NOW STREAMING ON:
Over the years many, including the late Roger Ebert, have labeled Apocalypse Now as the greatest of all war films, and among the greatest works of cinema. In the most recent Sight & Sound Critics Poll, Apocalypse Now ranked #14; Ebert himself included it on his ballot of the ten greatest films. On the Sight & Sound Directors Poll, Apocalypse Now ranked #6, earning votes from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Interestingly, Apocalypse Now was voted ahead of Francis Ford Coppola‘s other masterpieces The Godfather and The Godfather Part II on both polls, which actually makes sense — unlike the AFI lists, which focus on film, the Sight & Sound polls measure cinematic worth and present it as a global medium. “Film,” “cinema,” “movie” — these are three terms that are often used interchangeably but actually have separate usages, at least when it comes to technical analysis. All three are technically all-inclusive: It is not incorrect to refer to any motion picture as a movie or a film, but eventually it becomes obvious after enough study that film refers more specifically to artistically valuable motion pictures, and not the movies that provide entertainment and a good time to audiences and financial gain to studios.
The realm of cinema, although also technically all-inclusive, is yet another step removed from the business of movies; in fact, it is wholly unconcerned with it. Rather, cinema is concerned with the form of motion pictures, which (as we sometimes forget) manipulate image and sound — or just image, in the case of silent films — into something approximating reality. Movies released by major Hollywood studios do not draw attention to this, and are not even concerned with broaching the subject — the studios are there to make money, and audiences aren’t interested in cinema, by and large: If pressed, the vast majority of filmgoers would reveal a vague awareness of the form of motion pictures, but would shrug at the notion that a movie that exists to challenge the form itself has much value or would be of any particular interest to sit through. Today, motion pictures can be grouped into these classes more easily than ever: most often, what can be filed under film gets promoted heavily by an Oscar campaign in order to leverage its financial potential, and every other wide release is simply a movie that its studio hopes will make hundreds of millions of dollars (or more). As for true cinema, it’s mostly off everyone’s radar, shown in art house theaters (except for in rare cases like when a well-known auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick releases a film).
Any proper discussion of Apocalypse Now must be framed with all this in mind. Casual moviegoers understand Apocalypse Now is an ambitious film — even as spectacle, its greatness translates easily from the screen during multiple sequences of astonishing vision like the legendary helicopter raid on the village that culminates in Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. Without a doubt, the first three-quarters of Apocalypse Now is terrific entertainment; most can live with the bizarre third act since the buildup is that fantastic. What casual moviegoers likely remain completely unaware of, however, is just how abstract the film is. The typical war film strives to, as best as it can, capture exactly what war is like in some manner — depending on which aspect of war is covered in the film — and convey it as directly to the audience as possible. Realism is king, and there are, of course, a great many movies that do this quite effectively, such as Saving Private Ryan and the most accurate Vietnam War film, Platoon. Both movies represented a great leap forward in terms of achieving “ground-level” realism in combat scenes and were narratively successful, as well, telling moving stories.
The narrative of Apocalypse Now is quite different from the ones presented in Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. At its core, the plot of Apocalypse Now is extremely straightforward — so much so, that my former screenwriting professor at the University of Miami used to repeatedly use it as an example of a central character’s quest. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given a mission — to kill the mad Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) — and once he does so, the movie ends. In this sense, Apocalypse Now is certainly a typical narrative film, but it would absolutely be a mistake to label this movie as anything resembling orthodox. For one thing, Apocalypse Now isn’t the slightest bit realistic, which turns off many viewers who expect realism from war films. (And since it isn’t a comedy or satire, it’s easy to not quite know what to make of it, since it’s obviously a serious movie.) Instead of chronicling the lives of historical figures or showcasing the great battles of the war, from the outset Apocalypse Now is totally surreal. Yet because the Vietnam War was itself a complete fiasco, the film’s ridiculousness — at least in the first half — never seems overextended.
58,219 Americans died in the war, and for pretty much nothing. During the European rush to colonize every portion of the world, Vietnam fell under French control and was a part of their colony of Indochina, which also included Laos and Cambodia. In 1954, after the French were defeated by the Việt Minh at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, two countries were created, North Vietnam and South Vietnam; they were divided at the 17th parallel. Hồ Chí Minh’s communist North Vietnam immediately set about winning the hearts and minds of their countrymen to the south, who were governed by the US-backed Ngô Đình Diệm. At the time, the so-called “Domino Theory” was a real concern (or at least was perceived as a legitimate threat): If Soviet communism was allowed to spread to additional countries, more would fall under Soviet influence. As it turns out, communism doesn’t work so there ultimately wasn’t much need to worry, but the Soviets were our arch rival, and the Vietnam War became a proxy war; we may have been killing Vietnamese, but we were really fighting Russia (or at least their influence).
An insurgency group called the Việt Cộng (commonly referred to by American troops as “Victor Charlie” or simply “Charlie”) would prove to give us fits, and soon “search and destroy” missions became common, where Americans went from town to town, region to region, throughout South Vietnam to ferret out VC guerrillas who otherwise completely blended into the population and landscape. It proved to be a Sisyphean task — we’d find them (or the invading North Vietnamese Army) on a hill, waste time and energy taking the hill, then would leave only to find them back on the hill the next day. It was like police trying to keep dealers off a busy Baltimore drug corner on The Wire. It didn’t matter how many troops or how much firepower we threw at them, we never could make much of a dent in winning the Vietnam War, and there are several reasons for that. The South Vietnamese government was weak and without much of a cause or a charismatic leader that could match Hồ Chí Minh’s George Washington-like appeal for unification and independence. (Seriously, the South Vietnamese capital Saigon has since been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.) The South Vietnamese people wanted to be a unified Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese government didn’t want that so it could justify its own continued existence.
Our government wasn’t much better, of course. Back then, the draft was still in effect even during the peacetime years of the Cold War — Elvis Presley of all people was drafted in 1958 and served in Germany for two years — which seems laughable now. The Vietnam War was a deeply unpopular war as a result, with more than half a million US troops over there at the highest point, 25% of which were conscripted. Even most of those fortunate enough to not be drafted didn’t believe in the war. My dad served in the Navy for two years during the war (over in Europe, thankfully), and I can remember us sitting down to watch Platoon about ten years ago. When the film started, he turned to me, shook his head and said, “Can you imagine actually being sent into this thing?” At the time, the Iraq War was in full swing and was becoming another deeply unpopular quagmire. The only thing that saved it from reaching Vietnam’s level of unpopularity was the lack of a draft — something the United States did away with in 1973 when the Vietnam War came to a close. (I have a feeling the lack of protests on college campuses during the Iraq War compared to those held during the Vietnam War may have had something to do with that.)
Apocalypse Now never dives into any of the political aspects of the war at all. In fact, the characters are fictional and no major historical battles are shown or even referred to. Even the Nung River that Willard’s PBR (patrol boat, riverine) glides upon toward Kurtz’s rumored stronghold is entirely made up. In terms of depicting the Vietnam War exactly as it happened, the film is generally unconcerned with that, though it is true that the first half of Apocalypse Now does take place in Vietnam while the Vietnam War is going on. And in that respect, many of the details are accurate (or at least as accurate as you can expect a movie to be). The uniforms, the warfare, the tanks and choppers, hippie culture, the USO show — these are all things that were certainly part of the picture when it came to life in Vietnam as an American soldier. What Apocalypse Now does is slowly skew that everyday reality into something increasingly surreal: while it’s doubtful a helicopter squadron ever dropped napalm on a village just so they could go surfing, it is a thoughtful (if twisted) illustration of the vast waste of American military might and resources that were poured into this war.
As for the second half of the film, it bears no resemblance to anything that’s even close to reality. Once the trippy, nightmarish scene at the Do Lung Bridge concludes, it becomes apparent that the film is using the Vietnam War to frame a more abstract, philosophical narrative about the intersection of civilization and war. Ultimately, Apocalypse Now becomes a glimpse into what lies past that intersection (symbolized by a literal bridge): raw human psyche, unbound by its own unconscious in a setting where the laws of nature govern, not the laws of man. As the film’s third act comes into focus, this is personified through the character Kurtz, a man driven so mad by what lies beyond, he knows there is no coming back for him — civilized life simply has no meaning left once exposed to nature’s true state. Before I dive into a deeper analysis of Kurtz, I should point out that Apocalypse Now is adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which I must confess I have not read. I will get out of the way and defer to Roger Ebert’s description of the tale’s arc and significance, since he explains it better than I can:
Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” was inspired by Heart of Darkness, a novel by Joseph Conrad about a European named Kurtz who penetrated to the farthest reaches of the Congo and established himself like a god. A boat sets out to find him, and on the journey the narrator gradually loses confidence in orderly civilization; he is oppressed by the great weight of the jungle all around him, a pitiless Darwinian testing ground in which each living thing tries every day not to be eaten.
What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge. … If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool’s paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss. What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this.
Roger’s excellent insight there that “what is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found” indeed applies to Apocalypse Now, as well: throughout the film, Willard reads over documents contained within a classified dossier that describe what he (and we) should expect to find when he reaches Kurtz. Willard is told when he receives the mission that Kurtz is a madman who has disappeared deep into the Cambodian jungle and now runs some sort of empire that’s an affront to humanity. Surprisingly, what Willard finds in the dossier are documents describing a model soldier — for a time. When Kurtz is one of the military advisors sent to South Vietnam — during what is now known as the “Advisory Period” stage of the Vietnam War from 1954 to 1963 — to help the new country set up its military in the face of a rapidly escalating North Vietnamese threat, he returns demanding to be reassigned to Special Forces, throwing away his shot at general and puzzling the army brass. Though he rises to be a Green Beret colonel (the highest possible rank in the order), he is brought up on murder charges — which Willard informs us is as ridiculous as “handing out [a] speeding [ticket] at the Indy 500.” Kurtz, of course, disputes the charges and disappears so far into the jungle he winds up in neighboring Cambodia.
In order for Willard to reach Kurtz, he must penetrate past the assorted fiascos that meet him along the river thanks to the American war effort. The film has a deceptively episodic structure, one that becomes glaringly obvious in the grossly overlong and mostly pointless Apocalypse Now Redux cut, which adds 49 minutes to the run time. (The theatrical cut is much more naturally paced, at least until the third act when the proceedings grind to a halt.) First, Willard has to enter the Nung River. No problem — Lt. Col. Kilgore can just pick up the PBR with one of his choppers and drop it in the mouth of the river during the raid on the village. A little later, the boat comes across a USO show put on for the troops that is aborted when the sex-starved soldiers leer at the Playboy models (who charmingly are flown in via helicopter) and storm the stage. At one point, Willard narrates something to the effect that if this is the kind of bullshit going on, Kurtz really must have done something above and beyond to piss off the Army to warrant an assassination. When the boat reaches the Do Lung Bridge, the last American outpost on the Nung River, someone who’s waiting there with the boat’s mail informs Willard, “You’re in the asshole of the world now, Captain!”
It’s here where Willard reaches the end of civilization; it’s a moment that doubles as Willard’s point of no return and as the story’s mid-point intensification. When Willard tries to get some answers from the disoriented (and drugged-out) soldiers stationed at the bridge, who fight on without an apparent commanding officer, he returns to the boat and tells Chief (Albert Hall) it’s time for them to go. “Which direction?” Chief replies. It’s a decision Chief knows will determine whether everyone on the boat will make it back alive. “You know which way,” is Willard’s response. From here, the film gets increasingly surreal, as the boat heads on a journey that’s almost backward in time; from this point forward, there are no Vietnamese to fight. First, an unseen enemy attacks the boat with automatic gunfire through jungle cover, killing Clean (a very young Laurence Fishburne) in the process. (In the Redux cut, Clean is buried at a French plantation that is somehow still in existence, despite French expulsion from the country in 1954.) Later, they are attacked again, but by increasingly primitive means: in the midst of an attack made with ineffective arrows, Chief is killed by a spear.
This barbarism Willard encounters is no less violent or threatening than what he faces during the first half of the film, and it serves as preparation for his encounter with Kurtz. Of course, the river is dotted with wreckage and death, as well — presumably collateral damage from Kurtz’s own journey. At first, the wreckage is recognizably American (e.g., a downed plane in flames), but gradually this wreckage becomes like the violence Willard faces: increasingly primitive. By the time Willard reaches Kurtz’s compound, the anticipation for the upcoming confrontation is through the roof, aided by an incredible piece of music — “Voyage” on the soundtrack — during the final approach that ratchets up the tension. When the boat arrives, they are greeted not by Kurtz but by a crazed American photojournalist (a magnetic Dennis Hopper) who spouts off quasi-philosophical garbage so nonsensical we can’t help but wonder what Kurtz has in store for us once we meet him. (It’s a remarkably clever way to diffuse the tension and throw something completely unexpected at us at the same time, I must say.) Outside Kurtz’s temple, we see the effects of barbaric violence — disturbingly, a naked dead man covered in blood hangs from a tree by the PBR and lingers in the background during Willard and the photojournalist’s initial conversation.
Curiously though, no one appears to be taking their orders directly from Kurtz — it’s unclear at this point whether this is the way they have always done things or if Kurtz instituted this system of human sacrifice himself. By the end of Apocalypse Now, it becomes increasingly clear that the latter is not the case, which is of course contrary to what Willard is told before embarking upon the journey. True, Kurtz wanders to and fro and is supposedly — we never quite see it all that directly — worshipped and glorified by the indigenous people there but the film deliberately omits any detail as to how Kurtz arrived there and what his own journey up the Nung was like. Did the wreckage, post-apocalyptic imagery, and barbarism exist past the Do Lung Bridge before Kurtz himself escaped past the borders of civilization? The picture we are painted of Kurtz before Willard’s arrival would point to no, but after meeting him, the answer is clearly yes. The film pulls off a nifty narrative trick in this regard: during Willard’s journey, we just assume it’s Kurtz that is responsible for the collateral damage we see along the river — that he’s evil incarnate. In reality, the film has entered mystical territory — a realm that exists not on a map, but in the primeval jungle every human still remains tethered to regardless of how fiercely civilized life has tried to hack away at the connection.
That’s why I have always found any “Kurtz = the heart of darkness” reading of Apocalypse Now to be extremely lazy. Instead, the “horror,” the anguish that Kurtz has discovered is his realization that not only does the “heart of darkness” exist in every living person, but it is hard-coded into our very DNA. In other words, even if every human on the planet at this very moment were magically transformed into a moral person incapable of killing or of other horrific acts, every newborn child brought into the world would still retain the primal instinct of killing; social progress is always on the verge of coming undone by the base aspects of human nature. In a way, this point of view is John Locke’s concept of tabula rasa in reverse, though philosophically the two are on separate planes. Locke’s proposal that humans are not born automatic sinners but are instead born with a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) — with only the potential to sin — only addresses the cosmic and has little to do with society’s ability to function in any practical way. Despite being worshipped like a god (again, supposedly), Kurtz’s focus is not on sin and what happens after death, but on the Earthly.
In fact, when he describes to Willard what an ideal army (or at least an army capable of victory in Vietnam) would look like, his analysis requires serious thought:
You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
If you think about it, this is an almost oxymoronic statement — morality, after all, is all about judging: whether something is right, wrong, or somewhere in between depends on the human experiencing it. I certainly am not a moral relativist in the traditional sense (there’s a difference between what is culturally right and what is actually right), but I am what you might call an “absolute relativist,” if such a thing exists. What I mean by that is, in the absence of humanity, the world just is — it’s the presence of humanity that projects a sense of rightness, of a way life ought to be, onto it. (This is effectively a pretty nihilistic way of looking at things, but it’s what makes the most sense; if ethics are truly objective and exist independently of human thought, then they are therefore impossible to access with human thought.) Yet Kurtz’s statement there reflects wanting to have it both ways: he wants men who are moral and who can shut off their sense of morality at the same time. The larger context of his statement paints a clearer picture:
I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile: a pile of little arms. And I remember I…I…I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized, like I was shot — like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that. The genius! The will to do that: perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who have children, who are filled with love — but they had the strength — the strength! — to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly.
What he is essentially admitting here is that the Việt Cộng — the “they” who hacked off the kids’ arms — simply had the advantage in terms of cause: so committed were they to throwing off the shackles of colonialism and Western interference that they would go to greater lengths than American soldiers ever would to win. Americans were either moral (some genuinely wanted to save the Vietnamese from the threat of communism, I’m sure) or were capable of going into killing machine mode, but unlike the Vietnamese, they could never be both at the same time — one always came at the expense of the other. The cause simply wasn’t just enough; it wasn’t noble. What American soldiers risked their lives for wasn’t worth it: we were so blinded by the fact that the great wave of communism was sweeping across Asia that we didn’t realize we were spending blood and treasure in order to keep people from achieving freedom, independence, and a newfound sense of nationhood. The Vietnam Hồ Chí Minh wanted was not the America George Washington wanted, but we should have at least respected the will of the Vietnamese people rather than continue to micromanage the threats to our post-WWII ideological world domination.
Another thing: I’m honestly not convinced that all the sacrificial violence occurring outside the temple is really happening on Kurtz’s behalf. Instead, what’s much more likely is that the people there have always been doing that kind of nonsense, and then Kurtz showed up one day and they rallied around him because he was such a charismatic leader. (Pretty much every civilization starts that way: a leader raises people up out of the proverbial jungle from nothing.) Predictably, Willard is taken prisoner by the natives soon after his arrival and is presented before Kurtz. After a while, Willard relates via narration that he is no longer being held captive and is free to come and go as he pleases. (Poor Chef (Frederic Forrest) — who Willard tasks with calling in the airstrike if he doesn’t make it back to the boat — gets his head lopped off during Willard’s captivity though.) As he studies Kurtz, Willard realizes that it’s Kurtz who is the prisoner — Willard is only free because Kurtz wants him to kill him. (As Willard informs us, “If I was still alive, it was because he wanted me that way.”) While Willard has no family to return home to — he divorced his wife upon returning home from his last tour — Kurtz’s anguish stems from never being able to see his wife and son again. He knows he will perish in the jungle:
I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything — everything I did, everything you saw — because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.
In other words, Kurtz wants to be killed by his ideal solider: someone who is moral and at the same time is capable of killing without judgment, and is also willing to explain to his family what has really happened to him. And he has finally found his man in Willard, who tells us:
They were gonna make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their fuckin’ army anymore. Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from anyway.
The way the film sets up the assassination is brilliant: by juxtaposing Willard’s assassination of Kurtz (by machete) with a ceremonial slaughter of a water buffalo (by machete) outside the temple, the focus is laser-like on what Kurtz calls the “primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment.” It’s an astonishing scene: the slaughter of the water buffalo (which is real, incidentally) by the natives is jarring to watch now in the PETA age. And it’s a sobering reminder of how central violence, killing, war, and death are to life itself here on Earth: eventually, every living thing withers and dies. (For that matter, so does every civilization; literally not one has lasted forever.) This is the source of the existential anguish Kurtz uncovered that drove his behavior over the cliff in the first place. At the beginning of the film, when Willard is given the assignment, we hear a confirmed recording of Kurtz’s voice: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving.”
Kurtz’s retreat into the jungle has put civilization into a truer focus for him: A civilized life is smoke and mirrors, full of distraction and illusion. We think of death as far off, and someone dying before the age of 70 or 75 as unusual. In reality, there are plenty of opportunities to die every single day — every time we get behind the wheel of a car, for instance. Growing up in a civilized setting, we never think of our lives as particularly fragile. In America, this is especially true: the number of societal institutions and social programs in place to normalize healthy, successful living are beyond counting. To Americans, life’s very existence seems inevitable (why else would there be such a strong contingent in this country that denies climate change is real?), when in truth everyone’s birth is completely accidental, at least in an existential sense — the choice to be born is not ours, after all. There is a similar attitude toward our powerful military and economy — we think we are simply destined to be the most powerful country in the world forever. And while there is no reason to think our status as the country with the most powerful military and economy will change any time soon, this mindset does sometimes result in blunders of overconfidence and overextension.
After all, some wars — like our adventure in Vietnam or, later, our equally doomed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — just haven’t gone our way. This in itself is a rich subject worth exploring, and there have been a number of movies over the years that have successfully peeled away this layer of our conflict in Vietnam. But no other film goes so far beneath the surface aspects of the Vietnam War that, by the end, the plane it exists and operates on addresses the role of war itself instead of just this particular war. Many who watch Apocalypse Now are mystified by its left turn away from the Vietnam War itself, yet they forget what they have been watching. The backdrop of the film’s first half may be Vietnam, but Apocalypse Now‘s plot never wavers: Willard receives a mission to kill Kurtz, and once he does so, the movie ends. The film never promises to ultimately be about Vietnam in a traditional, concrete sense — it’s the viewer who summons that expectation with each viewing because that’s what they are used to getting from a war film. To me, the core question raised by Apocalypse Now is, what is left after war strips away the civilized order?
As Kilgore says, “Someday this war’s gonna end.” At the time he says it, we think the line is in the film because the movie is simply sensationalizing the ridiculousness of the war. Of course, that is partly why he says it, but the reason why the line is truly present is to force us to examine what happens to the civilized order in the wake of war. In the United States, the word “revolution” has a positive connotation; after all, our own revolution established the world’s model for freedom and human rights (if you ignore slavery, of course). In reality, revolutions are bloody, violent, and tragic nearly every time. Time and again, we have to our folly assumed that people want our version of freedom; that it is natural for people to want it. (Who can forget Dick Cheney’s prediction that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq?) The simple, self-evident truth is that the natural order in the civilized world is not freedom and democracy, and even if it were, a state would not ultimately be fully functional or seen as legitimate if it began as a puppet propped up by another country like the United States. South Vietnam went the way of the Dodo after we withdrew our troops, and without a doubt Iraq and Afghanistan will follow suit if we ever manage to leave the latter.
Even after maybe a dozen viewings of Apocalypse Now, it’s still difficult to know what to make of it. It remains a disturbing, challenging, rich, and beautiful film, easily one of the most rewarding and ambitious movies ever to be released by a Hollywood studio (United Artists, in this case). Apocalypse Now‘s resolution is far from clean, but how exactly is a movie like this supposed to resolve itself? As I mentioned earlier, the film’s remarkably tight pacing comes a bit unraveled once Willard reaches Kurtz, and we’re almost able to feel director Francis Ford Coppola groping around in the dark, hoping to grasp the proper path to the film’s conclusion. From a filmmaking standpoint, the process Coppola was forced to undergo to complete his film is nothing short of fascinating; without question, Apocalypse Now suffered through one of the most difficult shoots in history. Some of the most notable events include the firing of Harvey Keitel, the original Willard, mere days into production; the erratic availability of helicopters for the Ride of the Valkyries sequence due to the presence of nearby rebels in the Philippines; the reconstruction of sets entirely wiped out by a typhoon; Sheen suffering a heart attack; and, perhaps most frustratingly, having to deal with Marlon Brando as Kurtz.
Coppola gave Brando a $1 million advance to play Kurtz, but then Brando threatened to not show up when the production ran severely behind schedule. Brando eventually did arrive, but was overweight and entirely unprepared for his role even though he was costing the production $1 million a week. Coppola creatively solved the issue of Brando being overweight by only shooting him from the shoulders up and using a double for the wide shots, giving him the more sinister appearance of a giant. As for helping Brando prepare for the role of Kurtz, Coppola initially tried to be patient with him, only to discover that Brando hadn’t even read Heart of Darkness like he requested. Then, as if Coppola weren’t in enough of a bind, Brando decided to shave his head. Finally, since the clock was ticking and Brando was being paid $1 million a week, the director decided it would be easiest to just feed Brando his lines on the fly and have him take a more improvisational approach. The amount of stress Coppola was under during the production of Apocalypse Now was extreme, to say the least, but the organic approach that he had to take during the creative process in order to make ends meet resulted in a truly unique and enigmatic film, to say the least.
After filming wrapped, the film proved to be more malleable still in post-production. The introductory sequence features the very first use of 5.1 surround sound: Coppola found some B-roll of a line of trees being lit up by napalm, with a helicopter flying in and out of frame, and decided to use it as the opening shot of the film; laid over the footage is a synthesized helicopter sound effect that circles the room. Of course, since this was the very first use of surround sound in a feature motion picture, that meant that almost no theaters were equipped to properly showcase the new technology; just 15 theaters were able to screen the 70mm surround sound print. (5.1 surround sound did not become standardized on 35mm prints until the release of Batman Returns in 1992.) A somewhat laughable anecdote that illustrates just how organic the process of making Apocalypse Now truly was: originally, Apocalypse Now was going to be directed by George Lucas, and it was to be filmed documentary-style in 16mm black-and-white in Northern California. Eventually Lucas left the project and directed Star Wars instead.
I think the audience just may have won out on that one — Star Wars and Apocalypse Now, as directed by both Lucas and Coppola, are two of the greatest movies of all time. Unfortunately, however, neither director has made another great movie again. Star Wars was also a troubled production, so much so that it gave Lucas heart problems — he wouldn’t direct either sequel, but would return to direct the much-maligned prequel trilogy. As for Coppola, the experience of making Apocalypse Now unquestionably eroded his sensibilities as a filmmaker, which is too bad. At the Cannes premiere of Apocalypse Now in 1979 though, he was still riding high from the rush of it. Behold the opening interview from the outstanding 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:
My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.
It doesn’t get much more off the wall than that. But even though Apocalypse Now may have depleted the creative juices of one of cinema’s greatest directors, at least we have this film to chew on forever and ever. Without question, this is one of cinema’s most important films, and there may truly be no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how many times we have seen it. I suspect Coppola ran into this predicament himself while he was making it, and if the film leaves the impression of having a reach that exceeds its grasp, perhaps that’s the point. But Apocalypse Now is a film that is just as alive and interesting several viewings in as it is bewildering on the first pass, and it leaves me wanting a little more (in a good way) every single time. It’s a difficult film to analyze due to its deeply cinematic nature and highly interpretative narrative, but after unspooling my thoughts and sorting them out for just over a year, I feel like my journey down the Nung is at last complete. Cue up “The End” by the Doors — it’s time to terminate this essay with extreme prejudice.