MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #30. Apocalypse Now (1979)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.”

The top three examples of ego run rampant that ended the director lead era of 70s Hollywood are Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  Way over time and way over budget, Cimino basically brought down an entire movie studio and ruined his own career.  Way over time and way over budget, Friedkin used every bit of goodwill he’d built with The French Connection and The ExorcistAnd while he’s made more than a few well received movies in the decades since, he never really reached the A-list again.  Way over time and way over budget, Coppola made one of the most deservedly iconic movies of all time.

It’s the Vietnam War and Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard is a black ops soldier, with several clandestine assassinations to his name.  Which makes him just the man to be covertly sent to Cambodia, where rogue US. Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has built his own cult like army, and taken to fighting his own war by his own rules.

Along with ‘Chief’ (Albert Hall), ‘Mr Clean’ (Lawrence Fishburn), ‘Chef’ (Federic Forrest) and Lance (Sam Bottoms), he make the journey up river, the opposite direction to every other soldiers’ orders and instincts, on their mission, the details of which are known only to Willard.

The question isn’t will any of these guys lose their minds.  The question is, how soon will it happen to each one, and how extreme will the loss be.  Blatantly commented on more than once by more than one character, it’s no metaphor or subtext, it’s blatant text.  The further they go up river, the more they lose their grasp on sanity and reality.

One thing that makes any war picture a cut above, is when it portrays war in minute, horrific detail, while also making me realise that even then, I could never hope to have even the smallest understanding of what’s it’s like to actually be there.  Apocalypse Now does that from the second it starts until long after it’s over. From Willard alone and obviously emotionally broken in his hotel room, to river skirmishes, to Kurtz’s compound.  Even the Playboy Bunnies headlining a USO show.  In any other movie that would be a moment of joy, or even comic relief.  Here, it’s just a tragic reminder of these young men, trying to survive the hell they’ve been dropped in.

Originally scheduled for a six week shoot, Coppola ended up filming for 16 months, then hid in the editing room for several years.  Somehow, all that indulgence, all that madness and agony is completely evident on screen and only adds to the impact of Apocalypse Now.  Apparently there was over 200 hours of film shot, and even at its longest, the finished movie is only a little over three hours long.  I don’t know how to explain this, but I really do think you can see the other 197 hours on screen.  There’s a strange feeling of knowing these actors have been through so much to be able to deliver the performances that make the final cut.

For this review, I watched the extended, Redux cut, released around 2000.  I’m not familiar enough with the original to know everything that was added in, but I do know the largest addition was the lengthy French plantation sequence.  I also know it’s pretty unnecessary.  Sure, it looks amazing, the acting is great and it gives some context about the nature of colonialism in general, and the hundreds of years of Vietnamese colonialism specifically, but this story isn’t about that stuff.  It just feels like an unnecessary tangent, delaying the story while adding nothing necessary to it.

Apocalypse Now is a miracle in a few ways.  It was a subversive movie about a monumental American balls up in a time when no one else had yet made a movie about the subject.  It was an out of control shoot that fell into absolute chaos in every way imaginable.  Natural disasters destroyed sets, the odd military coup took their fleet of helicopters and its star had a heart attack during filming.  Yet, from all of that, Coppola somehow managed to make one of the most visually and emotionally impactful movies in the history of cinema.

Apocalypse Now should have collapsed dozens of times for dozens of different reasons.  Instead, it was a massive critical hit, a massive box office hit and its reputation only improves with age.  Every time I watch it, I’m surprised by how justified all of that praise and success is.

Apocalypse Now
Directed By – Francis Ford Coppola
Written By – Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius

Best Cinematography – Virrorio Storaro
Best Sound – Walter Murch, Mark Berger, Richard Beggs, Nathan Boxer

Palm d’Or (and the version that won wasn’t even the finished film!)

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about Apocalypse Now?
Roger Ebert
The Guardian
Top 30 Countdown

7 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #30. Apocalypse Now (1979)

  1. The Redux cut makes it clear why “Clean” massacred the people in the boat. It was sexual frustration. But in general I liked the original cut better.

    The high point of the film is obviously the helicopter attack and it’s one of the great scenes in all of film. But I don’t think the rest of the film has the ideological and moral consistency the Conrad novel does.

    Sorcerer, for what it’s worth, is flawed, by it has some great parts. I’m from Elizabeth New Jersey and part of it was filmed on location in my hometown. Friedkin caught the feel of the whole place.

  2. How dogged, how pig-headed, how completely self assured was Coppola to battle an entire movie studio and all that industry power and weight to force through the completion of this film.

    When I watch Hearts of Darkness, Coppola appears to flying by the seat of his pants. Script changes, sacked lead actors, an out out of control Brando. But somehow, in someway it comes together.

    I agree completely with srogouski regarding Conrad’s novel and its intention when comparing it to the film that Coppola produced. But I’m not entirely sure Francis Coppola is a man that cares very much about anyone else except himself and his “own” vision.

    Maybe that’s how this film was made.

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