US, 1979, 147 minutes, Colour.
Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Albert Hall, G.D.Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, Colleen Camp.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola's attempt at a definitive statement about the Vietnam war. While he may not have succeeded in making the definitive cinema statement, he has created a cinema masterpiece. The film was several years in production: shooting started in early 1976 and concluded in the middle of 1977. There were many production difficulties including the loss of millions of dollars worth of equipment because of weather in the Philippines. The work on editing the material and putting it into presentable and commercial form took until the beginning on 1979. The film won the award for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival, 1979 although it was presented as a work in progress. The film achieved general release during 1979 and was acclaimed.
The scope of the work is vast. Coppola, who had experience in the '70s of succeeding with the two Godfather films as well as the film about surveillance, The Conversation, handles the scope of the war very well indeed. However, he used Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness as the basic framework for the plot. He himself said that when there were difficulties in filming he went back to this novel. The basic outline of the journey along the river into more remote vastnesses to find Kurtz is transferred to Vietnam and Cambodia very well. Martin Sheen in an admirable performance sustaining the film is the searcher for Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando - fat, with shaven head, mad - who appears only in the last part of the film.
However, the momentum of the film is towards him. The actual war is presented vividly especially in two sequences - a helicopter attack and a night encounter. The issues of the war and its madness are very much to the fore. Political background, however, is not included. The journey into madness and the darkness of the human heart are the centre. Robert Duval gives an excellent supporting performance as a gung-ho commander. There is a strong supporting cast. However, the technical credits are most impressive. Photography by Vittorio Storaro (the cinematographer for Bertolucci's Last Tango and 1900). The scope and sweep of scenery and location photography and battle is matched with the intensity of the close-ups and the isolation of individuals. There is a striking score by Carmine Coppola, the director's father, who was responsible for music for the Godfather films with Nino Rota. Apocalypse Now is a significant film of any decade but is a cinematic vision of a key period and an understanding of American involvement in the East in the late '60s and '70s.
APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX
Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War drama, Apocalypse Now, was a masterpiece of cinema art. It is certainly in my top 100 films. Coppola had taken Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness, about an expedition up river in the Congo to find Kurz, who had disappeared into the jungle and into his own megalomaniac solitude and adapted it to explore the American involvement in Vietnam. He was taking events which were barely ten years past at the time of filming. He wanted to bring to the screen an insight into America's heart of darkness.
The story of the making of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines in the later 1970s has become an epic in itself. Coppola had too much money to spend and was extravagant in the detail as well as the sweep of the sets. He sacked his star Harvey Keitel and replaced him with Martin Sheen who suffered a heart attack while filming. The Philippines experienced one of the worst monsoon seasons on record with storms destroying sets and delaying action. Yet, as with the production of so many works of art, out of this chaos came a moving and insightful look at war and what it does to individuals and peoples. Coppola, who had directed three masterpieces during the 70s, The Godfather, Godfather II and The Conversation, now showed a visual skill that makes Apocalypse Now still quite breathtaking in its scope.
But Coppola likes to edit and re-edit. For television, he took his Godfather films and footage that was left over and edited them into a saga that took audiences through the events of the films in a chronological order. In recent years, he has been re-editing Apocalypse Now, doing a digital master copy and toying with re-inserting sequences omitted from the 1979 release. In fact, he has put fifty three minutes of unseen material back into the film and called it Apocalypse Now Redux. The principal reinserted material concerns Captain Willard and his crew crossing the border into Cambodia and encountering a French family who declare their right to be there as part of their heritage and resent defeat by the Vietnamese.
This gives the film a bit more political resonance. Coppola was not to know, but the re-release of the film outside the US after September 11th will make its audiences think much more deeply about the war on terrorism. I saw this version in October in Los Angeles during a film and spirituality festival whose theme was 'Touches of Evil'. It was just three weeks after the bombing raids began on Afghanistan. UK audiences are to see it in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. Apocalypse Now Redux has become extraordinarily topical.
Another reinserted sequence throws light on Marlon Brando's Kurz. He has opted out of the military system, created his own empire of death in the jungle and has a death wish. Now, Brando reads an article out of Time Magazine to Martin Sheen, asking the audience to take time out from the action, to listen to the implications of American foreign policy in Asia.
The new version has more content than the original, but the cinematic power of the orginal is still there. One has only to see again the helicopters sweeping in to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and hear Robert Duvall declaiming about the smell of napalm in the morning to now that this is a classic film.
1. The overall and total impact of the film? Its quality of production, content? Awards, acclaim? The criticism that it was pretentious, a folly?
2. The work of Coppola and his career? The film as a culmination of his early work and of his films of the '70s? His skill as a writer (Is Paris Burning, Patton - for which he won an Oscar?), the production difficulties, the risk? His overall vision and capacity to transfer it to cinema? The collaboration with John Milius (and his writing and directing of mythic films of the '70s)?
3. The use of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness for plot, the mythic element of the journey and the quest, the sense of mission, the establishing of the characters and their characteristics, setting and meaning? The attention to detail and the images from Conrad's book? T.S. Eliot and his quoting of Heart of Darkness for The Hollow Men and Kurtz's quotation of it, quotations from Eliot and having in the Cambodian jungle the anthropological books quoted by Eliot in the wasteland?
4. The impact of war, of the Vietnam war and its specific problems? The audience immersed in the experience of war as well as observing it? Vietnam and the jungle, the river, the styles of warfare in the '70s? The people involved ~ officers, authority figures, the ordinary soldier? Orders and the execution of these? The pros and cons of the people involved in the war? An American war, and American war for the Americans in South- East Asia, for the Vietnamese and Cambodians?
5. The impact of the film for an American audience, what explanations of the war, responsibilities, guilt? An American audience experiencing some catharsis via this visual involvement? For nations involved in wars in South- East Asia? For audiences from countries not involved? The hindsight about the war? Its impact in 1979 and later?
6. The technical contribution to the film: the use of Technovision, the skill of the presentation of the images, the large-scale visual scope, the intimate presentation of characters, the scope of international war and the isolation of individuals? Colour photography and its beauty and ugliness? Light and dark, shadow? The contribution of the score - its atmospheric tone? The song at the opening and the end? The use of Wagner? The various songs? The editing devices? The camera movement e.g. aerial photography, the intimate battle sequences?
7. The strength of the plot - the basis in Joseph Conrad? The reality and unreality as explored in the Vietnam context? The move into the heart of darkness of human nature in war? The focus on Willard, audiences identifying with him and understanding him, his attitude towards the war? Moving with him through various changes of attitude? Audience response to his mission, the urgency of the mission and the goal of reaching Kurz? The device of the journey along the river, the journey beyond boundaries? The introduction to the crew and the sub-plots with them, the sub-plots on the various attacks, the narrowing down of the plot to the voyage on the boat, the clash at the border? The continual movement towards Kurz (and audience hearing the voice of.. and seeing photos of Marlon Brando), the culmination in the final half hour at Kurz's headquarters?
8. The importance of Kurz as goal: the voice, the gradual filling in of his story, seeing pictures, the discussion of his military record? Marlon Brando's presence and his power to draw audience interest in him and his character? Willard's goal to eliminate Kurz?
9. The significance of the title - the tones of apocalypse, the end of the world, the end of the millennium etc.? The relationship to the Book of Revelation and the biblical tones? The eschatological meaning? The bringing of the end of the world into the presence in war? Apocalypse and the Vietnam war. any war? American power and its potential to destroy the world and bring it to an end in conflagration? The universal significance of the title? Images of fire, avenging angels., plagues? Death and apocalypse? The focus on Christ and the saving tones of apocalypse, Kurz as anti-Christ? The millennium and the blind and fanatic following of Kurz and the religious sect? His mystique and power? Kurz's ideas of ruthless perfection? The title as the motto at Kurz's headquarters? The phases of apocalypse: the nations, individuals, Kurz?
10. The film's insight into war: horror and the final words of Conrad in Brando's mouth, the madness of war and the varieties of this, the rights and wrongs in relationship to madness. evil, strategies? How well did the film involve audience in evil and madness and help it to understand them? The initial officers and their commission to Willard and their madness and evil. the evil of rules. conventions. codes. secrecy? The ordinary soldiers in relation to this, their isolation, their coping.. inability to cope - especially the Americans and their longing for home, lack of morale, use of drugs etc.? War and suspicions and fear? Madness of war and memories of the ordinary world, the transistor and its bringing news and music and tapes from how? Those involved in war and its madness compensating with power.. games, drugs, drink, sex, personal clashes, violence? Questions of tension and how much can be taken? The people involved in the war making it their own., the involvement in others? The need for finishing a war? Ruthlessness in bringing the war to conclusion - Kurz's ultimate evil and madness? Willard and his observation of the madness? His becoming identified with it, the final confrontation and decision?
11. The film's portrayal of madness: a mad world, national madness, individual madness, Willard's oddness in the opening sequence, the madness of the ordinary soldier, the madness of the American involvement in South-East? Asia? How did these compare with Kurz? Which madness is worse? The comparisons of the various experiences of madness?
12. The film's portrayal of evil: man as good, the focus on the human heart and yet a heart of darkness, the basic human values, their challenge, difficulty? Presuppositions about good and evil? The dark side of the heart and Kurz as the extreme? Willard and seeing the possibilities of Kurz's approach to madness and the war, the possibility of succumbing, the revulsion? What basically is the evil of war, what the suffering? The obvious catastrophes and the cruelty and meaninglessness of the war? How does this compare with pride and the perfection of evil?
13. The portrayal of violence: the aggressiveness of the war, defensiveness? How much right violence? How much wrong violence? Physical, mental, moral? Torture, invasions, killing, accidents? The role of injury and torture, blood? American aggression, Vietnamese aggression? The violence of the aerial attack, of the night at the bridge? Kurz's violence - the subjugation of the people, his torture of Willard, the death of the sailor and his beheading? Audience identification with the violence, revulsion?
14. The impact of the prologue - images of fire and apocalypse? The focus on Willard - as a man, soldier, American? The explanation of his civilian life -photos, letters, his discontent and inability to readjust? His need for being involved in Vietnam? His personal discontent and disorientation - how was this illustrated by his look, behaviour, moods, martial arts training, drinking, violence, smashing mirror? The background of his career - intelligence, killing, assassinations, secrecy, orders? The foreboding of his waiting, the experience of isolation? The technical devices to illustrate these moods, the visualising by superimpositions, photographing his face upside down etc.? His fantasies, songs? The blood on his face? Man within this kind of world - apocalyptic man? His readiness then when the soldiers came to get him to commission him? Audience identification with him, puzzle, revulsion? Readiness to go on his voyage to the heart of darkness?
15. The character of Willard: the ordinary soldier, a significant career? The American officer and his training, background, involvement in Vietnam? His feeling alienated when at home in the United States? Restlessness in Saigon? The importance of the commentary and its in formation, irony? Its influence on audience response? Willard and his alienation from family? His crisis at the opening of the film? The apocalyptic imagery associated with this? Upside down, fire? Martial arts? Blood? The crisis and his drinking? Hope and confusion? His being a military assassin? Strengths and weaknesses? The soldiers taking him to the interview? The officers and their gentlemanly giving of his mission? The meal? His orders? Information about Kurz and his gradually getting ready from confrontation? The motives for going? His need for action? Patriotism and loyalty? The many sequences of his studying Kurz throughout the boat trip? His life on the boat and his reaction to each of the crew? His puzzle over the ordinary soldier's presence in Vietnam? His experiences - the helicopter, Kilgore and Wagner? The massacre in the village? Continually moving up river? The depot and the black marketing, his demands for supply? His presence at the playgirl entertainment? The arrival at the border and the confusion? The hellish imagery? His receiving more information as he went beyond the border? Studying Kurz, his predecessor, identifying with Kurz and being alienated? The boat and his relentless living of orders, not letting anything impede his progress, the shooting? The atmosphere of his arrival, wariness, the experience of the natives, the suffering? The photographer and his raving enthusiasm? Willard at the mercy of Kurz? Imprisonment, torture? The death of Chef? The discussions with Kurz? The articulation of the apocalyptic themes? Trying to understand Kurz's behaviour and its motivation? Kurz allowing himself to be executed? The parallel with the ritual? Willard emerging from the water as another Kurz to ritually execute him? The final decisions and his taking Lance with him? Radio communication? The response of the natives in their ritual? The option for Willard to be a new Kurz or to go back to "civilisation"? The options of madness and possibilities for a sane future?
16. Kurz as the goal of the mission? The information given about him, tapes, press clippings? The star American officer to the Heart of Darkness? The journey of Kurz from success to madness? The plausibility of this trip in a war-torn apocalyptic world? Kurz and his playing God? The visual impact of baldness, size, shadow? Marlon Brando's impact, words, mutterings, quotations? His library of classics and recitation of The Hollow Men? Overtones of the wasteland? The response of Colby and loyalty to Kurz? The journalist and his enthusiasm? Chef's beheading? Kurz allowing himself finally to be executed? No place for him in the American world? His isolation and being almost already dead? Puzzles of motivation? His comments on the horror of it all? A human being tempted to emulate God - Genesis analogies for the knowledge of good and evil and being like good? Kurz being sacrificed and symbolically imaged by the ritual holocaust?
17. Kilgore and his cavalry style, jingoism, macho mentality, American officer, fighting past wars in the present, relationship with his men? Surfing as symbol of the macho image? His strategy. the smell of napalm and victory? His attitude towards the Vietnamese? The helicopters, Wagner, the attack, the landing and encampment, making his men surf? His attitude towards the body count? A telling symbol of American self-appointed presence in Vietnam?
18. The portrait of the crew: Chef and his memories of New Orleans, the gentle type. his talk. sensitivity. the encounter with the tiger, his presence on the mission? His support of Willard? The horror of his death? Lance as the young man and background of surfing, drugs, only a boy? The easy presence. the growing involvement? His being in the Heart of Darkness, being painted and participating in the savagery, the possibility of his being lost? His sharing the escape with Willard? Clean and Chief? Blacks on the mission? Chief and his control? Feelings of disorientation but following orders? Surviving? The incongruity of their presence in Vietnam? Clean and the ironic playing of the tape at his death? Chief and the visual impact of his death? Its feel? Its significance and his resentment? Their presence on the river, going further into remote places, the experience of the border, the boat and the shooting of the woman, the dog? Images of the dislocation of the Americans in Vietnam?
19. The officers at headquarters - their plans, playing God, the criteria and standards for their judgments about Kurz, the briefing and the casual atmosphere of the meal? Colby and his being converted by Kurz's experience?
20. The photographer - his incongruous presence in the Heart of Darkness, his vocal style. taking photos? Sharing in Kurz's madness? A mouthpiece for Kurz? His acting as if stoned? His still being a photographer in such a situation? The incongruity of his presence and discipleship?
21. The Americans and their immersion in Vietnam - American traditions: rock 'n roll, surfing etc. and the young American soldiers? Religious services e.g. the mass? Their attitude towards the Vietnamese - Gooks? Their being lost in another world and in the jungle? The culmination in the flamboyant show and the helicoptering in of the Playmates of the Year? R & R in the jungle? The theme of frustrated sexuality., phallic symbols? The militia being four-star clowns?
22. The cinematic impact of the attack on the village? The layout of the village and its ordinary way of life, precarious peace? The sounds of the helicopters and the B52s? The playing of Wagner? The waves and Wagner's melodies? Swooping on the village? "Death from above"? The villager's fleeing for safety. death? The sabotage of the helicopters? The mopping up operations - Kilgore camping, talking, his Confederate hat? What kind of war? The atmosphere of night at the border? The bridge and its defence, its being destroyed? Madness, fear, not knowing who was in command, images of hell? "The ass-hole of the world"?
23. The emphasis on the jungle, Americans not knowing the jungle, the sudden fright with the tiger? The huge supermarket style depot in the middle of the jungle, its lights? Black market? References to Charles Manson.. Disneyland? Limbo and hell?
24. Going into Cambodia and its being illegal? Standards, morality? The world of the boat and Willard shooting the woman in order not to impede progress?
25. The village and Kurz's headquarters: images of hell. primitive religion, heads on pikes. the spears and arrows, dancing and paint? Religion, ritual and games? A sour Shangri-La? Later images of Jonestown?
26. The nature of heroism? Criteria and expectations for heroism? Whose madness was worst?
27. The eschatological imagery: references to Eliot's world ending with bangs or whimpers? The men painted and covered in mud? Chef's decapitated head? Themes of love and hate, friend or enemy, the rules of the game, horror’s face? Primordial imagery, passion and absence of passion, prophets and avenging angels?
28. The build-up of frenzy, sounds, music, visuals, ritual images, motion, death and extermination?
29. Coppola's decision about the ending? The possibility of Willard becoming another Kurz and continuing his reign? or the reminders of records, files, typewriters, radio communication and escape back to the world of "normality"? Coppola's ending for moving back to humanity?
30. The achievement of the film: as cinema, representing America in the '70s, a comment on the Vietnam war and its effect in Asia and the United States? Its bringing the films on Vietnam to an end?