic Forrest is strong in his role and Sam Bottoms plays a great surfer who’s drug-fueled mentality plays directly into the war’s insanity. Everyone on the boat is spot-on, and we become very attached to them during the time we spend by their side. When characters die, we really feel it. apoc8When people talk about Apocalypse Now‘s cast however, they tend to focus on Marlon Brando. Brando, despite his growing-real life eccentricities, remains one of cinema’s finest actors and his performance here is extremely powerful. Appearing overweight and without having learnt his lines, Coppola kept Brando in the dark, let him ramble, and then pieced the character together from the madness. It’s an approach which really works; Brando’s performance borders on completely incomprehensible, but the actor’s skill combines with Coppola’s fine directing to make for a powerhouse of a character. Kurtz is difficult to comprehend, but that’s the point, and you get a real sense of his insanity, clarity, and primarily, his passion. The scene in which he discusses inoculations is amazing and perhaps summarizes the entire movie. Brando’s Kurtz is god-like and large; we’re not meant to know him, but we do understand how far he’s fallen from the world. It remains one of the most iconic performances ever put on film.apoc16Something must also be said for the Redux version of the film. This was released in the early days of DVD and is often compared to the original – what’s the difference, and which version is superior? Honestly, the original movie remains the strongest. Redux essentially adds in a few extra scenes, most of which are unnecessary. Extra scenes involving Duvall and the surfboard make him almost too silly, and the scenes involving the Playboy Bunnies, though perverse and somewhat tragic, don’t need to be there. The biggest problem however, is the French plantation sequence, which appears in the movie not long before Kurtz. The scene lasts an extremely long time, and though very surreal, adds very little to the movie and utterly kills the pacing. Interesting to watch once, but the movie works better without it.  apocalypse nowApocalypse Now is a stunning movie, and extremely impressive to watch. Thematically powerful, it’s a look into the darker side of humanity, and a movie which deserves discussion. Nothing has really summarised the absurdity of war so concisely since. Coppola never reached these highs again – despite putting out some good movies after Now, it’s clear that something in him broke during the mid 70s. Maybe he put too much of himself artistically into it. apoc10Apocalypse Now remains an amazing experience. It’s one of the greatest of all time and something that everyone needs to see.


7 thoughts on “Apocalypse Now

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