Four years after the helicopters left the US Embassy in Saigon, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” dazzled audiences (including me) with its operatic portrayal of madness in the jungle, particularly that of two alumni of Coppola’s “The Godfather,” the top-billed Marlon Brando and second-billed Robert Duvall. The protagonist and narrator of the account of a difficult patrol boat upriver (the Nung, an fictitious river, not the Mekong) is US Army Captain Benjamin Willard, played by a 36-year-old Martin Sheen (who looked younger).
At the start, he has returned from leave “at home” and is waiting for a mission in Saigon, where he seems to have gone pretty far into crazy. He is assigned a mission by a three-star (lieutenant) general (G.D. Spradlin) and a bespectacled plainsclothes colonel played by Harrison Ford (whom Coppola had earlier cast in “The Conversation”), to “terminate the command [pause] with extreme prejudice” of a highly decorated once rising star in the army, Co. Kurtz, who opted to join Special Forces, took command of a sector on the Vietnam/Cambodia border and did his own terminating with extreme prejudice (i.e., executing as double agents) four South Vietnamese officials, including two colonels. The US (and South Vietnamese) Army wants to try him for murder, but because he has become the leader of a murderous cult that mixes those he commanded from the US Army and Montagnards (Hmong) across the border in Cambodia, there is no chance of arresting him. Hence the “extreme prejudice.” Capt. Willard is being sent to assassinate Kurtz.
Getting to Kurtz’s fiefdom is a challenge, with the enemy (“Charlie”) controlling much of the river. Another pretty insane (Lt.) Col., Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall in a role that won him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, as well as an Oscar nomination) airlifts the patrol boat to the mouth of the river. (Couldn’t it go by sea?) Willard is a surfing fanatic and one of Willard’s (Navy) crew is a legendary southern California surfer, Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms). The air cavalry (helicopters) strafes and bombs the village at the mouth of the river, and then calls in napalm of the jungle behind it, all to “The Ride of the Valkyrie” broadcast from Col.Kilgore’s chopper. The napalm ruins the surf configuration, and Willard takes off (with Kilgore’s prized surfboard).
There are more set pieces upriver, including a a tiger attack, a USO show with three Playboy models, a sampan that the PT boat commander, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) insists on boarding and having searched, and two US outposts in neither of which Willard can find a commanding officer. One of these sites has the Playboy bunnies (in an extended scene not in the 1979 release, but added to the 2001 “Redux” version). The “Redux” version also has a scene of being fed and sheltered by a French clan still in place (still running a place), headed by Christian Marquand. It includes a nude scene of Aurore Clement, a widow and mosquito netting that could not possibly keep out mosquitoes. This sequences accounts for about half of the 49 minutes of greater running time in the 2001 “Redux” version. IMHO it stalls the movie and was wisely removed for the 1979 theatrical release. Screenwriter John Milius welcomed the cut. (The Blu-Ray of “Apocalypse Now, Redux” has a conversation of nearly an hour between Milius and Coppola. Milius relates that he twisted “Nirvana Now” into “Apocalypse Now” in adapting Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War.)
The images and sound of the 2001 version (allegedly edited from scratch, which is to say the two million feet of footage Coppola shot in the Philippines) are so great that I can’t recommend watching the original (1979) version, but I do recommend fast-forwarding through the French plantation interlude.
What has been a road movie turns into a horror film when the boat arrives at Krtuz’s base with the bloated Brando imprisoning Willard but then consenting to be killed by him, with the feverish blabbering of Dennis Hopper as a hero-worshipping photojournalist enhancing the madness. I think the Redux version has a bit more of Brando, but all the character development occurred as Willard read the dossier while traveling up river. I find Brando’s Kurtz more ridiculous than menacing, his hold over his followers mysterious (since I don’t recognize any charisma in Brando’s Kurtz), and the whole mission preposterous. More than Willard does, I bonded with the crew (billed as “Larrry,” Laurence Fishburne was 14-15 when “Apocalypse was being filmed; Frederic Forrest (who had been in “The Conversation”, Sam Bottoms (who was 22), Albert Hall (as the commander of the boat) and even Willard, despite his finishing off a wounded woman in order to get going again en route.
The sound (Oscar-winning), editing, and cinematography (for which Vittorio Storaro [The Conformist, Reds, The Last Emperor, Coppola’s Tucker and One from the Heart] won his first well-deserved Oscar) were outstanding, though I think the 1979 cutting of the plantation scene was totally right, and think the opening scene of a line of palms that are napalmed set to the Doors’ “The End” is very self-indulgent. “Apocalypse Now” may be a great movie (sometimes I think so, other times I don’t), but it is not a good one for all the great work by cast and crew. The Blu-Ray, which includes both versions on one disc and many bonus features on another, is superbly and generously crafted.
The madness concocted for the movie involves baroque overkill. And, as with almost all American films set in the Vietnam War, the focus is exclusively on the American characters. There are no Vietnamese characters, and only a few lines spoken by a man on the sampan that the PT-boat stops and searches and some taunting from megaphones at the bridge the Vietcong/North Vietnamese blow up every night). There is no indication of anyone (like, say, the South Vietnamese amry) other than Americans fighting the Vietnamese. Vietnamese exist in the movie only to silently menace the Americans or to be killed by Americans.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray
Also see Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War.