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.