Apocalypse, American Style
Apocalypse Now is the most iconic American film about America's War in Vietnam. But we are not here to expand the myth. We are here to explode it.
Approach Apocalypse Now with much trepidation, as you must an elephant. It is large. It is iconic. It is considered one of the finest American films of the 20th century. And in a time of bloated-budget computer-generated tent-pole productions, it is precious, like a rare beast from a by-gone era.
For three decades, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now has been referenced or parodied by TV shows that are themselves iconic instances of American mass entertainment: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Sex and the City, more. There are lines from the film that have worked their way into the national psyche: "Terminate with extreme prejudice"; "Charlie don't surf"; "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Its style continues to influence Hollywoodland, with the most recent version of King Kong, 2017's Kong: Skull Island , deliberately lifting visual elements nearly wholesale.
At this point, more people probably know of Apocalypse Now than have actually seen it. It has become integrated into our mass media culture. It may be the most iconic film about the American conflict in Vietnam, yet, much like Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, which in many ways predicted the escalating American involvement in the post-colonial civil struggles in Indochina, the greatest absence in Apocalypse Now is Vietnam itself.
Whereas in Greene's novel the fight was between a European and an American over a woman who symbolized Vietnam yet had little to say for herself, in Apocalypse Now, the fight is between two Americans in Indochina's jungle, surfing the edge of a thematic heart of darkness. Both narratives have become key instances of the larger narrative of America's war in Vietnam, yet in both narratives Vietnam acts merely as the exotic backdrop for Caucasian angst. As America once again teeters on the verge of a land war in Asia, these narratives merit our attention.
Let's say it now and get it over with: Apocalypse Now is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking. The cinematography, the editing, the soundtrack, the visual and sound design, the casting, the acting, the dialogue, the sets, are all incredible. If it fails anywhere, it is in its pacing. There are two versions to choose from and neither quite feels like a well-constructed story.
The plot is simplicity itself. An edgy American Special Forces soldier on special assignment travels deep into the jungle to kill an American Special Forces officer who has made himself into a warlord. That isn't a logline, that's the entire plot. From this one-note composition, Coppola managed to create a three-and-a-half epic that mirrors both the symbolism of The Odyssey as well as Joseph Conrad's 1899 much lauded novella, Heart of Darkness.
Back in 1979, United Artists balked at this run-time, which included a long interlude in French, and cut an hour of footage and re-arranged some scenes for the theatrical release. The result is paced more like an action film than an art film. Nonetheless, this version is hardly brisk.
In 2001, Miramax released a "redux" version that restored the missing footage and arranged the scenes in the original order…and one can quickly tell why the studio execs back in the '70s required the cuts. Meandering up the river — a long scene that Coppola wanted to be like a journey back through time — feels far longer than the three and half hour run time. The French plantation sequence in particular throws off the pacing—it's like we've strayed into a different movie for 30 minutes.
Fans disagree about which cut is best. The answer is, watch them both.
The film's production is as iconic as the film itself. Much like Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the massive production woes of Apocalypse Now have become the stuff of legend and add to the mythic aura of the film. This mythmaking was extended by the 1991 release of a documentary of the production titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse. In the documentary, the improvisatory nature of the production is what comes to the fore. Coppola's artistic vision of things-falling-apart-in-the-jungle quickly became a reality in the worst possible ways.
A typhoon wrecked the expensive and beautiful sets; helicopters and pilots on loan from the Philippine military would be suddenly called away to fight an insurgency, leaving the gargantuan production at a standstill for an unknown amount of time; star Martin Sheen, as the Special Forces assassin Willard, suffered a heart attack, and while he survived the cardiac attack, production went off the rails for weeks; the film's other star, Marlon Brando as the warlord Kurtz, showed up on set without preparation and was hostile to doing any work at all.
All of that is the anecdotal legend, the aura, the cosmology of this remarkable piece of film making. But we are not here to expand the myth. We are here to explode it.
Coppola has said that the film is a metaphor for the institutional horror of war. However, critics have pointed out that film cannot help but glorify combat. The charge is that because the nature of film itself is to create spectacle, it is impossible to film a war scene that is not spectacular, not scintillating. It seems an obvious point. Real life is not experienced with swelling soundtracks, jump cuts, ADR, and all the other filmmaker's tricks.
Apocalypse Now's most iconic scene is a helicopter attack on a coastal village and it is a masterwork of craft. The use of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is coupled with action-film style editing and a ton of explosives to take the audience on a thrilling ride into a souped-up version of combat in which dozens of faceless Vietnamese are blown away in a scene that could come straight from an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, only Coppola's craft is far superior to anything starring the one-man Army of Arnie.
While this scene is war movie spectacle at its best and worst, that does not mean that movies cannot effectively convey the stupid and quick brutality of war, and Apocalypse Now is no exception.
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A later scene later in which Willard's patrol boat stops a sampan is a good counter-example. The Americans have a standing order to search such vessels since they may be used to covertly transport weapons. The scene ends suddenly and violently, with the nervous Americans killing the entire crew of unarmed Vietnamese because a young woman on the boat made a sudden dash for a closed barrel. Turns out there was a puppy inside.
The stupidity of the deaths, the horrified and perplexed reactions of the sudden killers, the finality and banality of civilian casualties in war, are all compactly brought to the screen in a scene that lacks the heart-pounding action of the helicopter attack but is just as well made. In fact, this scene is so reminiscent of a moment in Greene's The Quiet American that it may have inspired it. Fowler, the protagonist, is along for a bombing run in a French plane. The task complete, they are heading back to base when they spot a sampan on the river.
Down we go again, away from the gnarled and fissured forest towards the river, flattening out over the neglected rice fields, aimed like a bullet at one small sampan on the yellow stream. The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks: we don't even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climb higher into the air and make for home. […] There was something so shocking in our sudden fortuitous choice of prey—we just happened to be passing, only one burst of gunfire was required. There was no one to return our fire. And we were gone again, adding our little quota to the world's dead. That scene did not make it into either film adaption of Greene's novel, but the moment is echoed so closely in Apocalypse Now that it can serve as the big screen adaption.
To answer the critic's charge, the question is not whether it's possible to film an anti-war movie, but we should be questioning how the movie is filmed. Coppola's helicopter attack is so lovingly made in the action film mode that it might as well be lifted from Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), while the sampan scene demonstrates his ability to bluntly depict the war's indiscriminate killing. This bluntness grooves with the primary source material for the story — Conrad's novella depicting the horrors of the ivory trade in the Congo, Heart of Darkness.