Saturday 1 November 2014

Movie Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

An epic mess of a war film, Apocalypse Now is a grandiose masterpiece in spite of itself. Francis Ford Coppola overcame legendary disasters to create a staggeringly hellish view of the Vietnam War, and the experience of watching the film is a multisensory marvel.

It's 1969, and US involvement in the Vietnam War is in full swing. Special operations officer Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is recruited for a covert mission. He is to travel upriver to the remote jungles of Cambodia and eliminate decorated US Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) "with extreme prejudice". Kurtz has gone rogue, establishing his own militia, fighting the war on his own terms, disobeying orders while unleashing extreme brutality. Willard joins the crew of a small navy patrol boat commanded by "Chief" (Albert Hall), and including as crew members California surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms); a New Orleans "Chef" (Frederic Forrest); and young gunner Miller (Laurence Fishburne).

The patrol boat is provided with a transportation lift by the Cavalry Regiment of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), an eccentric commander looking for surfing opportunities and happy to unleash the fury of his helicopters on a Vietnamese village to secure a beach with excellent waves. Willard and his patrol crew next stumble onto a garish special entertainment event for US troops featuring Playboy playmates. Further upriver is a hellish battle zone for a bridge, with uncoordinated US troops trading fire with the Vietcong at close quarters. With the crew of the small boat now battered and bewildered, Willard gets ever closer to Kurtz' hideout, and come to understand that his already murky mission will be a lot more complex than he ever realized.

Years behind schedule and millions over budget, Apocalypse Now, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, was a legendary production. An already arduous filming schedule in the Philippines was regularly disrupted. A typhoon destroyed the Playboy set, the payroll was stolen, the on-location sound recordings proved to be virtually useless, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack during filming, and Marlon Brando was monstrously overweight.

During a prolonged post-production period, Coppola and his editing team weaved movie making magic and created a classic depiction of an out of control war. Apocalypse Now is a feast of colour cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, complemented by an overwhelming soundtrack featuring audacious musical selections. As Willard makes his way upriver, what unfolds before him is an amplified and grotesque celebration of a war machine churning with death. In the jungles of Vietnam entirely new realities become the new, obscene, normal.

Kilgore glorifies death to others, appears to personally have absolute immunity, and dismisses the mechanics of war as minor obstacles on the way to find good surfing beaches. A metaphor for the entire war from the American perspective, the entertainment spectacle with the Playboy bunnies is lit up against all theoretically good principles of warfare. Tantalizing soldiers with playmates must have seemed like a good idea to someone with no idea about the theatre of war. The event predictably disintegrates into a riot: fighting men become more so in the middle of a jungle, losing all discipline.

The deafening bridge battle strips away any veneer of orderly in-battle glory. Here at the unknown edges of comprehension, soldiers are operating on mechanical hyperdrive, fighting against an unseen but nearby enemy for essential turf, hundreds of miles away from anything recognizable.

Exposed to the ravages of a war seemingly feeding on its own momentum, Willard and the patrol boat crew slip into Cambodia's surreal tribal lands where sticks and spears are still the weapons of choice. Kurtz has his hideout here, and he represents the exclamation mark at the end of the prevailing madness. When civilization disintegrates and man adopts killing as sports and entertainment, what makes more sense than a reset back to the most ancient and barbarous tribal practices?

Robert Duvall gets the showiest role as Kilgore, and creates an iconic, career-defining character. Kilgore responds with annoyance at the fear of others as bombs explode all around him, Duvall standing tall and riding a peak with one of the best lines of dialogue about war's dehumanization.

Kilgore: You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war's gonna end.

Martin Sheen is more of a spectator presence at the heart of the film, Willard an interested observer on a mission rather than an instigator. Brando adds unexpected and unwelcome heft for the final 45 minutes. Ironically, it is Dennis Hopper as a fast talking photojournalist at Kurtz's compound who becomes the more memorable personality as the end of Willard's journey. The supporting cast also includes small roles for Harrison Ford and Scott Glenn. Apocalypse Now started filming in 1976, with Ford a relative unknown. By the time it was released in August 1979, he was a global star thanks to 1977's Star Wars.

The final third of Apocalypse Now descends into unintentional and grim disarray. Coppola never found a coherent ending for his film. Brando showed up to the set comically bloated, so all the Colonel Kurtz scenes are filmed with partial lighting and black shadows to try and hide the fat. Having Brando move like a decorated soldier was out of the question, so he is reduced to mostly sitting and reading incomprehensible texts. Coppola debated among three endings, and the chosen climax is both befitting in its almost otherworldly drowning into the macabre, and unconditionally befuddling. The definitive film about war as an out of control hell finds its own place of anguish to end on, a case of Coppola stumbling into the darkest corner only to find a new description of the worst possible nightmare.

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