US (1979) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
MIB’s road to film buff redemption continues with this first time viewing of one of the most celebrated and seminal of war films, Coppola’s epic nightmare ride Apocalypse Now.
Taking as its inspiration the novella Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Coppola takes us on a voyage through hell via the perspective of narrator and central character Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen). A high skilled veteran, Willard is sent on a secret mission to a remote jungle in Cambodia to kill a former Special Forces officer Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has reportedly gone insane and created a community where the people worship him as a demi-God.
It seems almost implausible that a near two-and-a-half hour film has a plot which can be summarised so succinctly but that is the odd reality of the situation. However the real story is in the journey that Willard and the men assigned to assist him go on, detailing the tumult, loss and psychological horrors incurred by war, told with candour and alarmingly authentic vividness.
Every stage of a soldier’s fighting life is depicted here from Willard being holed up in pokey Saigon hotel room, drinking away the memories of his last mission and his divorce, to being taken to a comparatively plush army base office where he is given his mission, and finally the war torn jungle land that is Vietnam. Coppola uses Willard solely as a narrator and guide and not a totem for the good old US Vietnam Vet, flying the flag for his country and coming out of it as a war hero.
The tone is very unprejudiced portraying neither side as the enemy or the hero. This is a story set during a historically hellacious war and Coppola is sharing that hell with us, warts and all. While he may not be making any direct points against the US involvement in the war which was a huge topical issue back in the 60’s, Coppola is objective in presenting to us an idea of what the attitude of the US army was like, painting them as anything but heroes.
Arriving in Vietnam Willard is greeted by the blustery and larger than life Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who seems to be treating his call of duty as a holiday. Famous for delivering the classic line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, Kilgore agrees to escort Willard and his crew – “Chief” (Albert Hall), Lance (Sam Bottoms), “Chef” (Frederic Forrest) and “Mr. Clean” (Laurence Fishburne) – up river after learning Lance is a champion surfer, a pastime Kilgore himself enjoys.
It sounds like a satire but while an air strike is blowing up Vietnamese schools and scorching a forest to its roots, Kilgore challenges lance to surf the waves with him! Willard and his team eventually part ways with Kilgore and continue their mission by boat heading off into the jungle where more attacks await, and the fatalities begin to pile up.
A stop off for fuel and a night spent at a USO show featuring Playboy playmates entertaining the troops won’t sit well with modern audiences but in context, it relays to us the sacrifices these men were making for their families and country. Being contained within an all male environment, this type of release for them, while primal and shamelessly feral, is the equivalent of that one special present at Christmas.
While the first half was a noisy affair with of superbly orchestrated helicopter raids of truly spectacular proportions and the odd ground based gun battle, the second half takes a more eerie turn as the journey into the jungle brings with it the silent horrors of the natural environment. Having finally found the location of Kurtz’s ostensible kingdom, the remaining crewmembers are greeted by a hippy photojournalist (Dennis Hopper in what was hardly a stretch acting wise), another brainwashed zealot of Kurtz’s, and one of the few Americans among the otherwise native community.
Brando’s bloated physical appearance was just one of the many problems that blighted the production of this film, which may explain why he was shot mostly in the dark. he had not lost any of his acting chops however, and in Kurtz we have a bald headed, calculated and quietly sinister lost cousin of the legendary Don Corleone, sans the puffy cheeks and Italian accent. His slow deliberate speech and emotionless face creates a subtle but effective antagonist, his half-lit face adding much to his aura of inferred menace. He doesn’t seem deranged but the spite behind his words is palpable.
This film could have been a disaster due to the many setbacks it suffered. Aside from an unprepared and overly bulky Brando, Martin Sheen suffered a near fatal heart attack (aged just 36 at the time), sets were destroyed by a hurricane, the film went over budget, it took three years to edit down the 130,000 plus feet of footage and Coppola threatened to kill himself many times.
Thankfully Coppola and the film survived and went on to become a modern classic, with many quotable lines of dialogue and often lampooned and copied scenes. The amazing helicopter scenes, including those set to the strains of Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries, are a stunning achievement in cinematography and composition and not a frame of CGI in sight. Willard’s creepy rising from the river is equally iconic and it is hard to argue against every war film that followed in its wake being in debt to the template Coppola set here.
Apocalypse Now is not just the telling of a story set in Vietnam, it is a visceral and authentically immersive journey into Vietnam, taking us for an up close and personal look into the eyes of hell. Every drop of sweat, every bullet fired, every breath taken has never felt so real and so important – or captured so perfectly on film – within the war setting.