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Non-Review Review: Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now was what might be described as a “troubled” production. Francis Ford Coppola was never intended to direct the film, which ran into trouble with local weather and local politics, undergoing script changes on a daily basis, an overweight and overpaid Marlon Brando who refused to read either the script or the book it was based on (leading Coppola to read it to him), Dennis Hopper’s drug addiction and countless other factors. Actor Martin Sheen at one point had a massive heart attack and had to walk a quarter of a mile for help, which Coppola had to cover up (claiming he collapsed due to exhaustion and filming with extras and voice doubles) for fear of losing funding. Al Pacino had been considered for the role, but had the foresight to turn it down, with Coppola suggesting, “Al would do the film, if we could film it in his apartment.” If that’s true, he might be the smartest person associated with the production.

I mention this, because I think a significant amount of that trouble seems to feed through the film. There’s a sense that isn’t a safe production, which is somewhat fitting, given the subject matter.

Up the creek...

Discussing his film, Coppola has gone on record as stating, “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” In many ways, the film’s material seems to mirror that observation, as we watch the actors and their world slip ever further out of the realm of sanity.

Hell, there’s a sequence at the end of the film involving the sacrificing of real livestock that Coppola didn’t just film – he encouraged. Despite his attempts to claim he was a passive observer, the director was at one stage literally providing trucks full of wild animals to be slaughtered by the locals, for footage that didn’t even make it into the film. That’s how far outside the realm of sanity the production pushed its suicidal director, and I think some of the discomfort in watching the film stems from that sort of backdrop. Coppola once boasted, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”And perhaps he’s right, it’s an insane and self-destructive campaign, something that could never have ended well.

That sinking feeling...

In many ways, Apocalypse Now feels like a piece of absurdist cinema, as we follow Captain Benjamin Williard as he snakes down river in pursuit of his target, Colonel Kurtz, with the somewhat euphemistic orders to “terminate the Colonel’s command” with “extreme prejudice.” With the crew of a small riverboat, Williard moves deeper and deeper into the heart of the conflict, out past the US military forces, to the frontier and deep into enemy territory, well past the point of no return.

He has been dispatched to take care of Colonel Kurtz, a rogue army officer using his own private hit squad to wipe out what he sees as threats to the military operations in Vietnam. Kurtz is wanted by his superiors for murder, something Williard finds grimly ridiculous. “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” He begins to wonder what Kurtz has done in a place as messed up and disturbed as this to earn the wrath of his commanding officers, who claim Kurtz is operating “beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.” It might sound fine to an officer eating roast beef in his command quarters, but there’s very little activity in the country that could be considered “acceptable human conduct.”

Get to the chopah!

What distinguishes Coppola’s epic from most of the other classic Vietnam films is the surrealist nature of the movie. In fact, the ending was so confusing to viewers (with some audiences mistaking symbolic explosions for plot points) that Coppola had to change the closing scenes during the initial release. Indeed, if it weren’t all so horrific (or true) it would be some sort of grotesque farce, as we watch military actions dictated by an officer’s desire to surf some nice waves (the natives have no right to the village because “Charlie don’t surf!”), a USO show descend into complete and utter chaos and a border outpost that seems to operate without a hint of a command structure in a state of perpetual warfare. “There’s no f**kin’ C.O. here,” Williard decries after spending a few minutes in the midst of the confusing conflict. Asked if he know who is in charge, a soldier can only reply, “Yeah.”

The title, Apocalypse Now, appears scrawled on a wall near Kurtz’s makeshift temple. In any other film, it would seem like mad ramblings, but here it seems a serious prophecy. Kurtz rambles like a loon, Brando’s smooth voice offering horrific images of the world as a slug “crawling along the edge of a straight razor and surviving.”However, while it sounds like the rantings of a loon from the safety of the commander’s quarters in Saigon, it soon becomes something far more honest and sinister as Williard journeys further into the home of madness, further from what seems like civilisation.

The Sheen comes off the War...

For Coppola, the heart of this grim farce is the idea that it’s some sort of dark battle of wills, a staring contest as both sides approach the abyss. Neither can actually win, they can just cause each other to suffer. Neither can really accomplish anything of note, but they revel in the violence anyway. Neither side can be vanquished in the conventional sense, but they just keep fighting and killing, though the war will never be won. Of the last outpost before darkness, an officer explains about the bridge the two armies fight over, “We build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again.”

Being entire honest, I could have done without the heavy-handed attempts to portray the American soldiers as Nazis, with the blaring of Wagner as they ride into battle with vindictive fury. Hell, Kurtz was originally going to be renamed as “Leighley”, until Brando pointed out that Kurtz was not an American name, causing Coppola to revert his changes (in fact, you can see that Harrison Ford’s dialogue had to be dubbed over after the change was made). I know that Vietnam was an ethical quagmire, but comparing American soldiers serving in the war to Nazis seems a bit awkward (and… to be frank, unambiguous), even if nobody seems to especially care about the symbolism of the use of Wagner any more.

The writing's on the wall...

Although, to be fair, characters with names like Kilgore aren’t exactly especially ambiguous either (although it’s significantly more subtle than his original name, Colonel Carnage), but I don’t think they have to be. The movie is so powerful because it tackles its subjects rather directly, framing them as a journey from the edge of the war to its very core. It’s a nice metaphor, and one that works really well. The episodic nature of Williard’s trip adds to the impact, as if we’re stripping away the layers of an onion.

As such, when we reach the middle, it’s interesting to hear Kurtz explain why he believes that the Americans cannot win the win. Coppola suggests that American soldiers can’t completely disengage from their humanity in the same way that their Viet Cong counterparts seem to be able to. Kurtz speaks with horror about witnessing the lengths to which those enemy soldiers will go for the cause, and seems to lament that his own soldiers can’t match that. “You have to have men who are moral… but at the same time are able to utilise their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

The First Wave arrives...

I’m really not sure if that counts as a particularly happy or optimistic conclusion on the US forces, given that the humanity of the American soldiers sees them portrayed as out-of-control, selfish and vindictive people – unable to control their base instincts and succumbing to drugs and lust at the slightest temptation. These are people who would wipe out a village to go surfing, and mark their kills with “death cards” to let their enemies know who is responsible. While Kurtz’s proposed dehumanisation is terrifying, so is the none-too-subtle suggestion that the adjective “humanity” doesn’t always apply to good things.

In a way, Kurtz’ suggestions seem to have been taken on board by the higher officials. Williard definitely seems dehumanised and conditioned, certainly more so than most of the other individuals he meets on his travels. He speaks bitterly about the soldiers longing to go home, acknowledging that the America they knew isn’t the same. “I’d been back there,” he explains, “and knew that it just didn’t exist anymore.” Hell, he still has trouble sleeping in the hell that is Vietnam, but he concedes, “When I got home after my first tour, it was worse.”On his way to meet his commanding officers, Williard has to be forced into the shower – seemingly not accustomed to it. There’s something poetic in the way Williard is dispatched to kill Kurtz, as he’s exactly the kind of man Kurtz needs and wants.

The fog of war...

Indeed, as played by Marlon Brando, Kurtz is an iconic presence. His weight forced Coppola to film him in the shadows, but I genuinely think it helped the film. Always half in darkness, Kurtz becomes this almost mystical figure, “a warrior poet in the classical sense.” Indeed, Kurtz seems to walk the line between completely insane and acutely aware of everything. He quotes extensively from T.S. Elliot’s The Hallow Men, a poem inspired by the book that inspired this film. If he’d read the preface, he might have noticed a dire warning, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” A photo journalist played by Dennis Hopper also provides us with a mangled version of the last two lines of the poem, “This is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

Indeed, one with an interest in meta-fiction might wonder if Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darknessexists in the Vietnam of the movie, itself based on the book. If Kurtz has a fondness for a poem T.S. Elliot wrote about the book, it’s possible he has sought out and read the story. One must wonder if he saw the character of Kurtz as something of a reflection of himself, and perhaps if he was inspired by a character with the same name in a piece of classical fiction. It’s wonderful little reflexive thought to bounce around in your head, the idea that a character might have read a book that inspired the film that he’s starring in. It just adds to the almost surreal nature of Coppola’s epic.

Smells like... well, you know...

Coppola’s war film is an epic, a genuine sampling of utter chaos on celluloid. It’s surreal and chaotic, much like the war it seeks to document. I honestly don’t think that a film like this could be produced under any other set of circumstances.

2 Responses

  1. I never could articulate why it is that I love this film so much. Thank you, Darren for putting it into words.

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