Some people call Apocalypse Now one of the great war epics. While it’s true in a sense, it’s bigger than that. It’s like calling The Godfather the story of a boy and his family.
There never was, and never again will be, a movie like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in terms of budget, scope, execution, style and ambition. Sure, your average blockbuster these days may be “big,” but most of it is fake, it’s very tightly controlled and there’s always about 20 plots because the main one isn’t all that interesting. Apocalypse Now is a mutated beast of a movie that, while sprawling and episodic, never loses focus.
Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now came at just the right time for Coppola and Hollywood. He had directed The Godfather I & II and The Conversation, produced American Graffiti and co-written Patton. He was on a hot streak to end all hot streaks. His ability to see the potential in risky and untested subject matter was constantly being confirmed; The Godfather was based on a pulpy crime novel nowhere near the level of the film, and George Lucas was just a highfalutin art and sci-fi obsessed film student before Coppola helped get American Graffiti made. No studio in their right mind would tell this guy he couldn’t adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and set it in Vietnam.
The film world was different in the 1970s, often called the New Hollywood era or the American New Wave. The MPAA rating system allowed for greater artistic freedom (at the time), and there was a new crop of massively talented visionaries ready to seize the opportunity, people like Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Michael Cimino and Terrence Malick. Society was ready for something new, so studios threw all of their weight and influence behind these kids, no matter how crazy their ideas. Things went great for a while; you had The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Deer Hunter, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Badlands, and the list goes on. But this blind trust would eventually backfire after a series of colossal failures by Coppola (One from the Heart), Scorsese (New York, New York) and Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) whcih is when studios began to tie creative control in with their funding.
Apocalypse Now hit the sweet spot, right after The Deer Hunter and right before Heaven’s Gate, where he could get away with anything. Take a look at this iconic scene with Robert Duvall, with all the explosions and helicopters zipping around in the background. This is INSANE by ANY standard. All of this money for a single shot because that’s what the artist demanded. Craziness. You can just see the producers reviewing the dailies, saying, “Francis, could you maybe have a bit less of the million-dollar helicopters zooming around just as set dressing?”
But above all else – war film, epic, an artist gone mad with other people’s money – it’s an effective update of the themes in Conrad’s original novel: fear and horror. Fear of what unholy madness you’ll find just a bit further up the river, horror at discovering that the same madness exists inside you.
Maybe “update” is the wrong word. If anything, it shows that humanity hasn’t come all that far. We act like the art of war has matured and become far more controlled, but both Central Africa and post-colonial Vietnam produced a man like Kurtz. Rather than being drunk with power, they still believe that they are living up to their duty by committing these atrocities. And worst of all, we’ve created a situation where a man like this can actually thrive.
The story goes that Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), a Special Operations officer with obvious PTSD, is assigned to pursue Kurtz on the grounds that, though he is the greatest soldier the American military ever produced, his methods have become “unsound.” Willard accepts, but he’s barely a man anymore. He had recently come back from furlough, during which he could only think about the war. Now that he’s back, all he can think about is home.
He’s assigned a boat with a crew of kids, draftees, while his mission remains classified. He never tells where they’re going or who they’re after, only that they’re continuing upriver. Along the way, they encounter jarring, disturbing situations that only get stranger the closer they get, things that raise questions about human sanity. At a Playboy USO show, the men lose control and rush the stage. While stopping a fishing boat, Willard kills an injured civilian woman when no one else will, shocking the crew with what this man is capable of.
The closer they get to Kurtz, the more they can feel his madness. The river becomes a metaphor for Kurtz’s mind, beginning in conventional warfare and becoming increasingly depraved. And they’re not the first this has happened to.
The setting works beautifully because, in the modern world, war is a cesspool of all human experience. It’s political, it’s economic, it’s tragic, it’s heroic, it’s visceral, it’s organized, it’s wild. So many mixed messages, so many horrors, it’s enough to make a person go insane.
That said, as layered and involved as the movie is and as complicated as it was to make, it’s really pretty simple thematically. The messages strike deep, but the images don’t need much analysis to make sense because they all play on our instincts rather than our intellect. This isn’t The Godfather or The Conversation, with complex schemes that require multiple viewings to take it all in. That’s not a criticism, it’s actually praise. It takes quite a bit of work to make your art become the totality of what you’re trying to communicate in the way Apocalypse Now does.
The movie IS madness. It IS horror. And the making of it was no different.
Sets in Indonesia were destroyed by weather. Actors were replaced. Literal heart attacks were had. Coppola’s production company almost went bankrupt. Brando was cast to play the lean, dedicated villain Col. Kurtz, but showed up massively overweight and without bothering to learn his lines or read Heart of Darkness, so they disguised his gut with shadows and let him ramble on, hoping something would come together. Even after filming was done, the movie didn’t have an ending, so they had to hobble one together out of assembled Brando footage.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what a master of his craft calls “hobbling together.”
This is probably even more effective than what Coppola had originally planned. Things are scarier when they’re never completely revealed, it doesn’t get much scarier than a faceless head spouting violent poetry that might end in decapitation. He’s never fully revealed, how he went down this path will forever be a mystery.
The horror. The…horror.
Comments: Apocalypse Now is the end of an era for both Coppola and director-controlled Hollywood. If it hadn’t been a massive success, it would have been an unmitigated disaster. But what a way to go.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes, most definitely.
Inspired: Lots of things. But most notably, this episode of Animaniacs. Went WAY over my 10 year old head.
Next Week: #27 Bonnie and Clyde
Last Week: #29 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
BUY THE MOVIE HERE.
GO TO THE AFI 100 LANDING PAGE TO SEE MORE.
FOLLOW THE EXPLOITS ON TWITTER @DAILYFANBOY.