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Apocalypse Now (1979)
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Apocalypse Now (1979) is producer/director Francis Ford Coppola's visually beautiful, ground-breaking masterpiece with surrealistic and symbolic sequences detailing the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War. Coppola had already become a noted producer/director, following his two profitable and critically-acclaimed Godfather films (1972 and 1974) - the epic saga of a Mafia-style patriarch and his successor. This provocative film did for the Vietnam War genre what The Godfather did for the gangster movie.

After a three to four year wait for the notorious film (that brought other award-winning Vietnam war films to the forefront a year earlier - The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978)), the film that was budgeted at $12-13 million was something of an extravagant, self-indulgent epic in the making that cost almost $31 million - with much of the film shot on location in the Philippines. The highly-publicized delays and catastrophes in the grueling shoot (scheduled for about 17 weeks but ending up lasting about 34 weeks), along with extra-marital affairs, a grandiose and suicidal director, drug use and other forms of madness, were mostly due to a rain-drenching typhoon (named Olga) and a star-debilitating, near-fatal heart attack for star Martin Sheen.

After its first editing, the original version was six hours long and had to be severely edited. A documentary about the film's chaotic making, shot in part by Coppola's wife Eleanor and including interviews with most of the cast and crew, was titled Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker's Apocalypse (1991). [Note: Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness was an inspiration for the film.]

This war story's screenplay, written by John Milius and Coppola himself (with a separate credit for Michael Herr for Sheen's narration), became a metaphorical backdrop for the corruptive madness and folly of war itself for a generation of Americans. Francis Ford Coppola described his own motivation in the making of the 'quest' film, with elements borrowed from the horror, adventure and thriller genres: "to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War." Coppola's masterpiece chronicles the harrowing intersection of optimistic innocence and experiential reality in the Vietnam conflict. Although the film is flawed by its excesses, an ambiguous and incohesive script, and a baffling ending, it still remains a brilliant evocation of the madness and horrors of war.

The film's story, a type of Odyssey story similar to the one in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, W. Germ.), was indirectly inspired by Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (about a steamer journey up a river into the Congo and African jungle - and into the darkest reaches of the human psyche), and also was derived from Michael Herr's 1977 non-fiction account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches.

The film tells about US Army assassin Willard's (Sheen) mission, both a mental and physical journey, to 'terminate' dangerously-lawless warlord and former Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who has gone AWOL, become a self-appointed god, and rules a band of native warriors in the jungle. [Note: Incidentally, Orson Welles was director Coppola's first choice for the Kurtz role ultimately played by Marlon Brando. And both Steve McQueen and Harvey Keitel were considered for the Willard role ultimately played by Martin Sheen. The film's main characters all had symbolic names, a Freudian triptych of individuals who all reacted to the horrors of war in different ways:

  • Captain Willard (ego) -- dutifully 'willed' to carry out his assassination mission "with extreme prejudice"
  • Colonel Kurtz (superego) -- godlike cult-leader, a perfect soldier but 'cursed' by his dark actions
  • Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (id) -- a hawkish, flamboyant commander who relished the 'gory' smell of napalm in the morning

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing, but the film won only two well-deserved awards: Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound. However, it was awarded the Palme D'Or (the top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival.

[Note: In 2001, twenty-two years after its original release, a longer, expanded and restored version of the film - at three hours and about 20 minutes - was released and titled Apocalypse Now Redux. "Redux" means "returned," as from battle or exile. The new Apocalypse Now edit added 49 minutes to the original, which, depending on whether it was shown in 35mm or 70mm, with or without credits, has been clocked as running from 139 to 153 minutes. (According to Miramax, which released the new version, this new cut totals 197 minutes.)

The vibrant film with a remastered, fuller soundtrack used original material and reintegrated scenes excised from the 1979 version (to include greater character detail for Willard, his crew, and Colonel Kurtz (in a scene where he reads from an actual Time Magazine and shows how the American public was lied to), an expanded Playboy Playmates sequence after their helicopter is downed, and an additional French colonial plantation sequence). Consensus was mixed about the reworked version, although most critics felt that the additional material did only a little to enhance the film's themes or expand upon the plot. The best scenes of the film are still those found in the original version.]

A made-for-TV movie adaptation Heart of Darkness (1993), directed by Nicolas Roeg, starred John Malkovich (Kurtz) and Tim Roth (Marlow/Willard).

Plot Synopsis

The lyrical, slow-moving opening sequence is a dazzling combination of cinematography, music and hallucinatory images from the brutal and destructive war in Vietnam. [Note: There are no traditional opening credits or titles. The title of the film appears as graffiti toward the end of the film in the complex presided over by Kurtz.] The sounds of the war chopper blades (chuk-chuk-chuk) are heard and flaming sights of war are seen at the edge of a green-canopied jungle of palm trees as napalm is dropped. The mind-altering, mournful words of the soundtrack from The End: "This is the end..." (sung by burned out 60s rock star Jim Morrison of the Doors) play over nightmarish memories of the war. Dust swirls and golden, billowing napalm flames fill the air.

In 1968, debauched, moody, divorced Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) of US Army Intelligence (505th Batallion, 173rd Airborne), lies in a sleazy, dingy, sepia-toned Saigon hotel room, isolated, alienated, sweat-bathed and recovering from battle fatigue. (At first, his inverted face is superimposed over the left half of the screen.) There are panning shots of his dog tag, a pile of bills, his wallet, a woman's picture, an opened letter and envelope, cigarettes, a glass and Cordon Bleu bottle, and a gun lying next to his pillow. He is drinking and deliberately closed off from the outside world, haunted by his liquor-induced memories of the choppers, gunfire and the war.

The sound of the helicopter blades is brought back by the whop-whop (or puck-puck) sound of an overhead ceiling fan. He realizes his present state of inactivity, having been in Saigon a week - and fears that he is beginning to go a little crazy. In a flat-voiced voice-over, as he looks out the slats of his venetian-blinded window and lies on his bed, he reveals that he is desperately "waiting for a mission" and praying to get back into the N. Vietnamese wilderness:

Saigon. Shit! I'm still only in Saigon. Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said 'yes' to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I'm here a week now. I'm waiting for a mission - getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.

During a frenzied, spastic, half-nude karataka dance in the room, he self-destructively punches and breaks the mirror (symbolically destroying his own image), bloodies his right fist and then wipes the bright red blood all over his face and nude body.

The narrator is a hired assassin during the conflict of war. Introspectively droning in a cold, detached and passive voice about a covert assassination mission, he is soon to learn that his wish is fulfilled. He is visited by two astonished officers who are there to escort him to "a real choice mission":

Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. They brought it up to me like room service...It was a real choice mission - and when it was over, I never want another...

Escorted by chopper to an intelligence compound/airfield at Nha Trang in Vietnam for a luncheon meeting, the hand-picked, special intelligence agent Willard is led to an air-conditioned trailer:

I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory, any more than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.

He is given a questioning and then a briefing by two grim military superiors: southern-accented General R. Corman (G. D. Spradlin) [the name pays tribute to director Roger Corman, although the name is spelled Cormen in one of the dossier's documents], and bespectacled junior officer Colonel Lucas ("Luke") (Harrison Ford). [His character name, Lucas, pays homage to George Lucas who directed Ford in American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977).] A third silent, civilian-dressed, unidentified individual named Jerry (Jerry Ziesner) is presumably a CIA operative. [The civilian is the only one who heartily eats the meal.] In the hospitable American setting, their working lunch is composed of imported Texas roast beef, shrimp and Budweiser beer. Willard is shown a picture and told about a witty, brilliant American officer, a once-decorated operations officer and war hero - and now an insane, deranged, rogue renegade Green Beret Colonel named Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). A reel-to-reel tape recording of Kurtz's voice is played:

I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream, it's my nightmare. Crawling, slipping along the edge of a straight razor and surviving....But we must kill them, we must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army, and they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful for those who lie, for those nabobs. I hate them. I do hate them.

The "outstanding officer" Kurtz has become "unsound" and committed murder by waging his own ferocious, independent war against Vietnamese intelligence agents with his own native Montagnard army across the border in an ancient Cambodian temple deep in the jungle. The colonel has become a self-appointed, worshipped godlike leader/dictator of a renegade native tribe while conducting a reign of terror. Kurtz is about to be "arrested for murder" - he ordered the execution of some Vietnamese intelligence agents (men he believed were double agents). General Corman explains the confused insanity of the war: "In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity." General Corman describes Kurtz's temptation to be deified:

Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the Dark Side overcomes what Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature.' Therein, man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.

The noise of a chopper interrupts the judgement that has been pronounced. The mission involves a pilgrimage, a journey on a U.S. Navy patrol boat with a four-man crew up the jungle-lined Nung River into off-limits Cambodia to follow Kurtz's path to his remote stronghold island. [The Nung River is fictional - and represents the Mekong River.] Willard is told to be a military assassin and "terminate the Colonel's command." According to Corman, "he's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct - and he is still in the field commanding troops." The command is made very clear by the CIA operative speaking only once:

Terminate with extreme prejudice.

And Willard is to understand that "this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist."

On his helicopter and boat journey to his mission's starting point, Willard remembers the other times he had killed: "There were those six that I knew about for sure, close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. It wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did." Willard wonders at the hypocrisy of the trumped-up murder charges received from military intelligence:

Shit! Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I really didn't know what I'd do when I found him.

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