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Apocalypse Now

*****
1979

‘…a punishing, poetic, beautiful, horrible film about man’s inhumanity to man…’

Let’s go mad in the jungle. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie is arguably the apex of film-making for grown-ups, a blockbuster that reaches back to a classic text (Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and updates it to the Vietnam War, but comes back with something more than just a war movie, or even an anti-war movie. It’s a punishing, poetic, beautiful, horrible film about man’s inhumanity to man; it fascinated me as a teenager, and has rewarded with every watch since.

Of course, no two views are the same; from a battered VHS, to recuts (Redux) and now this Final Cut on blu-ray. As the viewer changes, so does the film; this latest cut keeps the lengthy French Plantation scene that was added to the original version, and even seems to have an interval, but integrates these digressions more firmly into the narrative structure so that the journey up the river is less of a story than an experience, as Coppola intended. For my school exams, I abandoned the prescribed texts and wrote about this movie instead; a gamble, but better to write about a what you love than fake it.

And so once again we set sail in a plastic boat, under the unofficial command of Willard (Martin Sheen) as he heads towards his deadly meeting with martinet Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz had made war his personal plaything, arranging massacres to salve his own psyche; US High Command want to end Kurtz’s jungle-games, and Willard is ordered to stop him ‘with extreme prejudice. Their meeting takes up the last third of the movie, but getting there provides some of the most iconic scenes in film history. From Robert Duvall’s surf-loving Colonel to the tiger attack, the Playboy bunnies riot to the shimmering bridge of lights which is pointlessly rebuilt every night; Willard’s journey takes us through the anger and the futility of war and beyond. The result is more like 2001 A Space Odyssey than any guts and glory action movie. And while that French plantation visit might seem to stop the journey in its tracks, it’s vital in understanding that Willard’s understanding of atavism is complex; he can sit down for chilled wine with polite company, even after he shoots an innocent woman to keep their time-schedule intact. In this world, civilisation is just a veneer, a semblance of human behaviour that takes us to the next level of insanity.

No film-maker will ever be left to their own devices as Coppola was here, building an entire city in inhospitable country, and creating an utterly convincing world that the film inhabits. The sense of excess and bloat is, for once, required to capture the sense of a country and a culture humbled; there’s a sense of mordant guilt that makes it the definitive Vietnam film. It’s worth noting that Willard is a wreck before his mission starts, and is glassy eyed while Harrison Ford and Sam Shepard brief him; we’ve already seen Willard tripping out in a hotel room, and know that whatever madness he finds outside the door, he’s already harbouring the same destructive feelings in his heart.

Apocalypse Now is perhaps one of the ten must-see films ever made, huge in scope, precise as a watch, staggering in intent. Critics bemoaned the pulpy feel of The Godfather was missing, but Coppola saw his chance to create something for the ages, a vision of a man-made hell on earth that only the slaying of a man-god could justify. Resplendent on blu-ray, this is well worth returning to shorn of previous expectations; Apocalypse Now is still a profound comment on the dark side of man’s desire for progress at all costs, and is a salutary lesson in these pandemic times, when the veneer of civilisation is in danger of slipping again.

Thanks to StudioCanal for access to the blu-ray of The Final Cut.

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  1. Yes, there are so many variables to consider when viewing this epic (and, I won’t say “masterpiece”): the media format (theatre, theatrical re-release, VHS, blue-ray, etc.), the age you were when you first saw it (probably not seasoned enough to appreciate it; at least, I wasn’t), the age you were when you saw it again with more cinematic experience and mature eyes, the type of cut (they are all too long, if you ask me), and the critical response, which I always held dear to my heart when I first approached “the classics” (RIP Roger Ebert). Apocalypse Now fascinates me and then dulls out in the end. The story of Marlon Brando’s unexpected weight gain and forgetfulness of lines and rampant ego is more intriguing than his odd performance of Colonel Kurtz, in my opinion, and if there was any “madness” going on in the production of this movie, it would be in the editing room where they didn’t leave enough cuts on the floor. But, still, I enjoy this movie, its history, and its accomplishment. CGI has replaced the “epic film” these days. It’s too bad. “The horror.” (sorry, I had to)

  2. My sentiments exactly…! It’s also a highly appropriate 2020 venue. We see all sorts of masks worn and personas shattered to survive the heart of darkness journey called war. We see all sorts of acts performed but called by other names…
    At movies end, wearing a mud black face, the perceptive might question why it’s so important to kill Kurtz, a man that killed 2 people that may have been working against our Gov’t military forces? We might then ask why didn’t his (high ranking) life matter? He knew all about the insanity, the horror of war.
    Wars and viruses become entertainment –metaphors for value systems or lack thereof. In a director’s skilled hands, what music best describes this year? Is it the psychedelic noise of ANow, Morrison’s This is the End, or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries? My money’s on Cohen’s Bird on a Wire or Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. This is a movie for the ages. Thanks firm authority!

    • I think it is a movie for the ages, for sure! And there’s plenty of Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan songs that saw this all coming a way back…and yes, that question is in the film, isn’t the line ‘it was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’; Kurtz must die, not because he’s mad or evil, but because he’s usurping the position of the military and making it about his personal interest. It’s a killing with extreme prejudice, but morality has little to do with it. Some films seem great when you’re a teenager, but less so as an adult; I’m happy to evangelise this film as still relevant even, or parhaps particularly, in a world upside down….and yes, I’ll be back for the next part of my story tomorrow, it’s been a crazy week…

    • Somehow the multiple cuts make the memory fuzzy; I’d really recommend The Final Cut for one more go-around, I felt that the plantation scene really makes it a different movie from the one you probably first saw, and a better one to boot. Plot and dialogue no longer diminish as we got up the river, and the film is more literate and serious as a result.

    • Am a fan of Ken Burns, and have a soft spot for Casualties of War, underrated film, but then again, I even like Redacted too…

  3. I hated Heart of Darkness, so am not sure I could watch this without turning into a frothing rage machine. Add in the whole Vietnam aspect and I’d be up on my anti-commie pinko soap box quicker than you could spit.

    As others have expressed, at some point it would be nice to see what your Top 10 would be. I bet it would be quite enlightening.

    • Garfield 2; A Tale of Two Kitties, Cats and Dogs 2; the Legend of Kitty Galore and the Beverly Hills Chihuahau trilogy are the top five…

      • You need to be shot! Or hanged, or whatever they do to heinous criminal masterminds over in the UK now.

        Treating such a sacred subject with such levity. Where is your self-respect as a self-avowed Master of Ironing? I’m beginning to wonder if I need to join up with Darth Fraggleus and take you down…

            • You’ll need to get up earlier in the morning to get one past me, friendo! I didn’t order a cup of tea, and my controversial views will not be silenced by you, fraggle or anyone!

              • I thought you brits drank tea whether you ordered it or not? Kind of like us and coffee? I mean, who would turn down a free cup of coffee? I’m going to have to up my game I guess!

                I’m going to remember this conversation for future times though. Your iron handed despotic movie tyranny will soon end. Even if I have to make an ally of some “Inspirational Quotes” kind of blog (oh the horror of that!!!!!)

    • Oh, now that I’m back at my desk, just wanted to note that Apocalypse Now is co-written with John Milius, who also worked on Conan and Red Dawn, and Magnum Force, and is no-one’s idea of a commie pinko….

      • I’ve not watched Magnum Force. Red Dawn was horrible. My brother and I watched it to get a laugh and part way through we just agreed to turn it off and pretend we’d not watched it. And we LIKED the premise and that idea.
        I had no idea that a “Resist the Evil Communists” movie could be ruined, but man, Red Dawn figured out how.

        Wait, does Magnum Force star Chuck Norris? Something Force with him it rings a bell….

  4. I used to not like warmovies when I was younger but that’s something that has totally changed now. This is of course a classic, and while I don’t know what you have on the list for the other nine movies, this is definitely one of the 10 must see movies in my book as well. Great performances, compelling sets, and a teriffic story blend into an incredibly well made film. Awesome review!😀

  5. Yeah, this is definitely one of my desert island discs. If I had a TV and a DVD player on my desert island. I’ve always been of two minds about the French plantation scene. I think it’s a great piece, but it does upset the narrative a bit, and the movie seemed perfect to me without it. Sometimes you leave well enough alone. I didn’t think the other scenes that missed making it were necessary, which is how I usually feel about stuff that got left on the cutting room floor. It sounds like this movie is turning into Blade Runner or Oliver Stone’s Alexander now with all these different versions.

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