“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
I have many ideas and thoughts about Apocalypse Now. Based off Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness, it is considered to be one of the best films of the twentieth century and one of the best Vietnam War movies ever made. I can generally agree with that assessment, but this movie is overly complicated sometimes. The movie has much to say on character and Darwinism. This movie follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as he is tasked to travel downriver from Vietnam to Cambodia to assassinate a former American colonel, Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). But when Willard arrives to meet the Colonel, he realizes all is not what it really is. Kurtz has sided with the North Vietnamese for reasons of Darwinism and staying alive. He confesses how much stronger the Vietcong were than the Americans. They would go to any length to win the war and that is what gave them strength according to Kurtz. Kurtz was once one of the greatest soldiers in the American army and now after the reality of the war set in, he is taken over by madness and despair. This entire movie is about the journey Willard takes to understand what exactly Kurtz has gone through over the course of the war because Willard is going through the same ordeal.
This movie shows both the joy and angst of filmmaking as director Francis Ford Coppola will say. This movie was a very hard shoot as it took over four years to film. (Actor Laurence Fishburne was 14 when he began shooting, and 18 when it ended and Harrison Ford filmed his part before Star Wars made him famous…..and that was two years before this movie’s release). The movie was full of complications ranging from sickness (Martin Sheen had a heart attack on set) to actors being very hard to work with (Brando being Brando). But in the end, this was Coppola’s baby. Sure, he had The Godfather films but this is his heart and soul. With all the trouble this film had, it is remarkable how great this film is. Coppola really makes clear what he thought about the war itself and how hard it damaged the human psyche. He underlines the hell these humans have gone through over the course of this journey.
One of the best supporting characters is Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (he said the opening quote of this review). His performance actually earned him an Academy Award nomination rightfully so. Talking about insanity, this man only cares about surfing and beaches. He only agrees to help Willard take a beach because that beach had great waves. Plus in the Redux version (which this review is from), Kilgore uses helicopters to chase down Willard on the river because of accusations that they stole their surfboards. He also uses his choppers as he plays Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as he swoops down over young schoolchildren. It’s a little over-the-top, but I guess that fits the insanity part very well. Another fun supporting character is Dennis Hopper’s role as a photojournalist for Kurtz. He is supposed to be the funnyman and he incites poetry which he clearly heard from Kurtz himself.
There is one thing that this film wouldn’t work without and that is the opening song. “The End” from The Doors is an iconic tune and it has a significance in the film. I can’t imagine the opening sequence of the treeline being blown away working well without this song. Also keep an eye on the Oscar-winning cinematography from Vittorio Storaro. The movie is utterly gorgeous and he created some of the most beautiful sequences in cinema history.
As well-liked this film is, it does have its share of controversies. Brando, whom was perfect for the role, had a salary of one million dollars (which was unheard of during its time). But there is a sequence in the movie that created even more controversy. The live killing of a cow as part of a sacrifice. Animals are supposed to be protected during movie-making, but this movie actually killed a cow for an incredibly gruesome scene. That is one scene that really appalls me due to an actual animal being killed.
Apocalypse Now is an important movie. Following the success of 1978’s The Deer Hunter, it proved there was an audience for Vietnam War movies after all. It took me several tries to realize what a monumental and influential film this is. It is a very long movie, but it’s a journey about how humankind reacts to the horrors of war. You see Kurtz as a villain at first, but as you come to the end of the movie, that is where we gain some sympathy for the man after everything he has been through. Francis Ford Coppola created a very important piece of art-the biggest film of his career. This is a hard movie to get through, but I think it’s worth watching in the end.
My Grade: A-