Apocalypse Now (1979)


My structure remains.  Hitchcock, Coppola, silent film.  Hitchcock, Coppola, silent film.  Hitchcock, Coppola, silent film.  Perhaps after that, I’ll move on to other things.  As for Coppola, The Godfather movies provide only so much potency.  What The Godfather enjoyed, perhaps to a greater degree than any other movie was that it was a story so stunning–and so driven by motif and character–that it probably could have made itself.  Put a director with Francis Ford Coppola’s touch behind the camera and the movie no longer makes itself, but instead becomes the most precious clay a sculptor could ever want: a clay that becomes a masterpiece by mixing the perfection of the plot with the tenacious and dexterous master’s touch.  With that being said, there is perhaps no Coppola film that better exhibits the directorial skill of its creator than 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

The reasons for that are clear upon viewing.  Hallucinogenic montages are all-too-common-place nowadays, but in Apocalypse, you see one their ancestral predecessors.  And just like those old guys playing basketball at the park, it somehow shows up all the proverbial young guns.  One such film trip plays at the very beginning of the movie, in a long-aspect shot of Vietnamese forest.  Smoke rises in the foreground of the shot.  Whether the smoke comes from action behind the camera, from fox-holes set ablaze, or from villages ransacked by enraged arsonists, we do not see.  It may not be real smoke at all, just the manifestations of Captain Willard’s own subconscious torment, intruding on the image at hand to prove to the viewer (and the dreamer) the fallibility of his own understanding and memory.  After all, Willard’s face (you’ll recognize it as Martin Sheen’s, because it is) fades in and out of the picture, projecting himself in his own hallucination/memory/nightmare.  All this to the slowed-down pulsations of chopper wings, building up and dying off as the helicopter passes the camera’s eye.  The rock-and-roll fan will recognize the pulsing as the opening soundtrack to the Doors’ classic “The End.”

“This is the End, beautiful friend…this is the End, my only friend, the End of our elaborate plans, the End of everything that stands, the End…no safety or surprise, the End.  I’ll never look into your eyes again.”

Just as the lyrics begin, the trees explode with the flame of napalm.  The music builds, and then, the chopper blades turn into the simple blades of a basic ceiling fan.  Sheen stands up from his bed, awakened from his dream–if it even was a dream, I’m not sure.  As he opens the blinds to his window you hear his mind’s voice say “Saigon…”  Here, the 1970’s audience would be accustomed to, even conditioned to, the typical film-noir style narration a la Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, loathing and cursing the wretched streets and the corner filth, yet praising the city they call home.  No, instead, Coppola and fellow writer John Milius (I’m not sure who is most responsible for the dialogue) make sure you’re in for something far different than anything you’ve ever experienced before.  “Shit,” Sheen continues, “I’m still only in Saigon.”  Then, we learn about a strange attachment Sheen’s character has with the jungle that almost killed him already.  It’s not America where he wants to find himself.  It’s the jungle.  From whence comes this attachment?

That introduces the plight of the story, taken from Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Heart of Darkness.  The jungle.  While watching this fabulous picture, you will see many images, from surfing and smoking, to reconnaissance tents and hostels, from fighting and dying, to starving, to hunting, to slaughtering a live water buffalo in a Vietnamese tribal ritual.  All of these will share one constant, underlying thread: a constant, flowing river upon which the adventures are had, leading resolutely to the film’s brutal climax–(“like a main circuit cable,” says Willard).

That river which symbolically contextualizes the the events of the film, bringing them to their analogical conclusion, continues on, it seems, past Col. Kurtz’s camp, and perhaps there is a significance there.  I haven’t discerned one yet.  For intents and purposes, it ends there–at that pagan edifice of animal and human sacrifice both literal and figurative, at the penultimate heart of the jungle’s darkness, wherein the one with the heart of darkness thrives.  There, the situations and mishaps and violence that have come and gone along that river run culminate in purpose and in message.

Willard is sent down the river on a confidential military assassination mission.  Col. Kurtz, an American soldier, has gone insane and established himself as a God to the tribal Vietnamese in the area, and is now blacklisted as a target for Capt. Willard.  The conflict of the film arises not so much in the violence surrounding not only the moment of assassination but also the lead-up to it, but in the psychological torment associated with Willard.  Kurtz is where Willard is heading, literally, on this trip down the river.  Kurtz is where Willard is heading, literally, in this war, in this darkness.  Says Willard at the beginning of the film, “it was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Col. Walter E. Kurtz’s memory, any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.  There is no way to tell his story without telling my own; and if his story is really a confession…then, so is mine.”

From this introductory quote the premise of the film is established: Willard loves the majesty of the jungle, yet it is in this jungle that the ultimate descent into the heart of darkness occurs.  Willard’s descent into the heart of darkness, however, is merely a literary mechanism wherein he wants to tell the real story, “The Confessions of Walter E. Kurtz,” if you will.  This places, from the outset, a pry bar between the audience and the film’s main character.  The story, it seems, is not about Willard, it’s about Kurtz.  Willard’s ultimate salvation, at first watching (at the “casual” watching) may seem triumphant, but Kurtz’s ultimate end is the most telling, the most inevitable.  Somewhere along the way, Willard dodges darkness’ heart.  Kurtz doesn’t.  It is through Willard that we see it.

This disconnect between the main character and the actual occurrences in the film are dreadfully subtle, but this is how Francis Ford Coppola establishes Apocalypse Now as his greatest directorial feat.  I recently finished what is arguably the most indispensable read in the realm of film theory, history and criticism.  It is called What is Cinema? and is written by Andre Bazin, who as of yet has not been mentioned in this blog.  That is unfair to his legend, specifically due to my constant referencing of Roger Ebert.  If I were to list the most influential and important critics of all time, i.e. the ones you should actually take seriously, the top three would be–in order–Bazin, Ebert, and Pauline Kael. That was a tangent, for which I am altogether too notorious.

In What is Cinema? Bazin takes a lot of time to dissect and interpret the language of film known as “montage.”  Montage is generally associated with the Soviet film movement of the 1920s–with Eisenstein at the head of the revolutionary pack–,but montage was part of cinema even a decade before with D.W. Griffith, the pioneer of everything important in film.  The premise of montage is so simple and commonplace we don’t even notice it now: it is the jump in aesthetic and literal image back and forth from one scene or stimulus to another in order to intellectually prove a point, set up a scene or tackle simultaneity, and to subconsciously promote emotional investment in the movement of the film.  Through proper use of montage, disconnected events use one another as reference points to not only enhance their own emotional potency, but the potency of the entire clip.  I’m sure a detailed analysis of montage in film will be upcoming.

Anyway, as I was saying, we see in the film not only superb use of montage–the ritual sacrifice of a live water buffalo interlaced with the assassination attempt on Col. Kurtz being a standout example–but also a branch of montage dealing with the sound and image.  Narration is a common example of utilizing sound (a revolutionary concept in the late 1920s) to create a new language of film montage.  Tied with the narration is the story being narrated.  Tied with the story being narrated is the story that needs to be told.  Three layers, all running concurrently, with one goal in mind: document the descent of man into the heart of darkness.  While this is not montage in the actual use of the word, I feel it is important to note the literal montage and how it creates a framework wherein a more obscure use of dissociative imagery can be utilized.  Coppola performs this task with precision and artistry.

Which brings us back to the point: this is a film about mankind’s fallibility, the addiction that is power and the majesty that is mystery.  Much of our favorite things to ponder in this life involve mystery; otherwise, they would hardly be worth the thought.  Religion, spirituality, the universe, miracles…all hold an appeal in the eyes of the thinker.  Place a tribal unknown, mix it with the so-called “romance” of war, and from that breed a man whose sway over an entire people is anything but providential, and you can see the devastation that is delusion.  Kurtz gets wrapped up in his own power, but more so in his own misunderstanding of how that power was achieved.  God knows where his power comes from, man often refuses to acknowledge it–or, remains ignorant to the source altogether.  In essence, therefore, we are dealing with Kurtz’s story, as told by a man who came in contact with him (Captain Willard).  And why is Kurtz’s story so important?  Because it is the story of humanity.

When Joseph Conrad first wrote Heart of Darkness, the main point of his story was mostly overlooked.  It was largely popular in empirical Britain, who enjoyed the adventure and heroism of the novella, but ignored–ignorantly or conscientiously, I cannot say–the reality that the novella was a scathing commentary on the very forms of imperialism by which Britain had become the ultimate world power.  The citizenry (both civilian and non-) were caught up in a great work of literature despite the inherent criticism therein.  Coppola’s Apocalypse Now did not dodge that bullet, particularly in light of the war of that had only ended officially four years earlier.  Any assertion that this war against Communism was merely failed imperialism was touchy to say the least, but unfortunately the political banter that surrounded the film, and continues to surround it, was and remains to be out-of-place.  Where in the case of the book, political interpretations weren’t made often enough, in the case of the film, it seems that they are made far too obliquely and far too often.  Politicizing a picture can destroy it quite easily.

The film is anti-war; not anti-Vietnam or anti-America, or anti-China, anti-Russia, or anything like that.  War is the backdrop, not policy.  If Coppola wanted to make Apocalypse Now about the Crusades, or the Revolutionary War, he could have.  First Blood is anti-war.  Private Ryan is anti-war.  Dances With Wolves is anti-war.  The Longest Day is anti-war.  Most human beings are anti-war.  They are anti-war because they are not pro-war.  Nobody likes war.  If they do, by all means, they can make a movie, but no one will go see it.  War is a common ailment in humanity, an issue that is born of human aggression when compounded with a need to survive, a need to protect and a need to progress in a world full of nations.  The major monotheistic religions of the world, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, all preach of a future wherein there would be no war.  The purpose of the anti-war film is two-fold: to comment on humanity, and to hope (hopelessly) for everyone to make peace.  I do not attempt to submit an opinion that all war movies are superb commentaries on humanity.  Often, as in the case with recent Hollywood trends (with all fairness to Katherine Bigalow, who is not guilty of this), films are politicized.  Then, they turn into messes.  (Lions for Lambs?)

Apocalypse Now absolutely needs a war.  Only in watching a war can we see the horrors of it.  Furthermore, only in watching a war–the premier example of humankind’s ability to be violent–can we see the parallels of individuality.  The descent of a society into war runs congruently with the descent of the individual into the heart of darkness.  That’s why the political interpretation of this film is so damaging.  It is meant as a social commentary, or maybe even a psychological one.  Any political interpretation misses the point.  The film is mired in depth, and yet accomplishes that which many foreign films (equally deep) or dramas (equally emotional) fail to accomplish; namely, it maintains a current of action and intensity that keeps the viewer hooked all the way to its stunning conclusion.

The action is brilliantly filmed and provides a stunning example of Vietnam War tactics, though also includes the important Hollywood elaboration.  It fulfills all the qualities of a good action film that I laid out in my “My Take On…Action Films” page as well as all the necessities of suspense as laid out in my “My Take On…Suspense” page.  While harboring those characteristics, it incorporates directorial dexterity in balancing deep, whispered script-work in the narration and shallow, pointed script-work in the dialogue.  This provides a sharpness and variety that keeps the movie fresh while not forsaking the underlying themes and motifs.  The “heart of darkness” is constantly referenced by visual cues–obviously, the use of darkness is among these.  The descent is utilized in Willard’s commentary on the emptiness of values.

In regards to the emptiness of these values, we, again, too often see politicization.  Such political jumps-to-conclusion include a review I recently read online that referenced the lack of “American” values.  It references the surfing scenes where troops enjoy the lavish Romanticism of mass destruction before a network film crew and celebrate by catching some waves.  Another is the observation of the hollering American soldiers cheering on Playboy models that have come to entertain the  troops.  The cheering is juxtaposed alongside footage of Vietnamese fighters eating their rice unassumingly.    This discrepancy between American and Vietnamese is, if anything, discriminatory, and an unfair attempt at de-glorifying the nature of American culture in comparison with the virtuous third world.   This interpretation not only disregards the human aspect (as opposed to the nationalist one) of the movie, but also the existence of the novella which acts as its inspiration altogether.  This is particularly the case in light of the fact that Heart of Darkness was written about a completely different country and time period altogether.

However, what makes Apocalypse Now so valuable where the novella may not suffice is that is about an American War.  For the American viewer, it asks all the right questions; and the use of war as opposed to adventure (the premise of the book) helps to universalize the moral and social undertones.  There is something Patton-esque about Kilgore, the most famous character in the movie despite his limited role.  The performance of the deranged military squadron leader garnered Robert Duvall a well-earned Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  His “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” speech was named the greatest monologue in film history by a BBC fan poll in 2004.  There is something poetic about the violence of war, and perhaps that paradox should be considered.  Apocalypse Now does just that.  Maybe that’s why Sight and Sound recently named it the #14 film of all time (#6 if you only count English films).

A very accurate legend has it that Orson Welles, in 1939, planned on making a movie entitled Heart of Darkness.  Hollywood moguls, supposedly, scrapped it.  That was when Mr. Welles, the poster-boy of entertainment, turned to Plan B, a plan that would synthesize into the greatest contingency in the history of film.  He made a quaint fictional bio-pic called Citizen Kane instead.

The re-emergence of Heart of Darkness in Hollywood’s ammunition can came in the form of Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius’ Apocalypse Now.  Many people, including Turner prize-winning artist Fiona Banner, have balked and guffawed the historical turn of events, lauding instead Welles’ original 1939 script for its loyalty to the source and hating the mythologized version set forth by Hollywood forty years later.  I choose to recognize greatness for what it is, and am grateful that–no matter how good Welles’ Heart of Darkness was going to be–things worked out the way they did.  I think I prefer the world where “Rosebud” and “Napalm” exist together.

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