Friday, December 10, 2010

Apocalypse Now (1979)


          One of the definitive cinematic statements of the ’70s, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War drama is indulgent, pretentious, and undisciplined, but the film’s narrative excesses perfectly match its theme of men driven mad by an insane world. Famously adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness by gonzo screenwriter John Milius, then rewritten by Coppola and sprinkled with evocative narration by Michael Herr, the harrowing movie follows the journey of military assassin Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), sent by his U.S. Army masters to take out a rogue Green Beret, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has established an ultraviolent fiefdom in Cambodia. The irony of the Army condemning one of its own killing machines for being too bloodthirsty is just part of the film’s crazy-quilt statement about the obscenity of war in general and that of the Vietnam conflict in particular; even though the narrative wanders into many strange places along the way, it always returns to the maddening central idea that murder is acceptable as long as it’s done according to plan.
          Moving away from the classicism of his early-’70s triumphs and entering a vibrant period of expressionist experimentation, Coppola oversees a string of bold and inspired sequences, many of which have become iconic. The opening salvo, with hallucinatory intercutting of jungle imagery and a sweaty Saigon hotel room while the Doors’ menacing song “The End” plays on the soundtrack, goes beyond masterful and enters the realm of tweaked genius. And how many scenes in other movies match the audacity of the helicopter attack scored with Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries”? The film’s dialogue is just as vivid, from “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” to “The horror, the horror.” Sheen is extraordinary, channeling his intensity and remarkable speaking voice into a performance of perverse majesty, while supporting players Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper match him with crystalline personifications of two different brands of lunacy. Famously overpaid and uncooperative costar Brando gives Coppola fragments of brilliance that the director stitches into something weirdly affecting, and the fact that Brando’s performance works is a testament to the heroic efforts of a team of editors including longtime Coppola collaborator Walter Murch.
          Speaking of behind-the-camera participants, it would be criminal not to sing the praises of Vittorio Storaro’s luminous photography, which somehow captures not only the heat but also the suffocating humidity of the jungle. Actors Timothy Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, and G.D. Spradlin all contribute immeasurably as well, and Harrison Ford pops up for a bit part. After consuming the powerful 153-minute original version, consider exploring the fascinating (and even more indulgent) 202-minute extended cut titled Apocalypse Now Redux, and by all means seek out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, possibly the most illuminating behind-the-scenes documentary ever made.

Apocalypse Now: OUTTA SIGHT

3 comments:

Tommy Ross said...

I could write a 20-page essay on this film on all the reasons why I think it is flat-out the very best motion picture of all-time.

Peter L. Winkler said...

A photograph of Scott Glenn in his military uniform is briefly shown, but otherwise he's not in the film at all. How then does he make an immeasurable contribution to the film?

By Peter Hanson said...

Clearly it's a very impressive photograph...? Thanks for the catch. Obviously a sloppy mistake, easily fixed.