The trees sway gently back and forth, as the screen goes from black to this image. It is a tropical jungle setting, and in the distance we here something oddly familiar. Helicopters? A yellow mist moves across the screen, and the beginnings of a song are heard on the track. Suddenly the jungle explodes in an inferno of fire, helicopters zipping by and Jim Morrison of The Doors begins to croon, ‘This is the end, my only friend, the end.” The apocalypse, this apocalypse has begun and we have been plunged into the nightmare that was American involvement in Viet Nam. Willard (Martin Sheen) an army assassin is waiting for a mission, slowly becoming unhinged in his filthy hotel room, drinking heavily and sparring naked
with his reflection in the mirror he will break, coating his face with the blood that seeps from his wounded hand, before he falls over sobbing on the floor. He gets his mission, sent into the dark jungle of Cambodia to terminate “with extreme prejudice” a decorated Colonel who has lost control and waged his own war against both the Americans and the Viet Cong. Willard is being sent to kill Kurtz (Marlon Brando) one of the military’s most decorated men, who has seen too much and lost touch with reality. By the time he has completed his journey, Willard will
understand what happened to Kurtz and come to know precisely why he went mad. The journey upriver takes him through the nightmare that is Viet Nam, where we see soldiers fighting a war without a commanding officer, and an entire village wiped out so a Colonel can see his boys go surfing. Encountering Kilgore (Robert Duvall) takes the film to such a fever pitch, it never quite recovers, but it is one of the most astonishing sequences ever filmed.
After decimating a village that had stood for over hundreds of years, Kilgore lands his chopper on the beach, strips off his shirt and moves about, shouting orders for his men to surf despite the fact bombs and grenades are going off al around him. Though it takes a moment or two to register, he never flinches, not once. He knows, he just knows nothing is going to happen to him here in this place. ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like victory”, he says wistfully after ordering a napalm drop to end the fighting and allow the party to begin. To stare into his wild eyes is to stare into the face of utter madness. When Willard finally gets to Kurtz, the men on the boar have evolved, two of them are dead, one killed by a spear through the chest, the remaining two now willing to help Willard on his mission as long as it gets them home. Kurtz sits like a giant Buddha spouting poetry, a giant wounded bull who knows his time to die is now, and that the war he once believed in has forever betrayed him. He all but asks Willard to do it, and Willard being an assassin complies, leaving the man choking on his own blood, “the horror…the horror…”.
The first time I saw Apocalypse Now in 1979 at the now destroyed University Theatre in downtown Toronto, I emerged from the theater to stunned to speak, to emotionally drained to do anything but find a street bench and sit. The images kept playing over and over in my mind, and I knew that I had seen something I was never going to forget, something that had galvanized me in some way. It was if I had to grab the nearest person on the street and tell them about this film, as though I needed to let others know the nightmare from which I had emerged know it to be art.
The reviews were split, but in the years since critics, historians and students concur that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece, among the greatest works of the seventies, and among the finest studies of war, any war, on film. More so than any of the films made about the conflict in Viet Nam, Apocalypse Now brings to life the madness of the war itself. Willard in his room alone, slowly melting down waiting for a mission; the soldiers at the Do Lung Bridges, building it all day then going to war all night as it is torn down only to repeat the action day after day after day; Kilgore and the madness of wiping out a village to go surfing; Kilgore’s absolute fearlessness; the startling death of Chief by a crude spear in a modern day war; Lance dropping acid as they find Kurtz,; the strange photographer, wired on speed, terrified of Kurtz, but hellbent to document what he is doing; and Kurtz, looking like a half moon with his immense bald head, his girth out of camera, a mind disconnected from the soul. The film has some unforgettable images, including the choppers rising above the palm trees like prehistoric bugs, and Willard rising out of the swamp, ready to do his job. When he kills Kurtz, the sequence is cut with the slaughter of a cow by the natives, both butchered in the same manner, both dying an agonizing death.
Coppola’s direction of the film is superb, among the finest direction ever in a film, and the performances, from the top billed Brando and Sheen, through to the cameos by Harrison Ford and Scott Glenn are brilliant. However the best performance in the film comes from Robert Duvall as the psychotic Kilgore; the film actually peaks at that point and almost, I say almost never recovers. Duvall captured the mindset of a man who needs war to feel alive to perfection, his strutting maniac, with blazing eyes the film’s most memorable character. There are strong performances from a very young Lawrence Fishburne as the teenager, the rock and roller with one foot in the grave Mr. Clean, while Fredric Forrest is brilliant as the too uptight Chef, whose encounter with a tiger nearly sends him off the deep end. And Dennis Hopper, whose wildly frenetic performance was less acting than Dennis being Dennis was outstanding as the press who had become believers in Kurtz…out of a necessity to live.
A friend once said to me, “there is Apocalypse Now and all the rest, no matter what you think of it, you cannot deny the brilliance of it.” Truer words were never spoken, and to this day the film haunts me. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Duvall) but won just two. On Oscar night, the film took home awards for Cinematography and Best Sound, losing Best Film and Best Director to Kramer vs. Kramer and director Robert Benton. It astounds me to this day that the film lost to that film, a good movie no doubt, but not the landmark that Apocalypse Now was and remains. Incredibly Martin Sheen and Brando were ignored for their performances, and though he lost the Oscar Coppola did win the Golden Globe for Best Director.
How does a masterpiece like this get ignored??
“The horror” indeed.