Suicidal director: Francis Ford Coppola
Willard: Martin Sheen
Becomes an enlisted man after the events in A Streetcar Named Desire: Marlon Brando
Acts like a scoundrel: Harrison Ford
Lies about his age to play a character lying about his age: “Larry” Fishburne
Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore: Robert Duvall
Wears lenses like ears: Dennis Hopper
Harvey Keitel: isn't in this movie
The title Apocalypse Now seems a fitting one. An apocalypse is as much the “end of the world” as it is a revelation or a change. I read the title as an implication that change and new awareness will commence. That change is always in commencement. More subtle than, say, double entendres like Good Will Hunting, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, High Fidelity or Arrested Development. Apparently, John Milius got the idea for Apocalypse Now after seeing someone wearing a pin that read Nirvana Now and wanting an antithetical to that. The title kicks the ass of the original working title for the film, The Psychedelic Soldier, which I like to imagine is now the nonexistent parallel documentation of Lance's mostly unseen adventures toward the end of the film.
We're given a simple enough premise to chew on: Colonel Kurtz has gone rogue; Captain Willard is tasked to relieve Kurtz of his command with “extreme prejudice.” Separating them, the jungle. Only way through is brooding and a dropped octave voice-over.
Then off we go. The experience begins with Willard staring up at the ceiling. The rotation of the fan like helicopter blades. Immediately, there's voice-over. The film is thus in past-tense. You get the sense that everything about to happen has already happened. The conflict is already ended. Willard in mostly darkness, lost in monologue. The set up to a film about duality. So many things happening in pairs. Beginning, ending in different jungles. Willard in his “sanctuary” in Saigon. He will ultimately meet Kurtz in his own sanctuary in the Cambodian jungle. There is a strange recognition when Willard is briefed on the mission. He hears the recording of Kurtz. It is not unlike the v.o. we've already hearing. The soldiers in the office appear civilized, using small cutlery to slice meat while listening to the audio in disgust. On the opposing end of the film, we will witness “savages” brutalize a water buffalo with a sword. There is as much story around the edges of this film as in it. Layers of progression. Kurtz, his mission having brought him deep into the jungle, recording a memoir; Willard, his mission bringing him deep into the jungle, where he will face Kurtz, orating the experience now. You can almost imagine Willard huddled in the dark somewhere as he speaks over the film—the room in Saigon where we found him or a temple like the one at the end of the film.
There's a particularly interesting scene with a crew (Coppola cameo) filming Willard and others, directing them to keep going without looking beyond where they're supposed to go. “Don't look at the camera! Just go by, like you're fighting! Like you're fighting! Don't look at the camera. It's for television! Just go through, go through!” Etc. I see it as an intentional hole. The absurdity of the film exposed.
Richard Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” is an interesting choice of music for the air raid on the beach. Especially since the opera was used in Nazi propaganda videos during World War 2, particularly alongside Luftwaffe footage. The opera itself is vaguely “apocalyptic” (look it up, in addition to the Norse mythology which accompanies its story), and the visual assault has an orchestral quality to it when synched with the music.
The repeated use of bridges is also a cool thematic aspect of Apocalypse Now as most of the man-made bridges are blown up, or at least the people on them are (a localized but also cosmic example of the film's play on civility v. barbarism) but one particular bridge can't be broken: the river. The thread linking Willard and Kurtz, incarnations of a same kind of man. The river as a natural bridge is indestructible, too. The others aren't. This seems fitting. Bridges are the journey. Kurtz is ultimately Willard's destination the same way that becoming Vito was Michael Corleone's destination.
When surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms, now deceased) is being entertained by the Playmate of the Year, she tells him of her struggles and aspirations, the loneliness of being in the spotlight. She is startled by Mr Clean's interruption (Fishburne) and knocks over a nearby coffin, where a dead, naked body tumbles out. Death underscores the moment. “That was somebody's son.” From a vague remark about a ribbon between her legs, you get the impression that even the Playmate of the Year is a kind of soldier, just following orders, doing what's expected of her. Johnson gets this too. From this moment, he starts to “blend” into the film. Starts to go with the flow of things. First, face paint. Madness. The loincloth. The dance.
The French plantation is arguably the heart of the redux, where the film once again dissolves, this time into a Godard-esque dinner where the ironic argument on solidarity leads to most of the family leaving the table. The plantation scene is the beginning of a reversal of progress. The American soldiers go from the Vietnam conflict, to French Indochina, back inevitably to the indigenous hands. Little Roman Coppola reciting a Baudelaire poem. Silence at the dinner table. “Un ange passe.” An angel is passing—an old phrase said during an awkward silence. “All soldier[s] know they are already dead.” Maybe it's an angel of death. The accordion crashes. Madame Sarrault (Aurore Clement) eyefucks Willard and calls him lost. “The war will still be here tomorrow.” And for a moment there's a hint of fleeting chemistry à la Pynchon's Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake. “There are two of you, don't you see? One that kills and one that loves. And he said to me, I don't know whether I'm an animal or a god. But you are both.” The plantation digression ends as he caresses Madame Sarrault through translucent netting and the scene segues into the next morning's mist.
Kurtz is close now. Willard throws pages from his mission dossier into the river. After some trouble with the natives, and a “gated” scene reminiscent of Melville, they meet The Photojournalist (Hopper). The Photojournalist is rambling electric here and almost steals every scene he's in. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across floors of silent seas.
Willard is captured and the film gets darker. Literally. On his knees he comes face to face with a possible future for himself. The one that kills. Part Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I assume borrowed some of its atmosphere from this portion of the film), part twisted version of Borges' “The Other”, the film enters its final run. The bridge no longer links Willard and Kurtz. They are bonded. “Are you an assassin?” “I'm a soldier.” And the transition from the plantation ends: Willard rises from the primordial soup of the water. He is untangled from the knots of decency. Willard's consolidation of his duality is highlighted by Kurtz recording, “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because . . . it's obscene.” Kurtz is sacrificed. Willard's final kindness. Willard sits in his “throne” for a moment and contemplates this kingdom. Natives gather outside. Willard leaves the temple with a sword and a manuscript. He drops the sword but keeps the pages. The natives lay down arms as he walks through them, a clear mimicry of Willard's actions. While some might read that as a kind of antiwar message, I see it as the fulfillment of Willard's surrender to nature and its unequivocal response. He leaves with his book of revelation. His semiotic “coming-of-age” is complete.
As for the kind of analysis I'm not a fan of: Soundtrack gets the job done. Shots are usually long and patient but move quickly when danger arises. There are a few awkwardly dubbed parts where Coppola brought back the actors to record over restored scenes and their voices are a little different. But if you didn't know that, you probably wouldn't notice. Oops. Lighting makes the atmosphere. It's often as though scenery wasn't lit so much as shadowed. Soldiers act like soldiers, for better or worse. Martin Sheen juggles a difficult role, being helpless at the mercy of the jungle whilst also being in complete control of himself. If you're not a fan of animal cruelty, you'll probably be repulsed by the slaying of the water buffalo and the all-too-comfortable dangling of a bird by its feet. Marlon Brando effortlessly walks through his role.
I found the redux to be funny, disturbing and oftentimes profound (effortlessly so). If you've watched both The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, you might then see Apocalypse Now as a natural progression for Coppola as a filmmaker/storyteller. It's as good as either of those and seems to be a thematic amalgamation of both.
There aren't many films I've seen that do what this one does. I think you'd have to watch both Godfather films, Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and maybe David Fincher's Fight Club to get some feel for what I'm saying. It's really not surprising that Coppola hasn't done anything so monolithic since. You're almost better off searching out a book like Gravity's Rainbow or the Watchmen graphic novel. Maybe Roberto Bolaño's 2666 comes close.
Did I like it? You could say that. I liked it and upon subsequent viewings grew to love it. There is just so much going on at any given point in the film, you could probably spend a lifetime writing about it, which is why I kept this concise as possible. Otherwise, it'd never end. The kind of film you can spend days or long nights discussing with friends. I know some people prefer the original over the redux because it doesn't deviate from the journey to Kurtz so much. I assume those same people might also prefer The Old Man and the Sea to Moby-Dick. That's all well and good, and I get it, I really do, but I tend to prefer narratives that explore the world as well as tell the story.
Most Awesome Parts:
-Brando reciting T.S. Eliot.
-Surfing on a battlefield.
-Drunk Martin Sheen punching a mirror and slicing open his hand.
-The French plantation stuff.
-Purple haze and the psychedelic assault.
% Character / % Actor's personality, previous roles
-Sheen: Wall Street, The Departed
-Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango In Paris, Superman
-Fishburne: Peewee's Playhouse, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3
-Hopper: Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Land of the Dead
-Duvall: THX 1138, The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2
-Ford: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Frantic, Blade Runner
-better than Apocalypse Now: Hearts of Darkness
-shit stain on the heel of Apocalypse Now: Platoon
-"A" for effort: Full Metal Jacket; Deer Hunter