starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest
screenplay by John Milius and Francis Coppola, narration by Michael Herr
directed by Francis Coppola
by Walter Chaw Taking his cue from Orson Welles's aborted screen translation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now sought to transplant Marlow's journey down the Congo in pursuit of mad ivory trader Kurtz to Vietnam during the war. America's involvement in Southeast Asia is, of course, a good fit with what Conrad calls "one of the dark places of the world," and Apocalypse Now, easily one of the most literary big-budget blockbusters of the modern era, is utterly faithful to the intellectual and visceral impact of Conrad's vision. Apocalypse Now is so overheated and pretentious, in fact, that the best way to explain its thematic core might be through an examination of the ways it uses three T.S. Eliot poems (The Wasteland, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men) and nods obliquely towards a fourth (The Dry Salvages, which refers to the animalism of rivers as the "brown god").
Concerning Captain Willard's (Martin Sheen) journey upriver in a PCB boat as he searches for the wayward Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now is a phantasmagoric bit of nasty psychedelia that, lacking sense and a satisfying conclusion, is the most natural and faithful portrayal of the similarly afflicted Vietnam War. It is a journey that occurs onscreen moving from right to left--a motion contrary to our conceptions of a natural, positive direction that manufactures a disturbing atmosphere from the start. The thematically and philosophically complex Apocalypse Now is one of the best examples of the epic filmmaker's art in history.
A legendarily troubled shoot--one covered in detail by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse and wife Eleanor Coppola's published diary Notes--Apocalypse Now is a stream-of-consciousness fever dream composed of increasingly surreal set-pieces and long stretches of improvised dialogue and business. The film's production resembled the war itself in many ways: Americans equipped with a surplus of money and technology set adrift in a foreign land (the Philippines), beset by hostile elements (rebel fighters, caprice of the Philippine army, inclement weather), all the while burdened by a lack of clear purpose, an abuse of drugs and alcohol, and a daily exposure to madness and violence. Consequently, Coppola encouraged his actors to become transparent to the misery of their characters, trusting that the culmination of events winnowed from the pressure cooker shoot would create an ending for a film that was more nightmarish hyperbolic war allegory than traditional narrative. In fact, Coppola's deranged Stanislavsky method (small wonder that he insisted on Brando despite the actor's pettiness and peculiarities) yielded four endings, each of them doomed to lightness and dissatisfaction by the mere existence of the others.
So it seems that Apocalypse Now, released in 1979 at the Cannes film festival and receiving the Palme d'Or, its highest honour, is forever doomed to scholarly revision and now the recipient of a re-edit and impossibly colour-saturated restoration from Coppola and genius-level editor Walter Murch. Apocalypse Now Redux restores Coppola's incisive political perspective on the war in the legendary "French Plantation" scene and provides wonderfully extended scenes for Brando's Kurtz and Robert Duvall's Kilgore (including an excised moment where Kilgore aids a wounded child, long lamented by Duvall). A haunted sequence shot during a Filipino typhoon involving the Playboy Bunny USO show deepens and elevates the centerfold characters from bimbo objects to, like Kurtz himself, a metaphor for an American loss of innocence. An interest in the colonial history of Vietnam and its connection with America's later involvement there fuels the French Plantation scene, offering a frank perspective on the conflagration that jolts the audience from the insidious trance of the first two-thirds of the film. Coming as it does directly before Captain Willard's infiltration of Kurtz's nightmarish Cambodian shrine (some of whose images recall stills of the Khmer Rouge's genocidal exploits), the French Plantation digression is the longest of the restored pieces, and the one that adds the coldest charge of reality to an aggressively-incoherent journey.
Unfortunately, the French Plantation sequence is also overlong and poorly scored, leading to a seduction intrigue that posits the movie's intentions too baldly (echoing the didactic opposition of Eliot's The Hollow Men that Kurtz reads late in the film). It slows the action to a standstill just prior to the picture's concluding sequences, and serves mainly to remind that Apocalypse Now is eternally a footfall away from self-indulgent bloat. Far from just self-indulgent, however, Apocalypse Now's sprawling, episodic process evokes the history-as-imagistic mosaic employed by T.S. Eliot, whose work is referenced brazenly and repeatedly throughout.
A glimpse at Kurtz's reading material (consisting of the three main acknowledged sources for The Wasteland: The Bible, Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, and Sir James Frazier's The Golden Bough) reveals that Apocalypse Now, with its binding quasi-Christian metaphor of a river dividing and uniting the corruption of the machine god (the U.S. forces) and the carnal night (Eliot represented the oppositions as "London Bridge" and "rat's alley"), intends to be a modernist examination of created items falling into the animal logic of base rituals. With its evocation of Prufrock in not only the mad photojournalist's "I should have been a pair of ragged claws," but also in Captain Willard's measuring out of his life in assassinations instead of coffee spoons, Apocalypse Now announces itself as a cogitation on the melancholy isolation of the winsome voyeur. Incidentally, equating Willard with a Prufrock-ian archetype lends reason to the relative passivity of the character while simultaneously lending his moments of action an ironic resonance: eating peaches as striking down the brown god of the Congo. Finally, Kurtz's reading of The Hollow Men, coming as it does at the finale, reiterates the picture's central tension revolving around metaphysical deconstructionalist dyads (good vs. evil, mind vs. body) and predicts Kurtz's ultimate ritualized sacrifice of himself and his followers to what is revealed as an impotent wicker religion.
Though the main images and tropes are Eliot, through and through, the ultimate nihilism of the film is Apocalypse Now's, alone. The conclusion of Eliot's Wasteland--the mantric "shanti shanti shanti," hope that surpasses understanding--is replaced by "the horror, the horror" of Kurtz's dying prophecy and justification. Apocalypse Now, however maligned and misunderstood its ending has been, finds its definitive voice only there, in a post-modernist quailing, when it separates itself from Eliot's modernist burial of the dead.
Apocalypse Now Redux is a reminder of the kind of audacity and genius that fuelled American cinema during the 1970s. It's an Icarean thing that actually manages to touch the sun a time or two, a work of profound beauty, intelligence, and grace (plus ugliness, bestiality, and hubris) that represents the best of human endeavour in all its incandescent arrogant glory. Twisting, organic, and often unwieldy, it is made more intellectual by the political (gender, racial, global) resonance reintroduced in this new extended version. While it plods a little more now than it did in its original form, Apocalypse Now Redux is as good as movies have ever been. It should have won, as screenwriter John Milius once joked, the Nobel Prize. Originally published: August 17, 2001.