Art of Darkness
Dark. Cloistered caves; movements in shadows; rustlings behind dense ferns; muddy water of the Nung river stirring like brown blood oozing behind a battered PBR. In 1979 my brother and I went to the very first screening of this film. We left with our mouths hanging open. Coppolla had truly outdone himself. So many words have been said about Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker-artist Francis Ford Coppolla. As an artist, I recall being completely spellbound by this movie; I tried to understand the artistry that it took to create it. The majesty of the whole thing from start to finish (one must finish it or just quit watching altogether) was overpowering. I can't imaging coming into the last twenty minutes of La Boheme, or wandering into in the Louvre and yawning while looking at its treasures. Some films need to be seen, and Apocalypse Now is one of them. The lighting was supreme; the effects surreal and insane; the action scenes as intense as any war movie ever made.
Breaking Down Apocalypse Now
The story is basically a no-brainer; it's neither challenging, nor involved, yet keeps a willing viewer enrapt for the duration of its 153-minute running time. One tends to stare at the sweeping splendor of Hell painted in jungle greens and blood reds. Burnt out, and on-the-edge army Capt. Benjamin Willard sits wasting away hung-over, impatient and stirring while waiting to get back to the jungle. Called upon to carry out a rather unsavory top secret mission, he gets his wish.
Narrates Capt. Willard:
"Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one; brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I'd never want another."Willard's mission: to track down, and "terminate with extreme prejudice" renegade green beret colonel Walter E. Kurtz who is likewise burnt out, and on the edge. However, Kurtz's edge, is much, much sharper, and the army agrees that it would be to everyone's best interest if he just quietly disappeared. In short, the Colonel needs to be exterminated. This entire premise is what gives Capt. Willard the reason for his trip down the Nung river, and that trip is the movie.
"This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, of all elaborate plans-the end, of everything that stands-the end..."
A seedy Saigon motel room closes in on a drunken Captain Willard who wastes his time on R & R waiting for orders. The wait is excruciating as we all draw from the film's action and intense narrative. The film opens with a nightmarish, artistically crafted splash of napalm fire destroying lush jungle accompanied by The Doors haunting twelve-minute anthem "The End" serves as a funeral dirge doubling as a musical soundtrack. The song "The End" is a beautiful, albeit eerie song, that is quite unforgettable. This bit of opening alone is a visual diatribe on the body of humanity that stands in the way of war. (Personally, I can think of no other song, or piece of music that could pull this emotion off as nicely.)
Through the fire, destruction and smoke, Captain Benjamin Willard's face, superimposed upside down, slowly dissolves into our vision as the viewer is squired into the beautifully crafted prologue of Apocalypse Now. The camera slowly pans to a vertical position; the music still plays, the sounds of the cieling fan still press one's nerves, and the music begins to fade.
The camera continues to pan slowly over a half-filled shot glass, a cigarette lighter, Willard's hand holding a lit cigarette, and a .45 automatic pistol slightly tucked under his pillow. When I saw this in the opening scene, my feeling wasn't that it was a soldier's instinct ot have a handy weapon nearby; I took it to be Willard's bedmate and lover; a companion who could escort him out of this world with one big blast if he so chose. If I were to choose the most impacting part of the movie, it would be the first six and a half minutes.
I thank Coppolla for not saturating the film's soundtrack with period music in the same trashy manner that many other "period" movies have. We hear The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" blasting on a tinny little radio on the boat, and just that one piece of a song seems to be more than adequate. There's no need to remind the viewer that they're watching a movie set in a certain time period. So many great movies fall victim to playing second fiddle to their soundtracks. Heavily laden hit songs of the times in the background are extemely tedious and distracting in film. It's a wonder that I made it all the way through Scorsese's run of Top 40 hits in "Casino". Apocalypse Now had a modest, almost invisible soundtrack. The film employed a synthesizer using heavy sweep pads to perform much of the music in the background, and to provide drama against the narration.
As life evaporates into burning ashes, and choppers cruise by like New York City taxis, whirring helicopter blades disappear into a spinning ceiling fan panning down to one of the most depressing motel rooms in cinema history. Even the wallpaper seems like living skin, cracking and bleeding from years of neglect, and quite probably, decades of hosting the worst side of humanity. Thus begins Apocalypse Now. From this point forward we learn of the art of deception, professional paranoia, and delusions of grandeur that embody all of the military leaders of this film.
The Briefing: Granting Permission to Murder
Okay, who is this guy in the white shirt anyway? I'm sure most of us have asked this question, I know I have. But whoever this seemingly civilian guy is, he has access to the highest information and intelligence that this portion of the movie wants us to know. He is nameless, but is one of the major players in this briefing. We see a very young Harrison Ford and one of cinema's greatest players G. D. Spradlin present during this session. Spradlin, no doubt, is in control. He is the project leader. Ford, is his obviously uncomfortable junior officer. With quivering voice and constant throat clearings-nervous tics from someone unaccustomed to espionage-he lays out the plan.
"Understand Captian, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist," mutters Ford in the background. Our white-shirted civilian friend offers Willard a cigarette, and the most compelling line in the film: "Terminate with extreme prejudice."
Air Mobile: The Helicopter assault
Blasting "The Ride of the Valkyries" during the helicopter assault, and coupled with the mentally immature Col. Kilgore's crazed surfing fetish, we are offered the lightest moments of this movie. Comedy prevails in the midst of death, shootings of women and children, and horrific gore.
The question stands: can a human being laugh at something like this? As it turns out, yes. Laughter is the release from the sense of dread and agony that we are convinced is in our immediate future. Both scenes are regarded as all-time favorites , and are by far some of the most dynamic war scenes ever put on film. Being able to take this entire chapter of the film lightly is a permission granted to us by the amazing talents of Robert Duvall who has long proven his merit in the film industry. It takes true skill to make one laugh at something as intense as what Col. Kilgore provides with his Air Cavalry fleet. At dawn, as the choppers begin spinning their blades, and soldiers are cocking their weapons, a lone bugler blows the cavalry charge into a P.A. System. The end result: the viewer is super-charged with expectation.
Coppolla employed a true artist's eye in the filming of the helicopters attacking the beach head. These scenes also rank among the most popular. Of note: the beachhead helicopter attack was one of several movie scenes selected for home entertainment demos. We eventually witness the difficulty of taking of a heavily guarded enemy beach simply because "it has the best waves for surfing." Perhaps this portion of insanity offers us a bit of normalcy in an otherwise surreal and nightmarish film. Sadder yet is the fact that war becomes that much needed normalcy in the two hours and thirty-five minute span of Coppolla's hallucinogenic creation. One of the most powerful, eye-opening sequences ever is the incredible long shot depicting the napalm blast of the jungle.
Through the goofy cowboy antics of Col. Kilgore, we see the end result of his conquest as an event that he's already bored with. Kilgore is fearless; he sees the war as basically a large-scale football game, and feels melancholy at the thought of it ending. It's here that whatever light moments we experienced are gone forever. Kilgore fades back into the obscurity of the movie, and the journey begins down river.
Playboy Playmates: Bring on the Bunnies
First stop: a psychedelic Playboy Playmate USO show featuring a very harried-and worried looking Bill Graham as the promoter wh This scene could only take place at night, and further emphasizes Capt. Willard's separation from humanity as he sees nothing but the mission ahead. Everything, and everybody along the way only serve as inconveniences to him, something he must tolerate in order to move forward. One can almost sense that The Playmates are seen by him as the "enemy" simply for the fact that they are there, and in his path.
"Never get out of the boat," not even for something as simple as Mangoes, for that little walk into the bush could quite possibly kill you. You never know what awaits in the jungle as Willard and "Chef" soon learn. Though we never really see it well enough to decipher what's going on, we hear it as a giant tiger leaps out of the foliage. There was a quick lesson to be learned even before Sheen's narration explained it to us: something is always tracking you, even when you least expect it. The suspense of this scene is played up to the hilt as the two men silently track what's ahead of them in the bushes. The jungle is extremely thick and overgrown, beautifully photographed, and seemingly alive.
Capt. Willard Re-defined
Very soon the crew of the PBR "Streetgang" realize just how serious Capt. Willard's mission really is when he objects to them taking the time to stop and search a Vietnamese villager boat for weapons. Confusion ensues, a slight panic erupts, bullets fly, and woman is injured. Just as some of us may ask ourselves "now what?" the crew explains to Willard that they have to take her to shore and get her to an Arvin hospital. Willard draws his .45 and kills her without thought. While the crew looks at him in shock and horror, he simply says: "I told you not to stop, now let's go."
War and LSD
Intense battle as seen through the eyes of Lance Johnson after taking LSD is amazingly displayed with both sound and visual effects. Aside from the introductory helicopter assault, none of the battle scenes seem real, but rather surreal and nightmarish. Apocalypse Now almost feels like a dream that one expects to wake up from yet never does. This sequence shows us a scene from a battle that seems to never end, a battle without an officer to lead, and a battle where rock music is played on tinny radio speakers while machine guns blast at an invisible enemy.
"He's close" mutters the vacant soul of a soldier who's been at it for too long. Capt. Willard has come to a strange fork in the road while Lance Johnson trips out on the battle scenes calling everything "beautiful". However things begin to go bad further down river. The crew is systematically eliminated; first "Mr. Clean" is shot during a riverside skirmish from the invisible enemy, then The Chief takes a spear in the chest from jungle fighters using raw weapons. The only two crew members left alive are Lance and Chef who eventually accompany Willard to Col. Kurtz's jungle compound.
Martin Sheen's Movie
Many stars made this film, but it belongs to Martin Sheen. He is the true star, the driving force, and the face of Apocalypse Now. Sheen embodies so much more than the part of the actor; he becomes this movie. After suffering a heart attack during filming, and struggling for a quarter of a mile to get help, Sheen gave everything he had for this role. There were several choices considered for the part of Capt. Willard: Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and even Harvey Keitel who was hired for the role, but didn't quite work out. I'm glad that Martin Sheen stepped in to re-define Capt. Benjamin Willard. Martin Sheen had already made quite a name for himself in the 70's, doing very extraordinary work in film and made for TV movies.
I, personally, am a huge fan of Martin Sheen. I was a huge fan before this movie came out. Some of his work in made for television movies of the seventies was exemplary. (I would use the word perfection). Sheen could take a script and mold it to his own face, a feat that I'd seen few performers accomplish. To play a character like Capt. Willard, a person so removed from any recognizable living existence, would surely be an actor's challenge. He is flat; he is emotionless, and only presents himself as a living entity when someone, or something gets in his way, or grates on his nerves. He is a man with a mission; nothing, or nobody else matters.
Narrates Capt. Willard:
"When I was home after my first tour it was worse. I'd wake up, and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife until I said yes to a divorce."
The Final Destination: Meeting Col. Walter E. Kurtz
For me, Apocalypse Now plays in two parts, and this is what I consider the second part of the film. Upon reaching his objective, Capt. Willard is about to meet his target: Col. Walter E. Kurtz. The first part of this section plays like a lunatic broadway show. The boat cruises in, almost at a drift, so cautiously that we, the viewers, realize that the existence of Hell is not mythical, but reality. Willard is greeted by an obviously insane war correspondent photographer (Dennis Hopper) who, like Col. Kurtz, has chosen to disappear from the world. Willard encounters nothing but madness and savagery; severed heads lie at the mounting stones of Kurtz's temple, and numerous bodies are hanging by their necks from the trees. As the viewer, we have journeyed into madness only to reach its event horizon in the jungle compound of Col. Kurtz.
It's at this point of the movie where the dreamlike quality overtakes the picture, and we too are caught up in the madness and demented sickness that permeates this secret jungle fortress. At first Willard is interrogated, then kept in a bamboo cage so confining that he cannot move. He's given a ladle full of water by Hopper's character, just enough to sustain him long enough to receive his daily lessons.
Ultimately Chef's severed head is dropped into his lap-courtesy of Col. Kurtz, and Capt. Willard-via Martin Sheen-gives us his first sign of being a living human being. Finally, as if given audience to The Pope, Willard is permitted into Kurtz' caved chambers to discuss, life, virtue, lies, sanity, and death. As we watch, the madness only mounts as Willard listens patiently to a man he is about to exterminate. As a tribal celebration is underway, Willard finds a machete to finish off Kurtz. As Capt. Willard exits the cave-with bloody machete in hand-the natives part making a path for him to return to his boat. He grabs Lance, the only survivor of the crew, and takes him back to the PBR to leave. From there, the ending appears murky; many, including myself, believed that he called in an air strike that destroyed the entire compound and everybody in it.
Notes: "The End" Written by Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore. Released in 1967. Running time: 11:40 (album version) 6:48 (edited film version). Listen to it here.
The final soundtrack during the air strike sequence and ending credits is rumored to have been performed with guitar overlays Jimi Hendrix style by world famous Hendrix imitator Randy Hansen. I have no proof of this. I'd appreciate any confirmation. The ending was highly speculative. See the original ending before it was clipped by Coppolla. Wikipedia writes:
The original 1979 70mm exclusive theatrical release ended with Willard's boat, the stone statue, then fade to black with no credits, save for '"Copyright 1979 Omni Zoetrope"' right after the film ends. This mirrors the lack of any opening titles and supposedly stems from Coppola's original intention to "tour" the film as one would a play: the credits would have appeared on printed programs provided before the screening began. In any case, when Coppola heard that audiences interpreted this as an air strike called by Willard, Coppola pulled the film from its 35 mm run, and put credits on a black screen. (However, prints with the "air strike" footage continued to circulate to "repertory" theatres well into the 1980s.) In the DVD commentary, Coppola explains that the images of explosions had not been intended to be part of the story; they were intended to be seen as completely separate from the film. He had added them to the credits because he had captured the footage during the demolition of the sets (required by the Philippine government), which was filmed with multiple cameras fitted with different film stocks and lenses to capture the explosions at different speeds.