Apocalypse Now (1979)


(director/writer: Francis Ford Coppola; screenwriters: John Milius/from the novel by Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness”; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Walter Murch; cast: Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Martin Sheen (Captain Benjamin L. Willard), Lawrence Fishburne (‘Mr. Clean’), Robert Duvall (Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), Frederic Forrest (‘Chef’), Sam Bottoms (Class Lance B. Johnson), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Albert Hall (Chief), G.D. Spradlin (Lt. General R. Corman), Colleen Camp (Miss May), Aurore Clement (Roxanne), Cynthia Wood (Playmate of the Year), Christian Marquand (Hubert de Marais); Runtime: 196; United Artists/Miramax Films; 2001)


“Brings back bad memories to those who were protesters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic visual war film has been re-edited and has added at least three expanded scenes with 46 more minutes of film never-before-seen, though in my opinion he would have been wiser to have gone the other way and shortened the film.

One ghostly sequence, a plantation scene that was added, acts as an attempt to bring a sense of poetry to this action film. Though it was an excellently conceived scene, I found it didn’t fit with the more volatile tone of the rest of the film and it gave an explanation that had already been said in other parts of the film about this maddening war and how the Americans were outsiders interfering with a civil war they never understood.

In the restored plantation scene Captain Willard, who is tensely played by Martin Sheen, is a paratrooper-trained volunteer returnee to Vietnam. He returns in a drunken state to ‘Nam after a troublesome stay at home with his wife and is looking forward to his days in the jungle. On his mission as a soldier-assassin hired by a general (Spradlin), he’s asked to go on a classified secret mission, that doesn’t officially exist, to “terminate with extreme prejudice” a war hero who has become a renegade conducting a despotic and unsanctioned war in Cambodia. The Army can’t control Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), any longer, and find that this is the only way for them to solve the problem. They insist he has become an insane murderer and operates on unsound military methods.

Willard goes up the Mekong River to Kurtz’s Cambodia outpost, where he stops off at a decaying plantation estate of a wealthy French family who run a rubber plantation in the heart of the jungle (the patriarch is acted by Christian Marquand). The family refuses to give up their turf after the French were kicked out. Willard dines with the family and then smokes opium with a French widow (Aurore Clément) whose soldier husband was killed, as he falls into a dream-like high and is tucked into bed by the woman who strips before retiring for the night and while stripping tells the dazed warrior about the lost colonial empire. She believes the Americans, also foreigners, have learned nothing from the French failures here and are doomed like they were. She also philosophizes about human nature that is divided in two–one that loves and one that kills. The metaphor here is that the unconscious American is in no condition to listen to what she’s saying and has chosen killing over love.

A lot of time was wasted on an added USO show at a re-fueling site with a couple of Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp), in a scene that goes nowhere. Perhaps Coppola’s best addition was in giving Kurtz more lines onscreen, as he reads excerpts from Time magazine. He predicts the war is turning in America’s favor, to his captive audience made up of the barely conscious Willard. He’s Kurtz’ prisoner and is placed in a bamboo pit confinement with Cambodian children looking down between the slats at him while mocking him with childish laughter.

The two antiheroes meet in a macabre setting in the last hour or so of a film that was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.” Though their meeting is anti-climactic and Brando’s performance is questionable, it’s a moody scene that is a good way to put a wrap on the film’s mixed messages. The film only covers the middle period of the war.

The long film dragged in parts, as it made its belabored point of the war’s futility, chaos, and utter madness over and over again until Kurtz and Willard share the same generalized vision of the horror of it by the film’s end. But it also glorified them as warriors, as it leaves them both as fuzzy characters saying things both hawks and doves might say.

Sometimes it brilliantly brought the war home via certain shots– like the one at night of the burning Cambodian border bridge being rebuilt after it is regularly destroyed, at other times it made its point in too obvious of a Hollywood action-packed manner to be impactful. When the film first came out in 1979, it was at a time closer to the war’s end in ’74 and for that reason it seemed more relevant; but, now it didn’t have quite the same edginess in its dialogue. I saw it as a haranguing apology for the war on behalf of the Americans–but the film glorifies war too much for me to accept the apology in its entirety.

This romantic ode to slaughter and how good war can look and how glibly it can be explained–opens with a napalm explosion in the beautiful tropical jungle, as the Doors are crooning such fatalistic lyrics in the background about ‘my best friend being death’ while the jungle looks gorgeous going up in flames.

In his first encounter with danger Willard comes across a gung-ho loopy Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), someone who steals the film with his outrageous performance. He’s enjoying himself immensely in the midst of a bombing raid against a Vietcong village and is keeping his Air-Calvary troops happy by bombing villages to the tunes of Wagner. He’s an avid surf-boarder, trying to get in some surfing for his troops in the middle of this bombing raid. He also comes up with the film’s best quote “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” further saying “It reminds him of victory.” The question Coppola asks, Is why the Army has no trouble accepting him– isn’t he as dangerous and nutty as Kurtz?

The film never struck a chord with me as being a great anti-war film as much as it was a great Hollywood spectacle with many outlandish war scenes that showed how absurd the war was, where death seemed unreal (all the deaths were the usual Hollywood ones in a war flick). There were so many crazies running around, that it was difficult to determine if the director meant it or not — that the more rational you were about winning the war the more crazy you could be perceived.

The monotony of the film’s violence is parallel to the long river journey Willard is on in a Navy patrol boat, as he’s accompanied upstream by some archetypal seamen on classified orders to take him wherever he wants to go. Three of them represent the typical uneducated kids who fought this divisive war. ‘Clean (Fishberne),’ a lively black homeboy from the South Bronx; Lance (Bottoms), a whacky blond surfer from California with the initials LBJ; and, lastly, an uptight wannabe chef from New Orleans aptly nicknamed Chef (Forrest). The older seaman in charge of them is serious about his command, and is just known as Chief (Hall). Their patrol boat scenes leave a wishful message that in this chaotic place there was not only male bonding, but a sense of interracial harmony. This is something that awaits the rest of the country in these revolutionary days of war and protest, as there’s change in the air.

After many spectacular war footage shots and a beautiful screen filled with a lush Technicolor, it all leads to Willard coming to Kurtz’s sanctuary and seeing for himself how far over the edge Kurtz has become. Willard spent his boat time reading the dossier on Kurtz, trying to figure out what the Army has against him that makes him different from the other murderers he has run across in the war theater, as Willard does the voiceover and sets the moral tone for the film. He will judge for us how crazy Kurtz has become, and if he deserves to be terminated.

Dennis Hopper plays the stoned hippie photojournalist who takes the assassin to see Kurtz. He’s the inarticulate fool in awe of Kurtz because he’s a poetical genius, and he has no trouble overlooking some of his hero’s excesses–such as, all the severed heads on display along Kurtz’s compound and a few Vietcong left hanging there. The place has the look of a gaudily decorated Dante’s inferno, with a native tribe of Cambodians hanging around the war god’s compound and worshipping at his feet. Kurtz’s loyal men feel the same way about him, as they worship him as a God.

The kind of ‘good soldier’ Kurtz espouses is not a far cry from a fascist ideal, as he talks mostly babble to Willard. But sometimes he’s lucid and makes a lot of sense, while at other times he seems as if he’s a despot willing to nuke everyone who gets in his way. He therefore articulates two diverse viewpoints about the war, leaving one a little confused about him. What Coppola is aiming for, is to revel in the guilt America had about that bad war and he lays America’s loss squarely on the shoulders of the politicians for getting us into the war and then not having enough resolve to win it or get us out of it. I know the director wanted to say something big about the war, but what I mostly hear from him comes in the form of a reading Brando gives from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” and a lot of finger pointing at the Americans for allowing themselves to be taken for a bad ride in Vietnam. The film made the war entertaining in a Disney-like Theme Park way, and was fine up to a point. But, Coppola could never manage to find out what he wanted to say about this war that was more than what others already said.

This tremendously difficult epic to film, shot in the Philippines, certainly deserves to be praised as a visually pleasing film. But the film was not the ultimate Vietnam War film experience as some established film critics believe, it was more like the primer course for a more ideological film to follow suit that can delve deeper into the American psyche and add on deeper viewpoints. It also failed to show what the Vietnamese themselves say about the American effort.

It’s a good film that just can’t get to what it is about the war that still brings chills to those who were in it and brings back bad memories to those who were protesters. Perhaps time itself can allow other directors to distance themselves from that period and thereby bring out a more penetrating look at how the world keeps getting sucked into deadly wars, and how the Vietnam War should serve as a lesson for how our lack of political perception could have trapped us into such an absurd war.


REVIEWED ON 10/21/2001 GRADE: B +