Apocalypse Now (1979)

I Didn’t Choose The Jungle, The Jungle Chose Me

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Apocalypse Now is one of the most, if not the hypnotic film I’ve ever seen, providing an eerie and otherworldly glimpse into hell itself. It’s a film I will think about when I’m in a daze of boredom such as being stuck in a classroom or a call centre while I’m slowly losing my mind as The End by The Doors goes through my head, all while I try to audibly recreate those helicopter sound effects from the film’s opening moments (once you hear Walter Murch’s sound effects you never forget them). Even the film’s synthesized score courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola’s own father Carmine Coppola, brings a real sense of unease and wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie. From the opening shot in which a serene green landscape is infiltrated by yellow fumes and bursts into flames, the war epic is a sensory experience like no other, making you feel the humidity of the jungle with its rich orange palette that bounces of the reflections of the river thanks to the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Yet Apocalypse Now looks shockingly contemporary, absent of any indicators that it was filmed in the 1970’s.

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a man, whom to say the least, has been driven mad by his time in Vietnam. With Sheen’s everyman persona, Willard is a vehicle for the audience to view this world through, with a face which is able to express so much without dialogue (often with an unamused expression by the antics of the less experienced members of his crew) and perhaps most importantly, some of the best voice over work ever recorded with sheen’s unforgettable, grisly narration. While I am fortunate enough never to have experienced war, I can see the argument being made that Apocalypse Now is not only an inaccurate depiction of war, it is an absolutely ridiculous depiction of war. It’s said that war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror, yet Apocalypse Now presents a decade’s worth of crazy and surreal events condensed into a single mission. The attack on the Vietnamese village for example is one of the finest battle sequences committed to film and a masterpiece of mayhem captured on screen, and that’s only one of many escapades encountered by Willard and the crew of his boat. Likewise as is the case with other films from the 1970’s such as Black Sunday, it’s surprising from a modern perspective how companies would allow their IP’s to be used in films with dark subject matter, such as the case of Apocalypse Now with the use of the Playboy brand.

The mission briefing scene at the beginning of the film is a master class in the delivery of exposition. Alongside the striking nature of the dialogue itself such as General Corman’s (G.D. Spradlin) monologue about “good & evil” to the extensive use of props and food (that tape recorder sound effect is another unforgettable Murch sound effect), this 9-minute scene is never anything less than dramatically intense. I do love me some good military jargon (“This mission doesn’t exist, nor will it ever exist”) plus there is even some subtle humour slipped in such as Willard’s delayed, deadpan response to being informed that his assassination target Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone insane. However, what really makes the sequence ever so slightly nerve-racking is the presence of the CIA civilian Jerry (no name is mentioned in the scene yet the name is attributed to him). He shows no emotion with his penetrating stare and feels like the scene implies he holds the real power in the room and speaks only a single line, the chilling phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice”. The other notable addition to this scene is a very nerdy looking Harrison Ford as Colonel Gary Lucas (a reference to George Lucas). Ford delivers expository dialogue in an underplayed but striking manner and like his small role in Coppola’s The Conversation, he leaves an impression and leaves you wishing he was in the film more (Ford’s part was shot after the filming of Star Wars but prior it’s release). Ford was reportedly nervous about filming a scene that contained so much dialogue and Coppola incorporated this into his performance (I do wish however the deleted moment in which Lucas makes reference to John Wayne’s The Green Beret wasn’t left on the cutting room floor). Talk about a film with so many great lines to quote in your daily life as non-cinephiles look on at you in puzzlement. 

So which version of Apocalypse Now is superior? While the original on its own is a masterpiece and one I can turn towards for a more streamlined experience, I find the Redux version adds more layers of richness and complexity to an already stellar film, even turning it into something of an adventure film with all these extra detours. I’ve read criticisms of the pace regarding the Redux cut but I can tell you this viewer has no such pacing issues with this 3 hour and 16-minute version of the film. For starters, I do enjoy the addition of the sequence with the playmates at the rain-drenched camp. While it doesn’t add anything to the overall story, it provides some fascinating insight with the portrayal of harsh living conditions for the soldiers and what these men in the wilderness with their pent up rage fighting each other do when they finally get some female companionship. 

However, the greatest asset to Redux is the portion of the film at the French Plantation. This 23-minute long sequence taking place in a Shangri-La amidst a war zone offers closure to the character of Miller (Laurence Fishburne) with his burial but more significantly examines the often overlooked French colonial history of Vietnam. This is the only part of the film which directly delves right into politics as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys engage in some fascinating and increasingly intense political conversations. The French characters remain stoic as they declare their refusal to leave the plantation despite the war being in full swing due to France’s history of losing various conflicts as well as a monologue of how the United States apparently invented the Viet Cong. The heightened conversion even becomes humorous at one point as two of the Frenchmen started arguing in un-subtitled dialogue as they shout “communiste” and “socialiste” back at each other. The entire plantation sequence plays out like a dream with the use of mist, twilight lighting and later a purple sky. Throughout the aforementioned conversations, one of the woman, Madame Sarrault (Aurore Clémen) stares at Willard throughout the dinner with an attractive glaze. After the dinner, the two converse alone as the sky turns purple and she tells him of losing her husband to war before the two proceed to make love in a breathtaking and foreboding piece of romance, with the music during this moment being my favourite from the film’s score – equal parts haunting, equal parts beautiful.

As a counterbalance to all the death and destruction, there’s quite a bit of humour in Apocalypse Now from the movie being chocked full of mad lads. Late in the film, we are treated to a perfectly cast Dennis Hooper as burned out gonzo journalist who’s losing his mind in the jungle and spouting full-on hippie, pseudo-intellectual nonsense man! However, the king of Apocalypse Now’s eccentric characters has to be Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore and his magnificent Calvary hat. For Kilgore war is not only just another day for him (he is completely unphased at one point when a bomb goes off close to him as those around him flinch) he disturbingly feeds off it and has fun along the way. He blasts Richard Wagner from loud speakers and casually drinks coffee while invading a Vietnamese village and once the crux of the invasion is complete, he wants to go surfing with his own branded surfboards. Even more Kilgore madness is present in Redux in which he is given a much more dramatic introduction as his helicopter complete with his calvary hat symbol and the phrase “Death From Above” imprinted on the front as it carries his royal chadness. Yet despite all this, Redux also includes an additional moment in which Kilgore is shown with a more human side as he guides a Vietnamese woman and her baby to safety. 

Come the final act of Apocalypse Now, we finally reach the human MacGuffin that is Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. I have never been a huge fan of Marlon Brando, with his mumbling persona I often find it hard to take him seriously as an actor, but Apocalypse Now is one film in which I find him to be a compelling presence. Much has been said about Brando arriving to the film’s set overweight and unprepared for the role, yet Kurtz’ many ramblings are strangely compelling even though I have to ask myself when listening to them, “what the hell is this guy going on about?”.  It could easily have come off as Grandpa Simpson telling stories that don’t go anywhere but the immaculately light god-like figure doesn’t come off as such. What makes Kurtz final demise so fascinating is that he is a rare example of an adversary who willingly allows himself to be taken out – a man who has accepted his fate. There’s something beautiful to watching Willard pummel Kurtz as he falls to the ground along with the intercut shots of a water buffalo being mutilated as it too falls to the ground – it’s elegant and graceful despite its graphic nature. Despite the iconic typography of the film’s title, Apocalypse Now has neither a title screen nor any opening and closing credits, making it feel like a film that could be edited into an endless loop, going around in circles for hellish infinity. 

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