An Appreciation – Apocalypse Now
The production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) has become almost as infamous as the film itself. Hot off the successes of The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and The Conversation (1974), Coppola had turned into one of the major faces of the “New American Cinema” that dominated the late sixties and most of the seventies. Through his newly acquired fame and fortune, Coppola founded his own production company (American Zoetrope), with the first project being an epic undertaking: an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, reset within the context of the Vietnam War.
Almost immediately, the production was delayed by numerous obstacles. The sheer scale was enormous, incorporating hundreds of crew and countless equipment, props, and food to be transported to the Philippines (where filming took place). Typhoons would halt progress dead in its tracks. The Philippine government – who loaned out helicopters to Coppola – often had to recall them back to fight rebel uprisings, sometimes right in the middle of a shoot. Marlon Brando, who would play the mythical character of Colonel Kurtz, came to set grossly overweight and having never read either Conrad’s book or John Milius’ script. Shooting went from the scheduled six weeks to sixteen months, ballooning the budget by over $3 million. The lead actor, Martin Sheen, suffered a serious heart attack. Coppola – himself succumbing to the stress – lost over one hundred pounds, and was constantly unsure of his abilities to complete the film. All of this was captured on footage by Coppola’s wife (Eleanor Coppola), which would then be turned into an acclaimed documentary, Hearts of Darkness (1991).
But through the difficulty of the production came one of the greatest pictures of all time. There have been many great war films, but Apocalypse Now stands on a plateau all on its own because it takes its subject and digs deeper. It doesn’t just examine the physical effects of violence, but how it takes its toll on the human soul. The battle is on a psychological front, where the participants risk their own humanity. The further we venture into the jungle with these characters, the more surreal and absurd everything becomes. Coppola effectively created a living nightmare – as soon as The Doors’ “The End” starts to play, we enter a psychedelic world where morality and rationality is replaced by madness and chaos.
The plot itself is absurd. As Captain Willard (Sheen) and his crew of boatmen (including a fourteen year old Lawrence Fishburne) travel up the Nung River into Cambodia, it’s hard to ignore the allegories being made to the River Styx. Death or the threat of death is constantly around them. Their own vessel is a transporter of death. Unknown to the rest of the men, Willard is tasked with a secret mission. Colonel Kurtz, a decorated war hero thought to have gone insane, is rumored to have settled somewhere in the surrounding area, living like a god amongst the locals. It’s up to Willard – whom himself is struggling with PTSD – to locate Kurtz and eliminate him “with extreme prejudice.”
It’s said that no film can be truly “anti-war” because violence on screen is inherently exciting. The energy of the battle scenes almost always negates the fact that we’re seeing the loss of human life. We become voyeurs far removed from the danger of being on the battlefield. If that’s the case, then Apocalypse Now comes the closest to reversing that theory, because the focus is on the spiritual rather than the physical. Concentration is placed on the human reaction instead of the blunt force trauma. The camera often stays on a character’s face, waiting to see how they will react to what’s happening within a scene. With the river as the connecting thread, Coppola captures the contrasting aspects of war: the suspense and excitement is juxtaposed with boredom, fear, sadness, and confusion. The characters inhabit a progression from innocent youth (Fishburne), to cynicism (Sheen), and finally to the complete surrender to insanity (Brando). The main tension revolves around Willard, who is stuck in the middle. It’s easy to imagine him at one time being a young man full of enthusiasm, but it’s also easy to see him pulled into the same fate that befell Kurtz.
The structure is done as a set of episodes, reminiscent of The Odyssey. The best and most famous is the helicopter attack of a Vietnamese school, lead by Robert Duvall’s Kilgore. Nearly every element of this scene is done with pitch perfect clarity, from Duvall’s incredible performance, to the rapid editing, to the use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” It’s an dramatic display of craftsmanship. The accomplishment is in how alive it is. Notice how everything seems to be moving: from the foreground, to the middle, and finally into the far background. Extras run around as helicopters fly by overhead. We’ll get a closeup shot of Duvall in a helicopter just as a bridge in the far distance explodes. Vittorio Storaro’s camera shoots numerous action happening simultaneously, but we never lose our place, nothing appears jumbled. Repeated viewings are almost required just to be able to pick out all of the details that are taking place on the edges of the screen.