It’s hard to argue that “Apocalypse Now” is anything but one of the top three war films if not the best ever made. There’s just nothing wrong with it. Sure, there might be parts that don’t resonate as well and the film certainly doesn’t broadcast its messages in the most direct of ways, but confusion has nothing to say to the film’s breathtaking visuals and impeccable post-production craftsmanship.
Francis Ford Coppola’s non-“Godfather” masterpiece is a Vietnam update of the classic Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness.” Capt. Willard (Sheen) is ordered on a mission to travel up a river in Vietnam to find a former army Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), who has gone “rogue” and taken charge of a local tribe. Willard is ordered to terminate Kurtz … with extreme prejudice. With a band of ordinary soldiers, he travels upriver on a patrol boat on a mission that drastically changes his perspective.
It’s funny, because what most people look for in movies — great story, epiphany, great acting — are not the strongest points of “Apocalypse Now.” The film is a masterpiece of the more technical aspects of film as well as of direction. To start with, the cinematography is the most incredible of any war movie made before “Saving Private Ryan.” The lights, the glare spots, the explosions and the jarring but effective changes in color palettes are so impressive that they tell a story in themselves and that’s about the highest compliment that element of a film can receive.
Sound-wise, helicopter blades dominate the first significant chunk of this film and they begin to haunt you as a sound of war and danger, not to mention the challenges of mixing sound when that noise is so overpowering. The way it’s all strung together is bound to be under- appreciated considering how much is going on and that the plot demands a lot of our attention.
“Apocalypse Now” has a complex view of war that goes way beyond mere protest. In fact, it’s not about war, but the good and evil inside of the persons stuck in the middle of it. It’s about the choices humans make in dealing with the complicated forces inside them beckoning them to do one or the other and how war puts an incredible and terrible strain on that process.
I watched “Apocalypse Now Redux,” the 2001 re-edit of the film including nearly 50 minutes extra footage. Having not seen the original but knowing which scenes were added, I think the extra footage makes a difference. Scenes involving the stranded Playmates and the French woman who takes kindly to Willard add a sensuality to the film that brings a new layer of meaning to the journey of Willard and the young PBR crew. It make it all the more apparent just how out of place these soldiers were in Vietnam and why the US couldn’t “win” despite more than adequate numbers.
Although I make a point to emphasize the production elements of the film, the script by John Milius and Coppola along with Michael Herr’s narrative additions is worthy of the utmost praise. The way Willard’s journey allows him to understand more about the man he’s after and pushes him into Kurtz’s shoes is one of the clearer points of the film and the turning points are all based around it. Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist character spouting off T.S Eliot poetry and Brando’s improvisations murky the water a bit, but the impact is fierce as the film concludes and the incredible presence of Brando commands our attention.
“Apocalypse Now” has a lot to say and maybe too little time (despite the film’s length) to say it, but few films leave the impression on so many artistic levels that this war epic does. Despite the beauty, Coppolla doesn’t glorify war so much as make a bone-chilling and awing spectacle of it.