Martin Sheen said about “Apocalypse Now” that if he knew then all that he would have to deal with over the agonizing 16 month shoot, one that sent him through the Philippine jungle and back and gave him a heart attack along the way, he would have never agreed to it. Today, he has no regrets, because I would imagine that not he, nor any critic on Earth, would think about Sheen having a heart attack while watching this masterpiece of cinema.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film is easily the best of the Vietnam War movies, and in my book one of the best of all time. To watch “Apocalypse Now” is to become immersed and dragged deeper into the horror that is war all while remaining distant, confused and utterly hopeless at the idea of ever fully understanding violence.
All this is contained within a strongly anti-war film, one that is a wonder of special effects and cinematic achievements, but demanded an unprecedented challenge of production to simply let it exist. Coppola was forced to replace Harvey Keitel for the role of Willard with Sheen, he butted heads with an overweight and drunken Marlon Brando that had not read the script or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on which it is based, even after being paid $1 million to play the role of Kurtz. And all throughout the shoot, he confided in his wife about his concerns with the final product.
Beyond that, controversies abounded concerning the ending after it was premiered at Cannes that Coppola was unhappy with it. A rumor emerged that in an alternate ending of the film, Kurtz’s compound exploded, and screenshots exist of this image. However, that is actually the image of the set itself being demolished. That legend has only been promulgated today with the release of “Apocalypse Now: Redux,” a version of the film that is an hour longer and adds two odd sequences involving the Playboy Bunnies originally seen at the USO show and another with a French couple.
But the theatrical release does not have a single wasted minute in creating a sensation that is both entrancing and torturous. Captain Willard’s journey down this jungle river is seemingly uninterrupted and free of time, and this is absolutely necessary to fully experience Willard’s digression towards evil and insanity.
Coppola punctuates each moment with either chaotic ferocity or tense silence, but no scene is free from his meticulous amount of detail. The magical scene in which Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore leads his flock of helicopters to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries” has so much to be seen and marveled at. We overhear the conversations of the soldiers as the world explodes around us. We see both the fear and the anger in the eyes of the villagers, yet we are with the helicopters way above ground. The scene is a visceral moment that seems to depict not war alone, not the madness of the human mind alone, but both together simply as they are.
Take that same mindset and apply it to the USO show with the Playboy Bunnies. Sit next to a different speaker and you may just detect a new conversation and catcall. Or apply it to Willard’s pit stop at the bridge being attacked by an unseen enemy. In what is a beautifully choreographed scene, all we see is the light flashing on Willard and the confused black soldiers just as they are about to act or speak, but in that subtle mise-en-scene, we get a remarkable sense of the whole landscape, war-torn and all.
Despite the immense detail, there is a lingering sensation of distance. We feel an almost horrific empathy for these characters, as induced by their dwarfing mind trip, but how can we ever know the extent of their madness? The Doors’s “The End” (in some of the best opening shots of a film ever made) seems to deliver an almost clear-cut message to the audience in terms of its lyrics and its mood, but this introduction to Willard is hardly an introduction at all. His drunken flailing as he waits in his hotel room in Saigon is not merely an indication of what this man has done already. It is a symbol for the untapped emotion waiting to come out in him.
This level of madness that we do not yet know is the one Kurtz has been living by for some time. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Kurtz tells a disturbingly rich story to Willard: “We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.”
This story is one of the last steps on Willard’s journey to reaching the level of insanity that is necessary to win a war. Kurtz describes this in the faceless Vietcong again: “You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” In his final moments on screen, Willard becomes an iconic monster of violence and unbridled emotion. “The End” repeats as we see the natives killing a cow (really performed, not special effects) paralleling Willard killing Kurtz.
Kurtz in his last breath utters, “the horror…the horror,” and the realization that has been shockingly built up through every haunting and iconic moment in the film (the tiger in the jungle, the stopping of the boaters, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) hits home: War is a devastating experience that demands all of you, and only when you experience it can you possibly understand the full extent of its tragedy. “It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means.”
Kurtz’s imagination of “the Horror” is an impossible one to know. As an audience, we cannot know it, and yet there it is on screen. Coppola’s film is a masterpiece because he has taken the “unfilmable,” indescribable emotion that can only be found through an immense amount of soul searching, and he has successfully made it tangible, if just out of reach. It is an anti-war statement that deals in the human psyche instead of politics, and for so many, its message is all the more relevant.