PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Long admired for its passion, poetry, and hallucinatory strangeness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is also notable for being one of the few U.S.-made movies about the war in Vietnam that deals explicitly with race. Specifically, it explores the racism that for years simultaneously drove and undermined the war “effort” in Southeast Asia. To be sure, a few movies raised the issue before 1979 (notably, that most bizarre of John Wayne vehicles, The Green Berets  and Sidney J. Furey’s The Boys in Company C ), and since then, others have made explicit critiques (among them, Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay  and Preston Whitmore’s The Walking Dead ). But at the time, no other movie was so incisive (if occasionally indirect) in its analysis of this particular U.S. horror.
This analysis, written by John Milius and rewritten on set by Coppola, takes the oblique shape of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) crises of conscience and identity. Apocalypse Now lays out his “mission,” nominally, to assassinate “renegade” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), but more ominously, to shore up the U.S. command’s false sense of order and purpose. As Willard travels deep into this “heart of darkness” (the script is famously based on Joseph Conrad’s novella), the film uses the jungle, and specifically, Kurtz’s monstrous Cambodian compound, as metaphor for the U.S. relationship with its opponents and, of course, itself. Heading upriver on a Navy boat with Willard and his escorts—Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Lance (Sam Bottoms), and Clean (Laurence, then 14-year-old Larry, Fishburne)—you can almost feel the moral and environmental heat closing in them. The light grows dimmer, the trees spookier, and the mission itself, exponentially more sinister. By the time they reach the “asshole of the world,” the Do Long bridge that is, night after night, blown up and rebuilt, it’s no accident that the only soldiers Willard meets are black men, firing their weapons into the night. As is well documented, the numbers of minority soldiers on the so-called “front lines” during the war were disproportionately high. Willard can’t help but recognize the hopelessness of these men. When he asks one soldier if he knows who’s in charge, the anonymous young man responds only, “Yeah.”
Such images underscore the film’s representation of the war as fundamentally misconceived and mismanaged. “That’s fucking typical,” spits Chef when he learns that Willard has been sent to kill “one of our own guys.” Apocalypse Now posits the war in Vietnam as both typical and extreme, just one example of the military inconsistencies and human fears that lead to devastation. Perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking insight comes in what seems a simple plot point: Chief and Clean are the only crewmembers killed before the boat gets to the compound, Clean by gunfire and Chief by a spear through his back (on which he attempts to impale Willard, in a scene of horrifying intimacy and understanding, as both men acknowledge what’s happening). The absence of the black GIs as they float toward the compound allows the survivors to be stunned by Kurtz’s brutality and his followers’ devotion, without fully comprehending the situation’s essentially racist “logic.” At the same time, viewers are forced to confront exactly that truth, in part by granting another, thoroughly and wildly “American” perspective through Dennis Hopper’s psycho-photojournalist (“Zap ‘em with your sirens, man!”), and in part through the overwhelming sight of the Kurtz’s followers, watching and waiting, their bodies painted warrior white.
Apocalypse Now Redux, recut by the director and his longtime editor Walter Murch to include 53 minutes of footage, doesn’t change the basic trajectory, but it does change the rhythm. For one thing, the new version reconstructs the dour Willard as a more convivial sort. At the end of the Kilgore (Robert Duvall) sequence (“Charlie don’t surf!”), he steals one of the Colonel’s precious surfboards and has a good laugh with his boat crew. As well, the new version underlines the terrible fact of Clean’s youth. He’s visibly gawky and excited when telling a story of adolescent lust, and then waiting for his turn to bed a Playboy playmate while Chef and Lance “go first.” One of the girls finally notices Clean standing outside in the rain, his face bobbing up and down in the filthy window as he struggles for a glimpse of the action. “Who’s that?!” she cries. With a big old smile, he answers in a flash, “I’m next, ma’am.” Coming at the very end of this scene (which is actually two scenes, Lance and Chef in separate rooms with their girls), Clean’s jaunty left-out-ness is appropriate and telling: this unfortunate, naive, and ever-hopeful kid is never gonna “get some.”
None of these scenes adds much to the film in terms of theme or impact. Neither does the much-discussed extended sequence at the French plantation. Here the men hold a funeral for Clean (who was indeed, “next,” the first crewmember to be killed), just before Willard dines with the “owners,” and listens quietly to their claims to privilege and possession of the land. The wan patriarch (Christian Marquand) accuses the Americans of fighting “for the biggest nothing in history,” while the other guests look away or excuse themselves. Later, Willard shares an intimate moment with the pale widow Roxanne (Aurore Clement). Her gauzy seduction slows down the film’s otherwise propulsive “action” toward Kurtz, and also grants Willard a weird kind of “sanction”—he’s a soldier doing his job, a lover and a killer. Really, such romanticism was dated even in 1979.
Still, the plantation sequence does hammer home Apocalypse Now‘s argument regarding Vietnam’s long-term vexed relations with imperial powers like France and the U.S., which may be useful if you are not versed in France’s colonial presence in Southeast Asia, the battle at Dien Bien Phu, or early efforts by the U.S. to shore up its imperialist ally. These scenes make clear (in case, perhaps, you dozed off during earlier scenes?) that the U.S. forces are themselves on their own course to ghost-dom. But the extra explanations seem labored, repeating ideas established allegorically elsewhere in the movie: could any colonialist fantasy be more alarming than Kilgore’s? If the new footage doesn’t make for a categorically better film, it does offer glimpses into the famous “insanity” of making Apocalypse Now (for more information on this topic, see Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s harrowing documentary, Hearts of Darkness and read Eleanor Coppola’s diary/book, Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now). Certainly, it’s fascinating to see what Coppola and company shot when they were in the Philippines for 15 months, over-budget, over-stimulated, and way over-stressed. Back then, after Sheen’s heart attack, Coppola’s near-mental breakdown, a monumental hurricane, and various other disasters, the crew came home with some 370 hours of footage. No doubt, it was difficult to edit down to a “standard” running time.
Now, Coppola writes in his “Director’s Statement” (May 2001), “When I started with Apocalypse Now, my intention was to create a broad, spectacular film of epic action-adventure scale that was also rich in theme and philosophic inquiry into the mythology of war.” He did that: Apocalypse Now is a great anti-war movie and, significantly, a great anti-war-movie movie. The new edition reveals a bit more of Coppola’s own understanding of that “mythology.” He wants the film to expose the official lies and hypocrisy that afflict “all young people, boys and girls, who are sent out to function in an established immoral world, expected to function in a moral way.” Indeed, this changeable concept, “morality,” repeatedly serves as rationale for national, racial, and gendered superiorities, and for cultural “cleansing,” military build-up, and financial efficiency campaigns. Apocalypse Now—Redux or regular—is well worth seeing for just such insights, its flashes of brilliance, failures, and virtuous intentions. In both versions, it’s that rare movie that looks hard at the culture that produced it.