No war left so many scars upon the American psyche as Vietnam, not even the Civil War. And no film broke open those scars better thanFrancis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In one interview, Coppola described his film as “an experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war”.
It was a grandiose project, culled indirectly by John Milius and Coppola from both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and it took Coppola 238 days to shoot in the Philippines at more than double its original budget. By the end, almost everybody concerned was either sick or exhausted. But the result, though flawed, was undoubtedly one of the most resonant movies about war ever made, and particularly unforgettable in its 70mm format.
Not that everybody would agree. One critic described it as a dumb movie that could only have been made by an intelligent and talented man. But if that is so, the dumbness reflected America’s own attitude to the war, the effect of which has even now not been fully exorcised. Apocalypse Now will probably never be equalled as metaphor for a whole nation’s confused aspirations and the dogged obstinacy with which it pursued them.
Basically, the film is a quest movie but it moves through several other genres as well, such as thriller, horror, adventure and even comedy as Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard searches for Marlon Brando’s renegade Colonel Kurtz, waging a private war from a Cambodian temple near the Vietnam frontier. Kurtz’s career must be terminated with extreme prejudice, as if the military-industrial complex responsible for the hostilities were some sort of Godfather-like Mafia sending a hitman to deal with a disloyal capo.
One remarkable sequence after another follows as Sheen gingerly pursues his prey, many of them action sequences envisaged by Milius as he transposed Conrad from colonial Africa to Vietnam, but given a mythical, hallucinatory quality by Coppola and Vittorio Storaro, his lavishly brilliant cinematographer. Who can forget Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore and his helicopter cavalry zapping a waterfront village to the strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, broadcast over loudspeakers to scare the enemy? And you’d be hard pushed to forget the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.
Meanwhile, Storaro and Walter Murch, the film’s sound editor, have perhaps their greatest moment at night when, after dropping acid, Sam Bottoms’s boat crewman watches the Vietcong bombardment of an American-held bridge. We can’t be sure that what he sees is affected by the drug or not as flames, smoke, flares, tracers and the shriek of shells illuminate the purgatorial darkness. Then there are the bumping and grinding Playboy bunnies, helicoptered in to entertain the troops and forced to evacuate hurriedly when a semi-riot threatens to engulf them.
Perhaps the Brando-dominated finale, with the actor frequently muttering almost incomprehensively and the Ankor Wat-like temple seeming to be belong in another movie, is the one area where the film flails too hard at mysticism to convince – Conrad dubbed into melodramatic Hollywoodese. But even here, the intensity of Coppola’s vision has a riveting quality that prevents giggles.
Orson Welles almost made Heart of Darkness before he transferred his allegiance to Citizen Kane instead. It might have been an equally astonishing film – but no more so than Coppola’s. Apocalypse Now somehow manages to reflect with some accuracy what Conrad once wrote: “It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell in the ear after the last note had been struck”.