Revisiting The Classics: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

 “They train young men to drop fire on people, but their

  commanders won’t allow them to write fuck on their airplanes,

  because it is obscene.”

                                                                                       – Kurtz (Marlon Brando)

The University Theatre sat on Bloor Street in Toronto, standing like a massive cathedral for cinema, a church to film buffs and film junkies. On this warm summer day in August 1979, I walked into the wonderful cinema to see the first Toronto screening for audiences of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) which had won the top prize at Cannes in May. For three years I had heard rumblings about the film, until finally there it was in Cannes, front page news around the globe once it had screened. A prolonged ovation greeted the film, audiences standing, shouting “bravo” to director Francis Ford Coppola who it seemed had advanced the art of cinema with his film as Orson Welles did with ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941). 

I paid my money, collected my glossy programme and sat in my seat. When I emerged from the cinema three hours later, I would be altered in some way, forever galvanized by the experience of the film. Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory nightmare about the war in Vietnam seared itself into my mind that day, its white-hot imagery forever imprinted on my brain, called to mind instantly, as though I had seen the film just yesterday. My life was never quite the same afterwards and emerging from the cinema, I knew the path I had to follow.

The lights went down and the first image appeared on the screen. No titles, nothing. Just a lush jungle, trees swaying ever so gently. On the soundtrack, odd sounds began to grow, the sound of helicopters but somehow slowed down, electrified. Then the beginnings of The Doors haunting song The End, which Jim Morrison crooned with hypnotic majesty. Suddenly the jungle scene explodes into flames as Morrison mournfully sings “This is the end….“. The apocalypse, at least this apocalypse had begun. As the jungle inferno burned, gently coming into the frame was a man, superimposed over the flames, upside down, smoking, and then other images, but we always came back to this man. Finally, the chopper blades became an overhead fan in a hotel room, the man wakes, stands and walks over to the window where he peers outside.

Saigon” he says, “shit, I’m still only in Saigon.

This is Willard (Martin Sheen) an assassin for the military, awaiting a mission. Very slowly, as the walls close in on him, the memories of past kills haunt him and he begins to show the insanity that lurks within him. He guzzles whiskey from the bottle, practices martial arts in front of a mirror which he smashes, rubbing his blood over his face, finally collapsing naked, sobbing waiting for the night to end, for sleep to take him away from his active mind.

The end indeed.

Willard gets his mission, and as he tells us “when it was over he would never want another.” His mission is to move upriver into Cambodia, track and kill a renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone native and is fighting his own war without the permission of his government. Told to “terminate with extreme prejudice”, Willard accepts the mission, gathers his gear and heads to catch the boat that will help him get int Cambodia.

The crew of the boat are a motley lot, sort of a cross-section of American youth. Chief (Albert Hall) is in charge and no one dared question his authority, while Chef (Fredric Forrest) was a real chef, a saucier from New Orleans. Lance (Sam Bottoms) was a famous surfer from California, who often hooked a water ski to the back of the boat and skied behind. Clean (Laurence Fishburne) was a kid from the ghetto, naive, terrified, but playing the part of the soldier. They would make up Willard’s companions on the boat as it edged closer to Kurtz, taking us further into the war in Vietnam, into this unique heart of darkness.

When Francis Ford Coppola faced the press after the screening in Cannes he told them, “My film is not about Vietnam, my film is Vietnam. We were stuck in the jungle, we had access to too much equipment and money, and little by little we went insane.” For three years he had toiled on the film, the shooting had started in 1976 but moved slowly through the myriad of issues he and his cast and crew struggled with. Typhoons wiped out the jungle sets which had to be rebuilt, lead actor Harvey Keitel was fired after ten days and replaced by Martin Sheen who had impressed Coppola when he auditioned for ‘The Godfather’ (1972). The Philippines military would routinely call away the choppers they had loaned the film, their government ordering them to fight the rebels in the hills, leaving Coppola stranded with no choppers for the scene. Dennis Hopper was stoned on every drug known to mankind and more than a handful, but that did not even compare to Marlon Brando showing up overweight, huge in fact, and claiming not to have read the screenplay. He and Coppola spent hours debating the character, while the crew waited and money was spent. Exasperated with Brando, Coppola finally told him to write his own scenes, which made the actor very happy. For someone who had not read the screenplay, the scenes he wrote fit the film perfectly and left the director in awe of the actors astounding gifts.

Little by little he finished the film, agreeing to show it at Cannes as a work in progress. The ending was not finalized, he had three to choose from, there were still scenes to be removed and added, but still, even the incomplete film took the top prize. Film critics and reporters from around the globe had their reviews of the film on the front pages of the worlds best newspapers, it was a sensation and had been seen by less than a thousand people.

That strange journey up the river to Kurtz was extraordinary, giving us a birdseye view of the madness in Vietnam. Beyond water skiing behind a boat, things would get a whole lot stranger the further away from civilization they moved.

Encountering Kilgore (Robert Duvall) remains perhaps the high point of the film. A gung ho leader who loves his men, we first meet Kilgore (love the name) as his men are cleaning up an attack they have just executed. When he learns that Lance is with them, being a surfer he is a fan of the young man and talks about surfing the next day. There is a village of Viet Cong, has been there for a thousand years with a great beach break. Kilgore decides to attack the village at dawn so his boys and Lance can go surfing.

At dawn the choppers left off into the air, dotting the sky like prehistoric mosquitoes swarming for blood. Close to the village, they start the music which fills the air with Wagner and announces their arrival. And then the slaughter begins. Though the enemy fights back they are no match for Kilgore and his men, who take the village handily. When Kilgore gets to the beach, the Viet Cong are still firing at the men, grenades explode all around him and he walks through it all unflinching, almost amused by it. We see he is at peace with war, possessed of the belief nothing can hurt him, and nothing does. Tired of the VC fighting back he orders an airdrop of napalm which will wipe out everything in the area it is dropped upon. He watches the sky for the drop, sees the flames erupt through the jungle and the fighting,  stops. Sinking to his knees he utters the now infamous words, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” And then with sad regret he looks at his men and says to Willard, “You know, someday this war’s going to end” and stomps away. 

The film never quite recovers from the Duvall sequence, which is not to say it is any less brilliant than it is. Duvall is astonishing as Kilgore, the war-loving monger who kills to surf, being left alone to fight the war any way he wants. As bombs go off near the sea, Kilgore sits on the beach with his bullhorn shouting instructions, a walking contradiction.

But everything we see in the war is a contradiction. In the middle of the jungle is a stage with bleachers, the Playboy bunnies arriving in choppers to dance and tease the men into a sexual frenzy before taking off. While the soldiers feast on beer and steak, the Vietnamese eat rat meat and a little rice, satisfied with their meal. With death around them at every turn, it is a tiger in the jungle that poses the greatest threat until they draw closer to Kurtz. The Do Lung bridge represents pure madness. All day the Americans build it back, at night the Viet Cong attack and blow it up again. The dazed, unhinged faces of the men fighting at that spot tell us they are gone, they are now ghosts. Clean is killed in a firefight as they edge deeper into Cambodia, shot in a firefight as a message plays on his tape recorder, her voice talking about a homecoming that will never be. There they are attacked again by sticks, seemingly harmless until a massive spear pierces the chest of Chief leaving him dead in a way I would think he never thought possible. As they approach the Kurtz compound, surrounded by dead bodies and skulls, they are stunned to hear an American speak out, a photographer, slipping into madness himself.

And finally, Willard is face to face with Kurtz, his target, his mentor, his nemesis and his foe. Massive in girth, bald, looking like a great wounded Buddha, the great soldier speaks to Willard of the war and what he has seen, what he has done, sensing something in the younger man not unlike himself. Yet Willard is first and foremost an assassin, with great instincts and he knows what Kurtz wants more than anything is to be killed because he simply cannot deal with the madness of the war, the world anymore. As a water buffalo is slaughtered in a native ritual, so does Willard slaughter, Kurtz, with a machete, leaving the great man lying on the floor, whispering his last words, “the horror, the horror.”

The ending of the film is ambiguous, and always has been, in fact, was meant to be. Does Willard call in the strike, or does he stay to take the place of Kurtz? Because he is telling the story, one would assume he had left, bombing the natives as Kurtz instructed.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) gets under your skin, the performances, the imagery, the dialogue, all of it slips under the skin and stays there, attaching itself somehow to your soul and holding fast. Once you see the film, you will never forget it, you cannot unsee it, as film explores the ultimate madness of war, the sensory experience it becomes, the rush of battle, the terror of it all, and the sense that the closer you are to the fighting, the more intoxicating it becomes. But in that intoxication is a dark nightmare scratching the surface to be seen, to be felt. No film, before or after captured the nightmare that war was. Unfolding like a dream, with lyrical dark poetry, Coppola must have known he was plunging us into Vietnam and we were powerless to escape.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, easily the years best film, but it won just two, for cinematography and sound. The Academy had the year before awarded a film about Vietnam, ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978) so there seemed no chance it would do so the year following. Coppola was nominated for his fourth Oscar as Best Director, his fourth nomination in seven years, as well as by the Directors Guild of America Awards (DGA). Incredibly Martin Sheen failed to nab a nomination for Best Actor, though Robert Duvall was up for supporting actor and should have won. For me, his performance is the greatest supporting performance in film history.

And Brando. The bulk of criticism levelled at the film was directed at Brando for his haunting performance as Kurtz. Shot primarily in shadow, he resembles a broken Buddha damaged by what he has seen during the war. When he talks about what pushed him over the edge, realizing the Viet Cong were stronger than the Americans ever could hope to be, Willard understands, at last.

Is there another American actor who could have played that role at that time in history? No one would have brought the dark and deep gravity Brando brought to the part, no one. Only he could play this part and play it he did. That he improvised most of his performance is all the more remarkable. Watch and listen to his long monologue about the village, watch and listen to how he says the line, “and I cried, I wept like some grandfather.” Brando was brilliant and should have been a supporting actor nominee.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) would be the last great film Coppola would make. Failures through the eighties forced him to become a director for hire and though a solid craftsman, he was not made to be hired out, he was far too talented. But Hollywood was unforgiving, and Coppola had made enemies in his heyday with his arrogance. When he fell from grace, many enjoyed watching. History will make clear he is among the greatest directors to ever live, and if he is remembered only for the four films he directed in the seventies, what a quartet to be remembered for, ‘The Godfather’ (1972), ‘The Godfather Part II'(1974), ‘The Conversation’ (1974) and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). Years later, in 2001, with DVD all the rage Coppola went back to the film and restored fifty minutes of previously cut footage, and took the film, again to Cannes (again) where it earned rave reviews and more standing ovations. The new footage included the infamous French plantation sequence, more footage of Kilgore, more of Brando, the much-discussed Playmate scene, but brought nothing that made the film better, stronger. Many critics and journals, including Rolling Stone, named the film among the years best.

A few years ago I had the chance to interview Martin Sheen, now many years removed from Captain Willard and beloved on TV as the President in ‘The West Wing’. Shaking my hand violently, I told him his work in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) was the reason I became a film critic. Smiling broadly, he said, “Sure! Blame me.”

Coppola’s film remains a towering masterpiece, a surrealistic nightmare of war, that manages to explore the hell that was Vietnam. Everything we have seen in the previous near three hours is summed up in the final blood choked words of Kurtz, “the horror, the horror.

A magnificent bold film the likes of which we might not ever see again.

The University theatre is gone now, the brick facade all that remains, the ghosts of movies from days gone by the dance in my memory when I walk past. It was here I watched Indiana Jones running from trouble in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981), watched the Revolution in Russia in ‘Reds’ (1981), saw Darth Vader proclaim Luke as his son in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980), watched the premiere of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) as the film went up in flames among the critical community, but the memory best recalled is seeing ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) for the first time. I was like a blind man seeing for the first time. It was one of the most astonishing experiences of my life.

 

 

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