A WORD TO THE WISE: when watching a 3+ hour movie on a plane, do not. I repeat DO NOT delay the start of viewing, or you will end up being made to put the laptop away for landing with only 100 seconds of footage left. After watch 190 minutes of cinematic masterpiece, you have to stop and watch the final shot 4 hours later when you get to your hotel. GOD DAMN IT!
Anyway, that is what happened when I watched Apocalypse Now (the extended Redux version). Widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, a very young Laurence Fishbourne, Dennis Hopper and many, many more! So here is the trailer:
The film follows Captain Willard (Sheen) as he is sent on a secret mission, during the Vietnam War, to ”terminate the command of Colonel Kurtz…with extreme prejudice”. Kurtz (Brando) has gone rogue, despite an exemplary and exceptional military record, using brutal and horrific tactics to win the war for the US. His unsanctioned and rogue behaviour has been deemed too extreme by the higher ups and has to be removed from his position of power over US, Vietnamese and Cambodian fighters and tribesman who see him as a God-like figure. Willard must complete his top-secret mission by traveling up-river on a small naval vessel, crewed by Chief, Lance the surfer, Chef and Clean (Fishbourne). This journey brings them to a surf obsessed, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall), three playboy bunny’s and a journalist infatuated with Kurtz (Hopper); among a whole world of chaos.
This film is an all out masterpiece; gripping from start to finish, brilliantly acted, clever and quote-able screenplay. THE WORKS. But when you read about the problems during production it is amazing the film was finished at all. Here are some of the more major ones:
- BRANDO – everything about him (Ill explain why later)
- HARVEY KEITEL was initially cast as Willard then replaced weeks into filming by Martin Sheen.
- TYPHOON OLGA destroyed the set
- THEFT of one days entire payroll, required hiring of bodyguards
- NO PROPER ENDING AFTER INITIAL FILMING
- SHEEN HAD A NEAR FATAL HEART-ATTACK DURING FILMING
- EXPENSIVE SCENES CUT ENTIRELY FROM ORIGINAL CUT
- SLAUGHTER of a live buffalo
- POOR SOUND LIBRARIES lead to lots of dubbed backing sounds
- DENNIS HOPPER requested and was given cocaine to better play his role
- ACTUAL CORPSES were used as set dressing in Kurtz’s empire. It turned out they were not medical cadavers but had been recently relocated from graveyards
The fact that this film was made at all is frankly incredible.
With such an ensemble cast, it could have been difficult to really flesh out characters coupled with poor performances, however the acting is tremendous. Aside from the Willard and Kurtz, the two highlights for me are Clean and Kilgore. Clean was Fishbourne’s debut, only 14 at the start of filming. For such a young actor, his performance as the cocky, young soldier was very strong, really capturing the journey from innocence to hardened fighter. Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, is such an iconic character; delivering classic lines such as ”I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and ”Charlie don’t surf”. His character epitomised American bravo, unflinching in the face of war and bombs around him. An, almost, arrogant sense that he knew he would not get a scratch. He also provided some of the few and fleeting moments of comedy through his obsession with surfing.
So… to Willard, who in essence is our eyes for the film. For the most part he is a passive observer, he has a singular purpose and anything beyond the scope of this is irrelevant. Sheen’s nuanced, subtle and understated portrayal of Willard really helps ground the film within the absurdities and horrors surrounding the viewer. His narration points out the hypocrisies of war, his glazed eyes match the shock the audience feels. While we relate to Willard, his dispassion becomes vexing at times; over-ruling Chief on the boat, demanding the crew focus on his mission solely, not helping stranded soldiers or civilians, minimal interaction with the boat crew and spending much of his time analyzing Kurtz. He didn’t take his mission out of pride, duty or honour he just took it because it was there. Even killing Kurtz is a passive action; following his superiors orders without question and simultaneously doing as Kurtz wanted.
For most of the characters, this film is a journey into the darkness and terrors of war, and how far they can be pushed before they reach their breaking point. Chef’s encounter with a tiger. Lance’s decent into drugs. Chief’s emotional meltdown. Whereas Willard was broken by his 1st tour at the start of the movie, in a coincidentally brilliant scene. Instead his journey, as he learns more about and begins to empathize with Kurtz’ fall from grace, is about whether he will give in to the madness and join Kurtz or whether sanity and the mission will prevail. Interestingly, the use of masks, shadow and face-paint is repeatedly used to denote a characters breaking point or new identity, Lance, Kurtz, Willard are all part of this symbolism.
Kurtz (played greatly but problematically by Brando) is for want of a better stereotype, an evil genius, yet his insanity is a debatable question. His understanding and involvement in war has lead him to feel great burden and responsibility for the prevailing ”horrors”. Fed up with the hypocrisies of the US army, he commands his own force. The severed heads and mutilated bodies attest to his madness and the horror that is now his life but when viewed in the context of the rest of the film and the other acts of war, they are normal, maybe even tame. These acts are the language of war and he see’s them as pure, constructive horror. Yet he speaks of these horrors as if they are from a different era and have no place in modern times. This way he is free from any morality, for which he sees no place in war, and therefore accountability.
Even with this rational, Kurtz wants to die but needs an heir to inherit his philosophy and continue his legacy, this heir is Willard. His final words, ”The horror.. .the horror” (along with many others are from T.S. Elliot poems), and his readiness to accept his death at Willard’s hand suggest that maybe he saw death as the only escape from his madness, his demons he let win and the atrocities he has tried to rationalize.
Brando’s portrayal produces a vision of a God-like character who is intellectually, physically and spiritually on another plane to everyone else. While much of this is due to his and Coppola’s brilliance it is also very much due to Brando’s failings. He arrived on set having no preparation, hating the script and ending, 40+ lbs overweight and generally problematic. He spent weeks re-writing the ending with Coppola. Brando demanded they only film him his face and coated in shadow. So they dealt with his weight by dressing him in black and using tall body doubles. These restrictions, along with his 18 minute improvised on camera monologues (much of which is cut from the film) lead to this is great portrayal. Despite, roughly, only15 minutes of screen time he really did earn top billing as his character drives the entire film.
The themes throughout this film, whilst not overtly anti-war, are certainly critical of all that comes with it. Willard’s mission is one snowballing hypocrisy; a waste of resources, energy and intelligence to kill a high ranking US official whilst US soldiers and Vietnamese civilians are being slaughtered all around. The river and its surrounding fog and haze help to highlight the soldiers descent into madness. As they journey further up river and become more hardened or eventually broken the film takes a hallucinatory turn to solidify this transition. Their madness is further driven by the emptiness of the American values featured in the film. Vietnamese are fighting for their homes, the US are fighting because they feel they have a right to fight in Vietnam and are fighting for Surfing, rock n roll and playboy bunnies. Even, Kilgore demands his soldiers surf or fight!
One final point of interest is the soundtrack, which often seamlessly fits and ties in with the hallucinatory tone of the film. For instance the opening scenes over ”The End” by The Doors, especially as this song moves from atmospheric sounding (over scenes of Vietnam jungle) to eery (Willard devolves in a drunk stupor). BUT perhaps the most recognizable music from Apocalypse is the use of Rise of The Valkyrie as Kilgore flies into battle, an absurd soundtrack for a reckless decision and a pointless airstrike. Additionally music is used throughout to symbolize home and the US values soldiers are fighting for.
Regardless of all of this. No matter what you think of this exceptionally lengthy essay. Watch the film. You will not be disappointed, it is exceptional!
NB/ The redux version has 45 minutes of extra footage, which while not vital to see does add some interesting ideas to the film.
VERDICT: ”I will not hurt or harm you. Just give me back the board, Lance. It was a good board… and I like it. You know how hard it is to find a board you like…”
Disneyland? Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland!