The real stars of Francis Ford Coppola's troubled epic are not Martin Sheen or Marlon Brando. They're not even Coppola or writer John Milius. No, the real people behind the success of the film are cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound editor Walter Murch. Murch's fluid, deeply troubling sounds pervade the film, bleeding into one another seamlessly. Indeed, he grabs you in the first shot, when the sounds of helicopter rotors fade into the dull hum of a spinning fan. For the rest of the film, he skillfully combines Carmine's haunting, ethereal score with diegetic sound, to the point that you can't trust your own ears, much less the hell that unfolds on-screen.
If war is hell, then Apocalypse Now is as much an adaptation of Dante's Inferno as it is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Some may complain about its disjointed nature, particularly in the final chapter in Kurtz's compound, but Coppola isn't out to give us a simple story. He doesn't even want to make a film about the effects of war. No, Apocalypse Now is a film about the deepest, darkest levels of human conditioning, the kind we've spent our thousands of years on this Earth attempting to outgrow.
"Saigon. Shit, I'm still in Saigon," Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) growls in the first lines of the film. He signed up for a second tour and wants to head back into the jungle, but not for the clichéd gung-ho reasons. He's been back home, but Vietnam so changed him that he could not re-assimilate into society. His restlessness leads him to get high and destroy his hotel room, eventually cutting his hand on glass and smearing himself in the blood. In the very first scene, the notion of the poster boy multiple-enlistee has been viciously perverted, shown to be the victim of war, not the ideal man who stands above it.
He eventually gets a new mission, classified like all his others. A general invites him to lunch and assigns him the task of assassinating decorated colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who disappeared into the jungle after accusations of murder and built his own empire of natives to take the fight to the North Vietnamese without the setback of arbitrary rules of engagement.
Willard heads upriver to Cambodia in a PBR with a motley crew consisting of the surly Chief (Albert Hall), tripped-out surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), New Orleans saucier "Chef" (Frederic Forrest) and 17-year-old "Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne). Apart from Chief, these sailors are all just kids, all spit and vinegar, ready to take on Charlie anytime, anywhere.
Their picaresque adventures through Vietnam are by turns horrific, absurd, hysterical and deeply, deeply unsettling. The film's centerpiece, an Air Cavalry assault on a NVA-controlled village, is as terrible as it is exhilarating. Led by the certifiably insane Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, in a show-stealing performance), the sequence, famously set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," must be the largest set piece ever constructed. Now, CGI fills the screen, and entire wars can be waged in a single scene, but the sense of placement, of meticulously construction, camera set-ups, and stunt co-ordinations required for this one 10 minute stretch demonstrate the true craft of filmmaking.
And Kilgore is more interesting than any of it. With a handful of lines, Duvall crafts the craziest SOB you'll ever see. Shells fall all around him and he doesn't flinch, and only when they come within inches does he react, and then only with annoyance. When Willard's boat runs into an operation already in clean-up, the captain can't get the colonel to pay attention long enough to relay orders from COMSAC, but the Kilgore perks up when he learns that Lance, his surfer idol, is among them. With only a small hunk of screen time, Duvall gets two of the three most memorable lines in the film: the hysterical call to arms "Charlie don't surf!" and the insane, poetic rant that starts with, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." As he commands his soldiers to break out their surfboards to ride waves that are still under fire, as mortar shells burst around him, he says with sadness in his voice, "This war's gonna end someday." We look on bewildered, but Willard knows the truth, that life will never be the same for any of them.
Elsewhere, Willard and Chef take a stroll through the woods looking for mangoes, only to be ambushed by a tiger. In the middle of the river, the USO erects a garish stage to host a couple of Playboy bunnies, and it appears to double as a thriving black market. The bunnies so rile the cheering men that some storm the stage and attempt to possibly rape the women, who run back to their helicopter and depart. In the scene that ensures that no member of the audience can mistake the movie for some fun epic (many point to the Valkyries scene as exciting over horrific), Chief orders a Vietnamese boat stop for boarding, and confusion leads to accidental massacre of all aboard, shattering the young boys and forever turning the Chief against Willard.
Storaro manages to make each segment look entirely different without losing visual flow. The reason so many of us love that Air Cavalry scene is that it's filmed from the POV of the soldiers. One must step outside of the film for a moment to look at it objectively to see how terrible it all really is. That scene with the tiger is funny in retrospect, but Storaro makes the lead-up as frightening as anything in a proper horror film. My personal favorite piece of the film, the Do Lung sequence, strikes me as being shot from the perspective of Lance, who drops acid shortly before the boat pulls up to this nightmare. As a result, light flows in and out, as flares arc over the trees, momentarily blinding before all is plunged back into darkness. Willard searches for the commanding officer, finally asking one of the entrenched soldiers, "Who's in charge here?" to which the manic kid replies, "Ain't you?"
Storaro's cinematography at Kurtz's compound alone earned him his Oscar: Marlon Brando got the job after convincing Coppola that he'd read Heart of Darkness, only to show up having read neither the script nor the book, as well as 40kg overweight. Already guaranteed $1 million even if fired, Brando created a dilemma for the director, which Storaro fixed by covering Kurtz in shadow. The night shots of the compound are bathed with a jaundiced yellow, reflecting the sickness and "slow death" of the camp and its leader. Shadow, in cinema, naturally reflects the moral complexity of a character, but Kurtz and even Willard are so enshrouded in these scenes that they're practically invisible. Willard remarks in his narrations throughout the film that the colonel's methods actually display a brilliance and ingenuity, and he's certainly got a number of deaths on his conscience, and he does not yet know whether he will kill Kurtz or join him.
Brando, difficult as he was, really was perfect for the role. In a mixture of scripted and ad-libbed dialogue, Brando captures the manic insanity of Kurtz. No, not insanity; I read an interview once -- I can't remember who said it, perhaps Grant Morrison -- that discussed the Batman villain the Joker. In it, the interviewee described the Joker as possessing not a madness but a kind of "super-sanity," one that worked on a level that was utterly mad but made sense on a level no normal person could process. Kurtz reached this level after witnessing the VC hack off the arms of every child in a village that his Special Forces team inoculated, simply because they refused that the children receive aid from the enemy. "If I had 10 divisions of such men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly," he intones. Kurtz, a decorated, respected officer who'd seen combat in Korea and in a previous tour of 'Nam, snapped not because of war but because the jungle brought out his primal behavior, the kind that resides in all of us.
There's no truly satisfactory way to end such a film, one that mixes the visceral here-and-now of warfare with metaphysics, but the juxtaposition of two ritual sacrifices, one of tribesmen killing a water buffalo and the other of Willard slaying Kurtz, the bloated, weakened king so that he might die with dignity, is brilliant. Willard emerges to a tribe of warriors already willing to bow to him, but he simply heads back to the boat with Lance and sets off, as Kurtz's immortal "The horror. The horror" plays over a shot of a stone face of the compound. While he's been completely broken by the experience, forever haunted by what he did and what happened to him, he stands as the better man, for he did not lose himself in the jungle.
According to some, Apocalypse Now stands as the last great American film (those who disagree cite Scorsese's Raging Bull). While I would venture to say that 2007's one-two punch of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood changed that, you could certainly argue that no other films in the interim combined the epic scale of Coppola's final masterpiece with its personal and psychological themes. Coppola began production on the film in 1976, seven years after John Milius completed the first draft of his screenplay. Three years, one heart attack, a hurricane and numerous other production delays later, it finally reached screens.
"What must people have thought then?" I often wonder when seeing a film ahead of its time. I know that Gene Siskel famously gave it a negative review when he first saw it, only to later perform a mea culpa and give it a positive review. Mainstream Vietnam movies had only just started getting releases, and they tended to convey how the war affected its soldiers, who were always brave and cruelly destroyed by a pointless war. Apocalypse Now dared to suggest that this war simply brought out the worst in us, that its soldiers were by and large terrified and looking for any chance to get home, that we were still responsible for our actions even if the government forced thousands to fight.
The film netted Oscars for Murch and Storaro, but it's safe to say that it was robbed in every other category in which it received a nomination, and how Duvall didn't get a nod for Supporting Actor will keep me scratching my head for hours. Apocalypse Now is more than the greatest Vietnam film ever made, more than the best war film period; it is a document of a part of man that no amount of conditioning and evolution will ever fully eradicate, and it's a beast that can emerge with only a strong push.