Apocalypse Now (United States, 1979)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since its 1979 release, Apocalypse Now has been widely regarded as one of the most powerful and influential films about the Vietnam War. Were it not for the final thirty minutes, I might agree. There's little doubt that the bulk of the movie, which features actor Martin Sheen's trek from the normality of Saigon to the backwaters of Cambodia, is compelling material. But Apocalypse Now falls apart with the arrival of Marlon Brando. Putting aside the simple fact that the ending is anticlimactic and disappointing, the picture's final half-hour is borderline-incoherent, badly written, and highlights a pair of poorly realized performances (Brando and Dennis Hopper).

In 2001, director Francis Ford Coppola returned to the footage of Apocalypse Now and assembled a new cut, which he christened with the lugubrious title of Apocalypse Now Redux. Approximately 50 minutes of additional footage was inserted, 90% of which added little to or actually detracted from the plot. There are a couple of new scenes that are important, but they are overwhelmed by two lengthy exhibitions of bad acting, bare breasts, and verbal diarrhea. The original Apocalypse Now clocked in at about 2 1/2 hours - long, but not unreasonably so (although I would argue that the length of Brando's appearance should have been cut to resemble his extended cameo in Superman, which arrived in theaters a year earlier). Apocalypse Now Redux drags on for more than 3 1/3 hours; the bloated size of the director's cut is matched only by the ego of the man who assembled it and the girth of the best-known actor.

The essential story, which is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is straightforward. Coppola's goal with Apocalypse Now is twofold: to display something of the absurdity or war and to provide evidence of what it turns human beings into. In the process, the director provides a vivid understanding of why the United States lost the war. Unlike other Vietnam films, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now is neither highly politicized nor especially controversial. With a notable exception (the sampan massacre), it does not dwell on American atrocities perpetrated upon the indigenous population. In fact, the Vietnamese are at best supporting characters. They show up occasionally, but the movie isn't really about them. In fact, few changes would be necessary to re-locate the story to almost any other setting with a long river surrounded by a hostile jungle. That, after all, was the premise of Conrad's book.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin Willard, a U.S. military officer who is dying for an assignment. Even though the film stays with him for most of its running length, Willard remains much of a mystery. He is our guide, but details about his history are dropped like breadcrumbs. By the time the movie reaches its climax, we know more about Willard's elusive quarry, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando), than we do about the film's protagonist. This is intentional; Willard is a stand-in for every audience member. He is not a superhero. He is prone to make mistakes and to place too much trust in his superiors.

His mission is to penetrate into Cambodia, locate Colonel Kurtz, and terminate him with "extreme prejudice." Kurtz is a decorated and highly respected Green Beret who has set himself up as a god somewhere in the jungle, and is committing actions that are not sanctioned by the United States government. Whether or not he is sane is irrelevant (although it's clear that Willard's superiors believe he has lost his mind); Kurtz has become a danger and an embarrassment, and must be eliminated.

The film's narrative is episodic in nature as it follows Willard's journey up the (fictional) Nung River. He is accompanied on a patrol boat by four others: Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), the boat's commander, who resists Willard's authority as much as he can; Chef (Frederic Forrest), whose lone ambition in life is to cook; Clean (a 14-year old Laurence Fishburn), an inner city kid whose mother sends him tape-recorded "letters"; and Lance (Sam Bottoms), a surfer who's more often stoned than sober. Only Willard knows their mission. All he tells Chief is to take the boat past the Do Lung bridge and into Cambodia.

Their first encounter is with the fanatical Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), whose desire to kill North Vietnamese is equaled only by his passion for surfing. Even the film's detractors will readily admit that the scenes with Kilgore are masterful. Kilgore is presented as a lunatic - someone who will risk just about anything to ride a good wave, even in the midst of a pitched battle. He obliterates a sizable portion of the coastline jungle in order to eliminate any sniper fire that could make surfing hazardous. (The napalm air strike results in Apocalypse Now's most famous quote, uttered by Kilgore: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning.") But there are signs of humanity there, too: in a scene re-inserted in the Redux version, Kilgore is shown helping to save a young Vietnamese girl. And he's a showman when it comes to battle tactics. When he leads an attack squadron of helicopters against a village, the speakers are blaring Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Any resemblance between Kilgore and General George S. Patton is intentional. And it's worth noting that Francis Ford Coppola was the screenwriter for Patton.

After leaving Kilgore, there's a brief sequence in which Willard and Chef disembark from the boat to search for mangoes. Instead, they find a tiger. The sequence is most notable for its display of cinematographer Vittorio Storraro's prowess. As captured by his camera, the jungle is a wild, untamed monster, with trees that dwarf men and hidden secrets that can kill in an instant. Never has the Philippine jungle (standing in for Vietnam) looked as imposing on the big screen.

Next on the up river trek is a visit to the supply depot at Hau Phat, where the troops are treated to a USO show featuring three Playboy Playmates. The song-and-dance program ends abruptly when unruly soldiers storm the stage and the women have to escape in a helicopter. The Playmates make another appearance later in the Redux version when Willard agrees to trade some fuel in exchange for a few hours with them (Chef and Lance are the two the camera follows.) The resulting scenes, which feature embarrassingly bad acting by the women and syrupy dialogue that attempts to illustrate the Playmates' ambivalence about their roles as sex objects, represents 15 minutes of wasted screen time.

Then comes the sampan massacre. The boat stops a sampan in order to check its cargo (the Viet Cong have used sampans to transport weapons and contraband). When a girl makes an unexpected move to keep Chef from searching a bamboo container, a jittery Clean opens fire, killing everyone on the sampan except the girl, who is seriously wounded. (It turns out that what she was trying to hide/protect is a puppy.) Chief declares that they must take the girl on board and bring her to where she can be given medical attention. Willard, deciding that they can't afford the delay, executes her. It is, without a doubt, Apocalypse Now's most shocking moment, perfectly illustrating the ruthlessness that can lurk within anyone. From that moment, everyone on the boat sees Willard differently.

After the incident with the sampan, the boat reaches the Do Lung bridge, which changes hands daily from Americans to Vietnamese, and into Cambodia. A mail carrier arrives with new information for Willard and parcels for everyone else. Shortly thereafter, sniper bullets from the shore kill Clean. In the Redux version, this is followed by a lengthy sequence at a French plantation where the discussion revolves around colonialism and communism, and culminates in a gauzy, opium-drenched sex scene between Willard and a French widow (Aurore Clement) that looks like it was extracted from a soft core porn film. Coppola originally removed this sequence from the film because he feared that it slows down proceedings. He was wrong. It stops them dead.

After the French plantation, the movie enters its end game. Chief is killed by a spear to the back hurled by hostile natives lining the shores. The boat arrives at Kurtz's compound and is greeted by a drugged-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper). This leads to Willard's meeting with Kurtz, who spends an in ordinate amount of time babbling, quoting poetry, and muttering about the horrors he has seen. Willard, who is torn between admiration for the madman and his duty to follow orders, eventually decides how to resolve the situation, with more than an assist from Kurtz. The scene in which Willard kills Kurtz is intercut with a native ritual sacrifice, overstating the metaphor. Thereafter, Willard elects not to assume Kurtz's position as a self-appointed god, and returns to the boat.

The troubles encountered by Coppola during filming have been exhaustively documented. The shoot, originally scheduled to last about 4 1/2 months, stretched to 16 months. A typhoon temporarily halted filming and devastated the area. Martin Sheen suffered nearly-fatal health problems. Marlon Brando arrived substantially overweight and insisted that he only be filmed in shadow, where his waistline could be hidden from the camera. Drug use and adultery were rampant. Coppola nearly lost his mind. One could argue that the behind-the-scenes story is more compelling that what ended up in the movie. George Hickenlooper's 1991 film, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, documents the shoot, using cast and crew interviews and footage shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, to offer a starting look inside the madness of the production. Considering the chaos of the shoot, it's no surprise that the ending of Apocalypse Now is so incoherent and fuzzily focused.

Coppola went into the Kurtz compound sequences without a well-defined ending. John Milius' draft of the script (which Coppola extensively re-wrote) called for a huge battle, but Coppola decided to excise this. The need to be selective about how the bald-headed Brando was photographed further complicated things. The legendary actor's performance is hammy and over-the-top, and his improvised dialogue is by turns pretentious and indecipherable. His interaction with Sheen is profoundly disappointing. The big revelation - that only a madman who has gazed deeply into the horror of war could win in Vietnam - is neither surprising nor revolutionary. Added to this is Dennis Hopper's annoying, babbling photojournalist (it's almost impossible to believe Hopper wasn't stoned when he turned in this performance), which further confuses and mars things, and it's not much of a stretch to call Apocalypse Now's climax a complete mess. Contrary to some early reports, which indicated that Coppola was not pleased with the conclusion, the director has indicated that his "vision" is appropriately captured. That's unfortunate, because the final 30 minutes of Apocalypse Now represent a gargantuan misstep.

Yet those who avoid Apocalypse Now because of its ending are doing themselves a disservice, because there is much worth seeing during the sequences leading up to the Willard/Kurtz confrontation. The trip up the Nung River is powerful and haunting, and captures the essential insanity of war in a way that other films, including remarkable efforts like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Platoon, have been unable to do. This war isn't about winning or losing, or even surviving. It's about remaining sane. It's about entering a world that is almost prehistoric and not losing oneself. When it comes to presenting the movie's theme, the Kurtz scenes are redundant. They merely reiterate what Coppola delineates during the boat trip.

While I recommend the original theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now, I cannot be as positive about Apocalypse Now Redux. The longer, re-edited version is a dud compared to its older sibling, killing momentum with badly-acted, wordy, dull sequences. The primary value of having Redux available is to illustrate how more can be less. Despite having 20 years of down-time for tinkering, Coppola has not been able to improve upon the product of instinct and necessity that reached screens in 1979. Apocalypse Now is one of those flawed films that contains enough masterful sequences to compel a viewer. Redux is merely a curiosity, and of interest only to those die-hards who believe this movie to be one of the greatest pictures ever to be projected in a theater.

Apocalypse Now (United States, 1979)