Lost in the Movies: Apocalypse Now Redux

Apocalypse Now Redux

Apocalypse Now Redux, 1979 (revised in 2000), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Story: Capt. Willard, an increasingly strung-out Special Forces commando, is assigned a top-secret mission in late 60s Vietnam: travel up the Da Nang river to assassinate the renegade Col. Kurtz, a mysterious military genius who has set up a private empire in the wilderness. Along the way, Willard and his shipmates encounter increasingly bizarre characters and situations, and by the time they arrive in Kurtz’s unholy domain, it has become clear that the colonel is only as mad as the war around him.

When the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was mired for years in the Philippines, Hollywood wags dubbed the film “Apocalypse Later.” The implication, of course, being that such a crazy idea – an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, transposed to Vietnam, and shot in conditions which were themselves often warlike (literally, the crew had to negotiate with both sides of a civil war which was raging around them) – could only exist on paper or perhaps in Coppola’s crazed, grandiose mind. When the film arrived at Cannes finally, at the tail end of the 70s, it could have merely been a footnote to the legendary turmoil of its making, something like the later big-budget flop Heaven’s Gate, labeled a “folly” and quickly cast aside.

Instead, Apocalypse Now proved a work of vitality and tremendous intensity - not just  a sprawling mess but an unforgettable experience, which thrived on its own terms even as the legends of its creation added fuel to the mythic fire. In the Philippines, star Harvey Keitel was fired and replaced by Martin Sheen, who suffered a heart attack. Marlon Brando, as the supposedly fit and intelligent Kurtz, showed up on set grossly overweight and insisted on improvising his own dialogue. He refused to shoot scenes with his co-star Dennis Hopper (some have later speculated that this was because Hopper, then in the throes of his decades-long drug addiction, refused to bathe and gave off a foul odor). Amidst all this - plus the logistical problems inherent in shooting a war movie in a war zone far, far away from stateside comforts and supply routes - Coppola felt he was losing his mind. His wife agreed, recording his ravings only to unveil them years later in the memorable documentary Hearts of Darkness.

That Coppola emerged from all this with not only a coherent movie but a work of art is a testament to his willpower and vision, though not to his alone. Apocalypse Now, initiated when the edgy and personalized New Cinema of Hollywood was at its peak, was released when the auteurist bubble had already begun to burst. As such, it's one of the last films to belong to that second golden age of the American film industry, when directors were widely considered "auteurs," or authors of their own films, and given carte-blanche to make the movie as they saw fit. But by 1979, Jaws and Star Wars (ironically, both highly auteurist entertainments) had started turning the trend towards the blockbuster and Hollywood moved away from the idiosyncratic, financially unreliable directorial visions to big-budges fantasies and action movies with reliable youth audiences.

All of this is well-known, as is Apocalypse Now's canonization as a pinnacle of Hollywood auteurism. In fact, the film might not have come off as well, or at all, without some notable collaborators, and they deserve celebration alongside Coppola. The screenplay's weirdly countercultural-yet-militarist bravado owes much to the right-wing hippie surfer Jon Milius, who co-authored the script with Coppola (Milius went on to direct the paranoid and - unintentionally? - campy Red Dawn, in which Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and Lea Thompson form a band of teenage guerrillas who fight off a Soviet invasion of the Midwest; the writer/director was later parodied as Walter Szobcek in The Big Lebowski). Milius' touch is most notable in the character of Col. Kilgore, a gung-ho, insane - and yet weirdly lovable - Air Cavalry officer who famously declares, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

Kilgore decides to attack a village because it's close to a point break where the wave peels off left and right; as a surfer (and, incidentally, a goofy-footer, make of that what you will) he can't resist the temptation, forcing his men out on their boards in the midst of a bombardment. Robert Duvall, who plays - or embodies - Kilgore also deserves much credit for the film's success. Though the part is short - nearly a cameo, and the character disappears as soon as the boat hits the river and the narrative proper begins, he sets the tone admirably. Furthermore, even those who find the overall film bombastic and over-the-top tend to find Duvall's performance intoxicating. Here, the ambivalence of movie audiences towards violence is fully exploited: we both recoil from and embraces Duvall's single-minded devotion to carnage, as an almost abstract thing of beauty.

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to characterize Apocalypse Now as an anti-war movie, though it isn't exactly pro-war either. It seems to take war, or at least violence and insanity represented by war, for granted and asks how one functions in this world of "horror." Willard finds that one just flows upstream with the river, not asking any questions, taking things as they come, and finally dispatching one's duty with a ritualistic fervor. The assassination of Kurtz which closes the film owes little to any actual military tactics and a great deal to myth - with Willard as the cosmic "errand boy" who creeps through an ancient temple and slays the father figure while an ox is slaughtered outside. The sacrifice complete, Willard - his camo makeup doubling as tribal tattoo - is allowed free passage by the natives, as if one god has just slain another.

This mythical conclusion is underpinned by another crucial collaborator of Coppola - this one posthumous. The vocals and lyrics of Jim Morrison, not to forget the driving music of The Doors, become inseparable from the film's effect although - like Duvall - their impact is brief. Only one Doors song is utilized - "The End" - and it's played only at the very beginning and end of the film. But no one who's seen Apocalypse Now has ever forgotten the palm trees going up in flames as Morrison croons, "This the end...my only friend...the end..." or Kurtz collapsing in a stream of his own blood while Willard hacks at the officer with a machete and Morrison chants wickedly, "Kill...Kill...Kill..."

Speaking of the soundtrack, Coppola's final collaborator - and perhaps the most important - was Walter Murch. In the film's credits, he's listed as one of three editors (and as the sole editor of the 2000 director's cut Apocalypse Now Redux - expanded from 1979's trimmed version to encompass 3 1/2 hours). More crucially, he is credited for "sound design" and "sound montage" for both versions of the film, and his work is credited in some circles for "saving" the film. There's no doubt that the weaving together of sound and image accomplishes wonders, making a collage out of Coppola's potential mess, and determining the film's nightmarish foreboding as much by the uneasy audio mix as by the intense visuals. Famously, Murch opens the film with the sound of a chopper seamlessly dissolving into the whirl of a ceiling fan and at once the movie's claustrophobic yet apocalyptic atmosphere is established.

The Music Hall screened the Redux version of the film, which restores footage to the original cut and adds a number of detours for the protagonists - including a humorous (if somewhat broad) tryst with Playboy bunnies in downed helicopters and, most memorably, a long segue in which the unit shacks up in a French plantation, where the aging colonialists rant endlessly about Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam, while Willard makes love to a beautiful young widow, who gives him opium and tells him that animal and angel co-exist in every man, including himself. Earlier we have seen the darkest side of Willard, when, following a one-sided "firefight" in which innocent Vietnamese peasants are killed, he shoots the one surviving woman, feeling it would be a waste of time to take her to safety, when they've got a mission to accomplish.

Upon mistaking the killing of the woman for a "new" scene when initially viewing the Redux years ago (in fact, memory was deceiving; the scene had been in the 1979 version all along) it seemed the most powerful - and perhaps only needed - additional footage. Now, however, it seems that the plantation scenes add a great deal to the film with their simultaneously ghostlike and ultra-realistic aura (in the sense that, even as the characters appear out of nowhere like spirits, they provide context and history where the rest of the movie does not). By taking us off the river, they remind us how much of the world exists outside of the characters' experience, which only makes the diversity and madness of their encounters all the more biting - these surrealistic episodes are not occurring in a vacuum, but are rather a few of an infinite variety of possible experiences, each stranger than the last, with only a crumbling centre to hold them.

Some words finally then, on that centre - Kurtz, or more pertinently, Brando. Even many impressed by the film's mad vision have found the Kurtz scenes a letdown, just more self-indulgence from possibly the greatest actor of all time, who saw fit to squander his gifts. However, it is the character - not only the actor - who was extremely gifted, yet who chose to set up a tropical fiefdom (Kurtz in Cambodia, Brando in Tahiti) and disregard his talents. Though much of this lay in Brando's future in 1979, in retrospect the role offers one of those eerily prophetic character turns - much like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane - which adds resonance to the picture and the portrayal.

Furthermore, while some of Brando's ramblings are underwhelming, some expand the film's scope and one in particular seems to hold the entire, hard-to-pin-down moral vision of the film in the palm of its hand. Willard is our hero, but he is a man without a time or a place, a rootless antihero who seems barely aware of the world around him, focused as he is on the mission at hand and the psychedelic fireworks of the collapsing world around him. Kurtz, on the other hand, is a man fully aware of and immersed in history, in context, in civilization. His awareness encompasses not just the mystical, but the tangible, and his readings from Time Magazine and T.S. Eliot enrich the film's reach. If Willard is postmodern, centreless, wandering, without context or perspective, Kurtz is the last of the modernists with his mournful knowledge of art and history, combined with a painful awareness of their fragility and an impotence in the face of their fading power and glory. Hence, it is quite appropriate that Willard kills him.

As for that amazing monologue which is Kurtz's most famous, it gives the film a code and a moral which is absent in the less self-aware passages dominated by Willard. Kurtz recalls a village in which the children were inoculated, only to have their arms hacked off by guerrillas in a gesture of defiance against imperial presumption. Kurtz remembers weeping, being revolted and horrified and then - "as if struck by a diamond bullet" - realizing the genius of these warriors. They were not monsters, but men, men who knew right from wrong but could self-consciously act against their own moral judgement, to take an action for the greater good which offends them to the core of their being. Kurtz finds this far more moral than the hypocrisy of the American war, in which soldiers are trained to kill but cannot write "fuck" on their airplanes because "it's obscene!"

And here we have the troubling "message" of Apocalypse Now, to the extent that it has one: war, and perhaps even all existence, requires the surrender of one's scruples to "the mission"; self-realization means becoming inhuman. The irony is that Kurtz, who supposedly embodies this ethic, is in fact the most human character in the film - because he's still troubled by this logic, whereas others - like Willard, or even the seemingly "normal" commanders who send him on his way - have already become numbed to the enterprise they are involved with. And so Col. Kurtz, possibly the most evil man in the movie, a man who sets himself up as a god, who celebrates the maiming of children, who beheads dozens if not hundreds of people, is also the conscience of Apocalypse Now. And when he's killed all that remains is the nihilism of the moment, the "Now" having overcome the "Apocalypse." This is the true horror Kurtz speaks of.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where the piece was linked in the summer of 2009.

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