For those who have yet to experience the mind-altering mad genius of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war pic Apocalypse Now, I figured I’d draft a few notes to hopefully convince the uninitiated to undertake the assignment.
Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novella about colonial conquest in the Congo, Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s film essentially plays out two connected narratives involving a burned-out assassin’s search for a deranged colonel. It seems Colonel Kurtz has gone mad with power out in the jungles of Vietnam and threatens to make more than a few people look very bad indeed if his mental collapse should become known, not to mention what it could do for morale. The first plot then, the premise which initiates the film and the crux of the narrative, is Captain Willard’s mission to assassinate the colonel; the other, abstract and necessarily cerebral, becomes the assassin’s search to understand what drove the colonel mad. A road movie, or rather, a river movie; necessarily episodic yet integrally linked by some hefty and subdued excursions into the nature of the Vietnam conflict and, more impressively, the fundamental human nature that gets us involved in these conflicts in the first place. Most impressive of all, Coppola sinks the hook into our brains in the very first heavily charged shot, that infamous napalm explosion (not-so subtly mocked in the opening to Tropic Thunder) set to Jim Morrison’s near catatonic hum of “The End”, and doesn’t let go.
The ensuing journey upriver which becomes the bulk of the film’s lengthy runtime functions not simply as a necessary extension of the first plot but as a terrifying exploration of the human condition for the secondary plot. By the time our intrepid and stalwart captain arrives at the bloody shores of Kurtz compound we sympathize with his assertion that he knows a thing or two about Kurtz that the army dossier doesn’t provide. The point of the preceding two and half hours, in which blood and bullets are spent, lives are destroyed and characters scrape the depths of humanity’s worst nightmares isn’t to excuse Kurtz’ actions, but to explore the very heart of darkness that animates this film. So when near the end of the film our captain flips through Kurtz’ final report and sees that handwritten note, “Drop the bomb, exterminate them all!” (an echo, and a slight reprieve, from the line “Exterminate all the Brutes” written by the equally deranged and perhaps all the more ‘enlightened’ Kurtz of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness), we understand, based on all the horrors that we’ve witnessed, that Kurtz isn’t referring exclusively to the Viet Cong with that disturbing epitaph.
Scenes often fade one to the next, and often around symbolic images that serve as clues to the proceedings, the events complemented by an equally hypnotic and groundbreaking electronic score by Francis and his father Carmine (with some of the best hits of the late sixties for good measure).
The famous Ride of the Valkyries scene remains a virtuoso masterpiece of direction and editing, with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and his coterie of helicopters firebombing a village at the Mekong Delta to get in some good surfing (because “Charlie don’t surf”) likely to go unrivaled in scope and complexity given that it’s all captured in camera, no digital trickery required. If for no other reason than to have your jaw drop, watch this scene, then consider the meanings imbedded in Coppola’s little meta-moment in which he can be seen on-screen as a documentary filmmaker, urging Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard not to look at the camera and keep moving, almost like a fearless general urging his troops on. There’s probably a little something to that, since Coppola leased the fleet of helicopters and tanks from the Philippine army (which meant that on more than one occasion a few of his helicopters were recalled mid-flight to go combat some heavily armed guerrillas about 10 miles away). For this one scene alone multiple cameras collected over 100,000 feet of film (for perspective, that’s more than some films shoot for their entire production). Only a small percent was used to capture the very real insanity of the production—one which ultimately went fourteen and a half months over schedule and cost millions more than originally budgeted. Despite this, Coppola succeeds where any lesser director would have drowned under the deluge of footage (something approaching 230 hours, which Coppola and his team of editors spent years refining into a feature length) and crafts something that is both achingly beautiful and depressingly brutal.
After you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor, check out Robert Duvall’s unforgettable performance as Kilgore (not that you could actually miss it or forget it anyway). “Well, he wasn’t a bad officer, I guess,” Captain Willard says about him at one point, “He loved his boys, and he felt safe with ’em. He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here.” With less than 11 minutes of screentime, Duvall accomplishes the unenviable feat of convincing us of that opinion and demonstrating much more depth and nuance than a blunt instrument like Kilgore has any right to possess.
As the film progresses the scenes becomes increasingly chaotic. Willard’s journey deeper into this heart of darkness, which is at times both literal and figurative, strips the fragile vestiges of colonial power away, before the film abandons its logic to a chaotic vision of humanity, where drug hits trade between soldiers like bullets, and the boat journey increasingly comes to echo Hemingway’s line about a moveable feast.
Whether Coppola and co craft a climax worthy of the preceding two acts remains one of the animating discussions of fans and detractors alike. In truth, though, what ending could sufficiently conclude a film like this? If you stick around to watch the equally fascinating documentary Hearts of Darkness (directed by Francis’ wife Eleanor), you’ll see Francis’ infamous threat to commit suicide if he doesn’t get the ending to work. Perhaps surprisingly, the line comes off more as a statement than it does a recalcitrant threat. For what it’s worth then all these years on, Mr. Coppola, I will say that Brando’s overweight (notice how we rarely ever see him in anything but utter dark) and unhinged portrayal of a T.S. Eliot-spewing despot still unnerves, and Coppola’s allusive though perhaps stultifying finale still provokes relevant discussion about the nature of war and barbarity. The real joy of the film is that it resists definitive analysis and rewards successive viewings, while also offering a compelling and thoroughly engaging narrative. In short, it doesn’t matter so much if you care about the issues surrounding the film’s narrative and its production, you’ll still get one hell of a ride, but for anyone brave and bold enough the film provides an engaging hub for further investigation into countless other topics.
And for all you would be directors out there, the film remains the ideal case study for catharsis: Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking and colour-flooded cinematography bleeds crazy and invites everyone to let the often disorienting compositions overtake them. Thankfully, remaining true to the spirit of catharsis, Coppola contains the horror in a looping end that returns the narrative back to the start of the movie, with those helicopters clocking over a fiery stretch of jungle, the only thing missing is The Doors hypnotic and highly allusive track “The End”—though that repetition from the start of the film might have been just a tad on the nose here, at the end. Notice too the dissolve between Captain Willard’s crazed eye and the monolithic stare of the ancient stone statue, an echo of the opening montage when they were presented side-by-side. Is this an apotheotic moment for Willard’s character? (Is that a Buddha statue I’m seeing or am I just grasping here?) Is Coppola suggesting the cycle of violence is now complete, or is it primed and ready to begin again? Even if we’ll never truly grasp the full meaning (maybe it’s all a drug induced fever-dream Willard is experiencing in his dilapidated Saigon hotel room), the insanity remains trapped on the screen by the bookends. It remains, mercifully, merely a taste of madness, safely contained on the screen, that the audience is invited to sample. Be sure that you do.
Final note on the version to watch:
There are two official versions of the film, the original theatrical cut, and the 2001 Redux version. Though each has an equal share of supporters who contend theirs is the ideal version to watch, either is effective. I prefer the hypnotic pace of the longer cut, which includes a lengthy excursion on a French plantation that, depending on your mood and your care for international historical politics, will either delight or bore to tears. Though it does break the flow of the descent into hell that the original version so impeccably crafts, and though the main gist of the scene covers similar ground to Kurtz’s own ideological musings provided through Captain Willard’s narration earlier and by Kurtz himself later in the film, I appreciated both the impeccable cinematography and set design as well as its febrile style—ending as it does with a few tokes of opium before Willard seems to awake in the broiling fog, and back on the river, as if the brief reprieve from the madness were all a waking dream. Tell you what, watch both and let me know which version you prefer.