By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we love the smell of napalm in the morning.
THE FILM: Apocalypse Now
THE TIME: Fittingly, 1979. Apocalypse Now in a lot of ways represented the end of the dark, complicated films that were so prevalent in the ’70s, such as Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like those films, Coppola’s movie was influenced by Vietnam, a wave of national tragedies, and good ol’ American malaise.
RECOLLECTIONS: “Saigon… shit”, “Charlie don’t surf!”, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, “Are my methods unsound?” Few films are as familiar and quotable as Apocalypse Now, even if many people haven’t actually sat down and watched the movie. The images of Willard rising up from the water to kill Kurtz or forests cleared by waves of fire set to The Doors’ “The End” have endured in pop culture. The film has been parodied again and again. (For the record: no parody has beat Eek the Cat.)
There isn’t even just a single version of the film to watch. Does the viewer watch the Theatrical Cut? Sure, the pacing is better and it clocks in at a reasonable 2.5 hours, but most fans prefer the Redux. At nearly 3.5 hours, this cut included scenes like the French Plantation, which essentially halted the film to a complete stop, but this 15-minute scene around a dinner table did more to disillusion the main characters than all the violence that preceded it. But if a viewer really wanted to meditate on the war’s impact on the American psyche, they could grab a bootleg of the five-hour Workprint version. (Don’t actually bootleg movies, people. — Ed.)
Like its spiritual cousin, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now remains a classic after nearly 40 years because it’s entirely unlike any of the forgettable American war films that have hit the cinema in the last 60 years. In Coppola’s unforgiving vision, no one in the film was a saint. There were no heroes to laud and look up to. In fact, the line between heroes and villains remained blurred until its bloody climax, when Willard finished his task and left the temple to the bowing of Kurtz’s people. At that moment, both Willard and the audience share the same thought: What’s the point of all this? Which, despite the satire and grandiose moments found in the third act, is what makes Apocalypse Now one of the more powerful, and possibly one of the most honest, films ever made about the Vietnam War.
THE DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola already sealed his place as one of the greats earlier in the decade with The Godfather Parts I & II and The Conversation. Apocalypse Now was bigger, darker, and more ambitious than anything he ever tried before and it damn near killed him.
Coppola had suffered a nervous breakdown, a seizure, and he considered suicide multiple times as his actors quit (or had heart attacks), typhoons destroyed his sets, or his extras (actual Filipino soldiers in many cases) suddenly split to go fight rebels elsewhere. His wife Eleanor Coppola documented all the madness and for those interested, the material was eventually used in the 1991 documentary, Heart of Darkness.
THE CAST: Martin Sheen starred as Willard, the protagonist sent to destroy Marlon Brando’s maniacal soldier-turned-cult leader Colonel Kurtz. The opening scene where Martin Sheen’s character has a breakdown in his hotel room and cuts open his hand? Authentic. (Also authentic? The water buffalo sacrifice — er, don’t Google that.) Laurence Fishburne lied about his age to secure the part of Mr. Clean at just 14 years old. Dennis Hopper took on the role as Kurtz’s journalistic apostle, and Robert Duvall stole the entire film with just a few minutes as the surf-obsessed Lt. Colonel Kilgore.
But Marlon Brando, showing up on set vastly more overweight than what the filmmakers were expecting, demanding to be shot in darkness, and insisting that he be allowed to improvise his lines, delivered an unsettling and surprisingly restrained performance as a professional soldier and family man, one who peered into the abyss and then decided to set up shop deep within a Cambodian temple.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Nostalgia-Fest. This is an unrelentingly dark, sometimes satirical, look at a long and harrowing war. Making the film pushed the filmmakers and actors to the brink, but gave us a movie that has been hailed as a masterwork since debuting at Cannes back in 1979.
RETROGRADE: 7 out of 10