Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #44
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Joseph Conrad (novel), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay), John Milius (screenplay), Michael Herr (narration)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Scott Glenn

Unlike the bulk of war films, Apocalypse Now (1979) is not really about war, or, at least, it is only superficially so. The more significant conclusion to be drawn from Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious masterpiece is how the horror of war reveals the ultimate truths of our existence; how it exposes and illuminates the darkened shadows of the human psyche. The story was adapted, very loosely, from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness (1899)" – a novel not without its interest, but one that I found rather tiresome reading. Coppola transplants the story from the Congo jungle to the murky depths of the Vietnam War, which in 1979 still left a bitter taste in the mouths of American audiences. The allegory of a man, on the brink of madness, choosing again and again to pursue his own evil upriver is equally relevant in any setting – Nicholas Roeg's Heart of Darkness (1994) was, from what I gather, a more traditional retelling of Conrad's tale, while Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) uncovered the darker side of Man in the desolate heart of 16th century Peru.

"We had access to too much money… too much equipment. And, little by little, we went insane." Fresh from the phenomenal success of The Godfather (1972), its sequel and The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola was among the most respected filmmakers of his era. For his long-awaited next project, he decided upon Apocalypse Now, then oblivious to the extent to which the film would crush his spirit. As grippingly documented in the unmissable making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), the film's production parallels that of the story it depicts – an intrepid director embarks on an impossible mission, its conclusion unknown, choosing against his better judgement to continue filming at any cost, risking insanity and financial ruin. A modest on-location shooting period soon ballooned into nearly 16 months; typhoons destroyed expensive sets; leading man Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and battled alcoholism; the Philippine military frequently whisked away their helicopters to be used in active combat against rebel insurgents. It was Hell broken loose – for Coppola, the apocalypse had arrived.

The film's screenplay, by Coppola and John Milius (with Willard's voiceover penned by Michael Herr), still retains many of the themes of Conrad's original novel, with Kurtz's distaste for British Colonialism replaced with his disgust at the needless hypocrisy of the United States' interventionism. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) certainly isn't a typical war hero; even at the film's beginning, he sits at the verge of breakdown. As he lounges in a sweaty Saigon motel room, Willard contemplates the seductive stench of a napalm strike, equates the beating of the ceiling fan with the muffled whirr of a military chopper; he craves the horrors of the jungle combat, and he's not alone. Many lesser war films are content to settle on the age-old cliché that "war is hell," before hypocritically celebrating the overblown heroism of its brave soldiers. Coppola here does no such thing. In Vietnam, soldiers are mere pawns in this absurd, sadistic mockery of life and common sense; and war creates no heroes, but turns us all into monsters.

Note the progressive dwindling of humanity as Willard works his way upriver. At the river's mouth, the laid-back Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) casually goes about his duties, launching an explosive aerial assault on a Vietnamese village (to the bombastic notes of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries") purely because of the beach's ideal surfing conditions. This nonchalant fool retains enough compassion to bring water to a dying enemy soldier, but discards the canteen as soon as he notices the arrival of a famous American surfer. We progress upstream: a love-sick mob of recruits overrun a USO show, a boatload of Vietnamese civilians are gunned down in a moment of panic, a final American outpost – constantly under siege by the Viet Cong – operates without any form of command. By the time they reach Colonel Kurtz's (Marlon Brando) outpost in Cambodia, where natives have idolised him as a demi-god, Captain Willard and his remaining crew have shed every last sliver of humour, purpose and humanity. They progress, as in a drug-induced haze, towards the now-inescapable mouth of madness.

Watching Apocalypse Now – particularly in the cinema, as I recently did – was an extraordinarily invigorating experience, and I left the theatre with a cold chill down my spine. As a work of film-making, it is, to quote Colonel Kurtz, "perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure." Vittorio Storaro's on-location cinematography is completely breathtaking in its scope and immediacy, shifting gradually from the open-air theatrics of Kilgore's morning aerial assault to the closed, claustrophobic shadows of Kurtz's compound. At the long-awaited premiere, Coppola described his film, perhaps a tad pretentiously, as "not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam; it's what it was really like." I'm inclined to agree. With respect to Steven Spielberg's accomplishments in Saving Private Ryan (1998), I'd imagine that the human experience of war is not one of terrifying realism and clarity, but of a dream, the sensation of stumbling through a surreal carnival house of horrors. In the final moments, as that shadow of a helicopter flitters across the screen, we know that, wherever he goes from here, Willard will never truly leave the jungle.

Currently my #1 film of 1979:
1) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales} (Yuriy Norshteyn)
3) Alien (Ridley Scott)
4) Being There (Hal Ashby)
5) Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
6) Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)
7) The China Syndrome (James Bridges)
8) Manhattan (Woody Allen)
9) Mad Max (George Miller)
10) Rocky II (Sylvester Stallone)

What others have said:

"What's great in the film, and what will make it live for many years and speak to many audiences, is what Coppola achieves on the levels Truffaut was discussing: the moments of agony and joy in making cinema. Some of those moments come at the same time; remember again the helicopter assault and its unsettling juxtaposition of horror and exhilaration. Remember the weird beauty of the massed helicopters lifting over the trees in the long shot, and the insane power of Wagner's music, played loudly during the attack, and you feel what Coppola was getting at: Those moments as common in life as art, when the whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance."

"Some recent commentators have attacked Herr's narration for its literary posturing, but his rhetoric isn't any more overheated than the superb cinematography by Vittorio Storaro or Murch's druggy audio effects. Those effects, like the ones in Coppola's earlier film, The Conversation (1974), probably qualify Murch as a coauteur; what he does in the opening sequence -- getting us from helicopter blades to the blades in a ceiling fan -- is as ravishing as any of the lap dissolves. Literary or not, Herr's hyperbolic prose... may be the best writing we have about American combat in Vietnam."

"Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era update of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is an hallucinogenic trip into the jungles of the Far East. It is also occasionally flaccid, incomprehensible and obtuse. Yet, it manages to overcome these flaws to stand as a fascinating study of the nature of evil in man. Unfortunately, the journey is more interesting than the destination. Even a drug addled, frenzied Dennis Hopper cannot lift the scenes at Kurtz’ camp to the level of the rest of the film. Brando seems sedated, rather than morally bankrupt and weary. Why would anyone worship him as a god?"


That Film Girl said...

I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time not that long ago and I was blown away. As far as direction goes, it is absolutely beautiful (ironically). I would love to see it on the big screen.

ackatsis said...

Cool - I have a new subscriber!

We have no disagreement as far as "Apocalypse Now" is concerned. This is definitely my favourite Coppola film I've seen to date, and that includes "The Godfather," "The Godfather Part II," "The Conversation"... and "Jack." :-|

tosser said...

I could do with a rewatch, but if I'm feeling like a war movie, I'd rather rewatch Full Metal Jacket, and if I felt like a 'nature'[ish] movie, I'd rather rewatch Aguirre. Like All About Eve, not a bad movie, just not tone that matches my sensibilities.

The Conversation is easily my favorite Coppola.