BACK-STORY: Oh my God, where to start? No other film on the list comes close to having the problems that this film had. It was originally to be produced by George Lucas, but he went on to make the first “Star Wars”. Francis Ford Coppola of “Godfather” fame inherited the endeavor and the script by John Milius. Milius was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but envisioned the film as more of a standard action film than Coppola ended up with. In fact, Coppola made lots of adjustments to the script to make it closer to the novel and deeper. He also called in John Herr of Dispatches fame to add dialogue and write the narration by Willard (Martin Sheen). The film was filmed in the Philippines. This was partly because the Department of Defense took one look at the script and said not no, but **** no. Ferdinand Marcos agreed to give the support of the Filipino armed forces. Coppola got the helicopters he needed, but sometimes they had to leave a shoot to kill communist guerrillas. It took 238 days of shooting and a total of 16 months from start to finish. The length of time was due to several factors: it was way over budget, a typhoon wreaked havoc, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack, and Coppola was an obsessed perfectionist. It is absolutely amazing that the movie was not a colossal failure.
The movie was a critical success (although it does have its detractors). Coppola did make back his investment (thank goodness) and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes even though he previewed an incomplete version. Actually, it shared the top prize with “The Tin Drum” (I s*** you not!). It won Academy Awards for Cinematography and Sound. It was nominated for Picture (losing to “Kramer vs. Kramer”!!!), Director (Coppola lost to the awesome directing of “Kramer vs. Kramer”!!!) Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall - losing to Melvyn Douglas of “Being There”!!!), Art Direction, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay. The film is ranked #30 on AFIs list of greatest movies.
To prepare this post I watched both "Apocalypse Now" and "Apocalypse Now Redux" (Coppola's cut) and Coppola's wife's outstanding documentary on the production entitled "Hearts of Darkness". I also listened to the director's commentary and read the pertinent chapters in a biography of Coppola. Sounds like a lot of work, but the movie and the story behind it is fascinating.
OPENING: To the sound of the Doors’ “The End”, helicopters swoop by as the jungle erupts with napalm. This transitions to the whirling of a ceiling fan in a seedy Saigon hotel. A special forces operative named Willard is going stir crazy. He gets so drunk he punches a mirror and bleeds all over the bed. (Sheen was actually drunk for this scene and accidentally cut himself – the cameras kept rolling.) Two servicemen roust Willard, he asks “what are the charges?” This is one of the greatest openings in movie history and alone shut up all the carping that had led up to the debut.
SUMMARY: Willard is taken to an air-conditioned trailer where a general gives him the mission of assassinating a rogue Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is in command of his own Montagnard army and is fighting the war successfully on his own terms. He has “murdered” three Vietnamese civilans because he suspected them of being communist operatives (which they undoubtedly were). Hey, you can’t murder in war! The brass have decided he must be “terminated with extreme prejudice”. Willard is given a PBR (riverboat) to go up river into Cambodia to bump off Kurtz. The crew is heterogeneous in the best tradition of war movies. The Chief (Albert Hall) is a no-nonsense skipper. Chef (Frederick Forrest) is a saucier from New Orleans who is just trying to survive. Lance (Sam Bottoms) is a drug-addled surfer dude. Clean (a fourteen year old Larry Fishburne) is a black kid from the Bronx.
|"Don't look at the camera"|
The boat hooks up with the Air Cav to get the boat further up the river. They find the unit in the midst of cleaning up a battle. There is a news crew (helmed by Coppola himself in a Hitchcock nod) filming. “Don’t look at the camera”. They meet the Pattonesque Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who offers his canteen to a wounded VC and then is distracted by the realization that Lance is a famous surfer. Taking the PBR up river will entail taking a very hairy Viet Cong village. Kilgore is reluctant until he finds out the village overlooks a good surfing area. When told it’s “Charlie’s point” he responds that “Charlie don’t surf!”
|Hey Viet Cong, wakee wakee|
|"Some day this production will be over."|
The movie enters odyssey mode at this point. Chef and Willard make the acquaintance of a tiger in lieu of a cyclops. “Never get out of the boat!” Next, it’s a visit with the Sirens in the form of a Playboy show with an audience of honny grunts. (In case you’re interested in doing some “research” that’s Playmate of the Year 1974 Cynthia Wood.) Lance water skis to the Stones’ ”Satisfaction” (the Stones and the Doors – this must be a Vietnam movie). The actors convinced Coppola to throw in a My Lai Massacre scene so the PBR stops a sampan to search it. (This actually makes little sense considering their mission.) A sudden move by a girl results in the slaughter of the whole family (except their puppy, that would be cruel).
They arrive at a bridge marking the border with Cambodia. Lance is tripping on LSD and so is the movie. He and Willard move through Dante’s Inferno searching for the commanding officer. When Willard asks a soldier who the CO is, he responds “ain’t you?” The scene is surrealistic and nightmarish. The bridge marks the boundary between civilization and the primitive, between sanity and madness.
|"Hey boys, want to see what you're fighting for?"|
After the bridge scene, the movie enters its “who will survive?” phase. First to go is Clean who is listening to a cassette tape from his mom (done by Mrs. Fishburne). Next is the Chief who is killed by a spear. A spear. Did I mention primitive?
The surviving trio (the white guys) arrive at Kurtz’s kingdom. The set is an amazing temple with human heads lying around (actual extras buried to their necks). They meet a gonzo journalist (Dennis Hopper) who is a big fan of Kurtz. Willard meets Kurtz in his lair. Kurtz knows why Willard is there. He cages Willard and gives him a little present. Chef will not be cooking in New Orleans after his tour. For some reason, Kurtz does not kill Willard and instead sets him free so he can listen to the intellectual pronouncements of a crazy person. (Brando ad-libbed most of his lines, refusing to follow a script.) Although he’s obviously nuts, perhaps it takes an insane person to win an insane war. At one point he tells with admiration the tale of the Viet Cong hacking off the arms of children that had been inoculated by Americans for smallpox.
|"How do you feel about Cleveland?"|
(obscure "Tootsie" reference)
CLOSING: Willard goes into full assassin mode and sneaks up on the expectant Kurtz. In parallel shots, the Montagnards hack a water buffalo to death in a ritual and so does Willard. (Actually the water buffalo was smaller than Brando.) Before you wonder why they would hack away at the animal (apparently it was typical for the tribe brought in by Coppola), why not wonder what kind of assassin machete hacks their victim? Kurtz’s last words: “the horror, the horror”. (He got that line from looking in a full length mirror.) Willard grabs Lance (who is still tripping on that last tab from several days ago – that’s some long-lasting LSD!) and they are allowed to leave because you know, long live the new king. The temple complex is then bombed, or it isn’t.
|the hot tub in Kurtz's kingdom is great|
Acting = A
Action = 8/10
Accuracy = N/A
Realism = C (before I hear complaints about it not being meant to be
realistic, Coppola claimed it was "not about Vietnam, it was
Plot = B
Cliches = A
Overall = A
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? That’s a tough call. There are no female characters other than the Playboy Playmates and they are very much objectified. It is definitely not your standard war movie so that is an appealing aspect. The violence, while intense, is not overly graphic. The cast is attractive (except Brando – unless your girl is into water buffaloes).
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: “Apocalypse Now” is not meant to be historically accurate. None of the events are based on actual happenings. Some bend over backwards to find historical persons in some of the characters, but that is a waste of time. For instance, the Kilgore character is attributed to several actual soldiers including George Patton, Jr. Hopper's photographer is clearly based on Sean Flynn, Errol's son who became a photojournalist in Vietnam and had a wild persona. More ridiculously, some try to figure out who Kurtz is supposed to be. Hello, there is a Kurtz in the source Hearts of Darkness. It’s not complicated.
As far as realism, the movie is (according to Coppola) supposed to be what Vietnam was really like. Coppola films it as the rock n’ roll, druggie war. (Every ignorant American say “right on, man”.) This is too stereotyped. That’s okay if you want to go over the top with your surrealism, but don’t con us into thinking this was the way the war was. No doubt there was drug use, but not to this extent and seldom on the front lines in a combat situation. It is improbable that a tight-ass like Chief would have allowed his crew to be doing drugs on a suicide mission.
The set pieces are a mixed lot. The helicopter assault is exaggerated, but pretty authentic. It is a fairly accurate rendition of Air Cav tactics and mentality. On the other hand, the bridge scene is pure cinema. There was no equivalent to it in the war.
CRITIQUE: The perfectionism and effort that went into the movie shows. Knowing the back-story of the problems Coppola faced makes the film a remarkable accomplishment. Coppola said the production was “very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane.” The cinematography by the famous Vittorio Storaro won the Oscar. Kudos especially for filming and lighting Brando so we are not distracted by his obesity. (The one full shot of him is of a double.) Sound was also awarded. It is apparent from the opening sound of the helicopter blades that it deserved the accolades. The music score was by Coppola’s father Carmine. It is mostly synthesizer and fits the surrealist mood of the picture perfectly. The music is restrained and does not push emotional buttons. The Philippine location shooting provided some nice scenery. The river and the jungles look like Vietnam. The sets are amazing – the USO stage, the bridge (which was an actual bridge blown up by the Japanese in WWII and rebuilt for the film), the temple. By the way, the temple set was rigged up with $100,000 worth of pyrotechnics for an explosive ending and then Coppola decided not to end the film that way. He still blew it up.
The acting is top notch. Harvey Keitel was the original Willard, but after two weeks Coppola fired him for not being passive enough on camera. Martin Sheen was brought in and was perfect. It’s easy to overlook his narrative readings which added greatly to the film. Much of the voice-over deals with him periodically going over the Kurtz file. He portrays Willard as a weary assassin who is good at his job and aware of its moral ambiguities. His trek is a descent to a lower level of humanity. A journey into the heart of darkness (get it?).
The supporting cast is strong. Duvall shows the range that made him one of our great actors. Keep in mind that his previous Coppola film was as the uncharismatic Tom Hagen of the Corleone Family. His performance is iconic and he dominates his screen time. The PBR crew is solid. However, Fishburne does come off as a rookie actor and Bottoms was only partially acting since he was literally on drugs for most of the shoot. As far as Hopper, the film did revive his career, but you get the impression he is simply playing himself. The elephant in the room (get it?) was Brando. He almost drags the last part of the film down. Coppola does a masterful job getting something better than disaster from him. I felt sorry for Coppola. After surviving a typhoon and his leading man’s heart attack, the worst was yet to come.
The plot is flawed. The first two-thirds of the film is mesmerizing. The odyssey format works well and the flow from exposition to intense action is fine. The movie builds eerily to arrival at the final act. There is suspense and pathos. Unfortunately, Coppola was frustrated by how to end the film. The route he chose may have been the best under the circumstances, but from the arrival at Kurtz’s base the film goes a bit flat and loopy. Kurtz is a major disappointment after spending two hours to get to him. He is not a mad genius. He’s just insane and past his prime. You have to blame part of this on the obstinate and ill-prepared Brando. Throwing in the manic Hopper does not help. The film has drawn most of its criticism for that final part. However, if you research the production, Coppola made good decisions on plotting. His decision to adhere more closely to the novel than Milius intended was wise. Those who find fault with the death of Kurtz should reflect on the fact that originally the film was supposed to close with Kurtz and Willard battling shoulder to shoulder against a Viet Cong attack and then Kurtz was to shoot down an American chopper sent to rescue them. Gag!
The themes of the film include the idea that the insanity of war drives people insane. This fits into the standard anti-war aim of most war movies, but you seldom see this take. Kurtz has clearly gone insane under the pressures of command. However, isn’t Kilgore more insane than Kurtz? Willard is sliding down the slippery slope of sanity the deeper he goes into the wilderness. Another theme is the question of who are the good guys in Vietnam? Who is a better role model? Lt. Gen. Corman (G.D. Spradlin) sitting in his air-conditioned trailer giving out assassination orders against a decorated American hero who has gone off the reservation or Kurtz who has his own private army and effectively kills the bad guys? What about Kilgore?
CONCLUSION: “Apocalypse Now” is one of the great war films. It has so many memorable moments, lines, and scenes. I hate to belabor the point, but tell me something you remember from “Kramer vs. Kramer” (the “Shakespeare in Love” of 1980). Normally I only care about what ends up on the screen, but I have to make an exception for “Apocalypse Now”. It was fascinating reading about the production, listening to Coppola’s commentary track, and watching his wife’s documentary “Hearts of Darkness”. You have to give extra credit for Coppola’s effort. When you know what went into the making of the picture, you can cut him some slack for the final part. There is little doubt in my mind that the film had sustained its momentum to the end, it would have to be considered the greatest war movie ever. As it is, it ends up as a flawed masterpiece.
Ride of the Valkyries
1. There are no credits at the beginning so for legal purposes “Apocalypse Now” is chalked on a wall in the temple complex.
2. The only full shot of Brando (standing in the doorway of the temple) is of a double. A much taller double.
3. Brando was hired for $3 million and insisted on being available for only three weeks, 5 days a week. He almost did not show up and when he did he had lied about being familiar with the book. He spent the first few days gabbing about topics unrelated to the movie with Coppola in his trailer.
4. Brando hated working with Hopper. At one point in the film, he throws something at him and called him a “mutt”. That was improv.
5. Mrs. Coppola had witnessed a water buffalo sacrifice and urged her husband to incorporate it. That is a real animal that is being hacked to death. Coppola refused to do a second take.
6. Sheen was given last rites after his heart attack.
7. Coppola lost 100 pounds during the shoot. Brando didn't.
8. Main scenes that were cut (and restored for “Apocalypse Now Redux”):
- meeting up with the Playmates and exchanging fuel for sex
- the French plantation – the PBR stops at a French plantation in an obvious attempt to bring the odyssey back in time to the 1950s (to show how perfectionism can border on lunacy, Coppola insisted the wines served at the dinner scene be chilled at a specific temperature! And then he didn’t even use the shot.)
9. Milius was a hawk and wanted one theme to be that the U.S. did not put in enough effort to win the war. He was upset that the film ended up being anti-war.
10. The Huey that air-lifted the PBR could not have performed that task.
11. Hopper refused to learn his lines, bathe, or change his clothes.
12. In the 35mm theatrical run, Coppola ran the exploding of the temple behind the credits. In the 70 mm limited release, that footage was not used.