An Appreciation – Apocalypse Now
But what makes it work is that it is done ironically. The mayhem is not meant to illicit excitement, but to highlight the ridiculous nature of warfare. Kilgore didn’t stage the attack for strategic purposes, but to clear the beach so that soldiers can surf the waves. One can argue that this is done as a satirical look on America’s approach to The Vietnam War, where self-indulgence is just as much of a motivating factor than anything else. During the attack, we see Kilgore speak to another soldier, pointing out how the tide is breaking and how it can best be surfed. We do get that famous line from Kilgore, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like victory” because that is all that he knows. He – along with many of the characters – would never be able to function outside of their given profession. After being trained for years, war has become a part of Kilgore’s very being. Not many people remember the conclusion of that same monologue, as Kilgore says, “Some day, this war is going to end,” but does so with a sense of disappointment rather than hope.
The most haunting episode happens when Willard and his men stumble upon a nighttime battle at the Do Lung Bridge. This is the turning point, where Coppola dives head first into the surreal. There seems to be no order – soldiers fire into the night at an unseen enemy. Carmine Coppola’s distorted score sounds like something out of a circus from hell, where no one knows what’s happening except for the carnage surrounding them. Characters are silhouetted by a wall of flame. After seeing it a handful of times, this sequence remains the one that has stuck with me the most. The very nature of it feels unnerving, especially with how the characters maneuver around the environment like ghosts in search of a final resting place. When Willard asks a soldier who’s in charge, the soldier replies in desperation, “Ain’t you?” And when Willard asks another man if he knows who the commanding officer is, the man responds “Yeah…” in a way that sends shivers down my spine.
A film is lucky to have one incredible scene. Apocalypse Now is made up of nothing but incredible scenes. While much of this is due to Coppola’s direction, a lot of credit should also go to John Milius’ script. A larger than life character himself, Milius brought a terse, direct style that allows the characters to cut directly to their core beings without ever hitting us over the head. There’s no wasted motion or dialogue. When someone dies, it has a reverberating impact. When Kilgore says “Charlie don’t surf!” that tells us exactly the kind of person he is. The dialogue is endlessly quotable, much of which has already been mentioned in this essay. It has poignancy that reveals itself with little effort. We understand that much of what is said has a deeper meaning. As Willard says in narration, “I’m still only in Saigon,” we can understand there’s more to that line than what is on the surface.
It’s fascinating how the first two thirds blends so well tonally with the final section, given that much of it was made up as the production went along. Coppola had trouble coming up with a satisfying conclusion, and thus kept rewriting during filming. Things got even more complicated once Brando arrived unprepared, and had to collaborate with Coppola over his character and the purpose of his scenes. The result is a climax and ending that is still debated. Does the ending work? When the boat reaches its destination and finds Kurtz, the narrative shifts into a very odd and strange section. Willard meets Kurtz on a philosophical battlefield, where Kurtz – shrouded in shadow – spits out ramblings about war, power, and of course, “the horror.” These monologues feel disjointed and random, and that’s due to Brando improvising much of it.
Brando’s performance is a curious case study. Gone was the strikingly handsome young man of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). Yes, in his later years Brando did gain a lot of weight, but to leave it simply at that would be a disservice to the man who helped define the craft of acting in the 20th century. For a person who was so anchored by his good looks, in a strange way his physical transformation seemed inevitable. By removing his handsomeness, Brando forces us to look at him for his acting ability.
Although he was reportedly difficult to work with, in hindsight Brando was the only correct choice to play Colonel Kurtz. This is largely due to him already being a Hollywood icon by this time. Even though he’s on screen for a short period, he is an active presence for Willard. The more we hear of Kurtz – through Willard’s dossier – the higher the anticipation grows. Much of Brando’s dialogue was done on the spot, written on cue cards that he would read off screen. This was not done simply to be a nuisance. Brando was constantly searching for immediate inspiration; he wanted the words to come to him as an epiphany rather than a structured, practiced thought. As a result, the confrontation between Kurtz and Willard feels sporadic and unpredictable, but entirely convincing. We have no idea what Brando will do next because Coppola and his team didn’t know either. That’s why – even though the ending is a strange departure from the rest of the film – it feels right. To end with a large battle sequence would only be disingenuous.
Apocalypse Now would turn out to be one of the last great entries of the New American Cinema. This era gave birth to personal, experimental works by up and coming filmmakers that had their own unique vision to tell. Coppola and his contemporaries heralded in the modern style of cinema whose effects we see even to this day. But for as great as many of these films turned out to be, it was a set up that was bound not to last. These productions would also be burdened with combative personalities, long shoots, and finances that went out of control. It would only be a matter of time before studios would shift their focus to appeal to a wider demographic, ushering in the age of the blockbuster. Apocalypse Now fell right into that transitional period – Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) helped to ignite the shift, and the failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) essentially finalized it. Will we ever see things switch back around? It’s hard to tell.
It’s a miracle that any film ever gets made, and that can’t be any truer than with Apocalypse Now. It’s the work of a filmmaker who got in over his head, whose ego and abundant resources caused him to take on an ordeal that very nearly drove him over the edge. But somehow, he managed to craft something the likes of which have not been paralleled. The troublesome production turned out to be a benefit, as it instilled a fevered pitch that radiates from the screen. It was made through a combination of fear and determination, ending with an experience that is frightening, thought provoking, and brilliant.