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Apocalypse Now

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Apocalypse Now

 

Francis Ford Coppola I 1979 I USA

 

 

A flawed but unmistakable triumph in filmmaking, Apocalypse Now is more about the descent into the madness of war than about war itself. Coppola was once notoriously quoted as saying, "This isn't a film about Vietnam, this film is Vietnam." Coppola's interminable ambition to create a memorable piece of cinema is palpable, but it is that very same ambition that ceaselessly threatens to massacre the film under its own weight. Tarnished for all the problems that emerged during filming, the picture still manages to both fascinate and enthrall with its unrivalled ambiguity, thematic richness and the stunning vividness with which the chaos and carnage of war is so very skillfully portrayed. The grueling production and Coppola's insistence on genuineness led to immense budget overruns and physical and emotional breakdowns (Martin Sheen, for example, suffered a heart attack during the laborious and - strenuous - shooting. Considered by countless critics to be amongst the finest war movies ever filmed, Apocalypse Now truly is one of the greatest; a film to be seen and cherished.

 

Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic, loosely based on the novel Hearts of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (which Orson Welles had desperately wanted to adapt into the silver screen prior to making Citizen Kane), tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen),  a special agent sent into Cambodia to assassinate an errant American colonel (an amazing Marlon Brando). Willard is assigned a navy patrol boat operated by Chief (Albert Hall) and three na´ve soldiers (Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms and Laurence Fishburne). They are helped on part of their journey by an air cavalry unit led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a napalm-lovin', spirited commander with a passion for Wagner and surfing. Having witnessed a surreal USO show featuring Playboy playmates and an anarchic battle with the Viet Cong at a bridge, Willard reaches Colonel Kurtzs compound. A lunatic photo journalist (Dennis Hopper) welcomes the crew, and Willard begins to question whether his orders to terminate the colonels command should be done or not.

 

Visually spectacular, Apocalypse Now contains sequences that are exceedingly powerful, relying on their sheer cinematic strength; the helicopter attack set to Wagners The Ride of the Valkyries is exhilarating, spine-tingling, unforgettable; complete genius. Once seen you will know what I mean, because the sensations one obtains while contemplating it go beyond mere description. Apocalypse Now masterfully captures the essence, terror and hell of war like few other films have done, both before and after. The battle scenes are all impressively choreographed, exemplifying the carnage of war with remarkable technical audacity. There is blood, smoke, dust, explosions, screams of excruciating pain, agony, confusion, pain, pain and pain -  all strikingly executed (no pun intended) by Coppola, who, one can clearly observe, knows what he is doing. On the whole, the film is surrounded by an odd singularity that distinguishes it so much from the rest. The utter and absolute pandemonium that constantly lurks everywhere is given a special place in the film, as one could argue that that is what the picture is precisely about: chaos. Not just external chaos, but internal one, too. War is revealed as an event from which very few people recover. It is something that leaves you scarred for life, and this is admirably shown in the film.

 

On a more allegorical level, the film serves as a magnificent illustration of the darkness that lies inside everyones' hearts and the insanity that may bring some people to do the most outrageous and unimaginable of things. Apocalypse Now is not merely about the horror of war itself, but about what it may cause, for whatever reason. The film depicts humans as ferocious beasts, animals with no true soul or sense of direction that lack remorse. The viewer is given an insightful look at the evil nature of man, and this proves to be rather effective, as we are left pondering. We are left reflecting. Because, one has to bear in mind, this is us the film is talking about -  and criticizing, for that matter. It's an astonishing psychological investigation, looked at with an honest eye by Coppola.

 

Once Marlon Brando first appears (what a marvelous revelation -  coming out of the shadows like that), he instantly illuminates the screen with his fantastic performance as Colonel Kurtz, who, in my opinion, is one of the most psychologically complex characters in the history of cinema. It is his malevolence, his philosophy and his seemingly preposterous purposes to kill that make him so memorable, and Brandon pulls it all off with extraordinary fluidity and talent. Though he's only onscreen for a few minutes, there is no denying that he completely steals the show, even though some have said that once you see him, he does not live up to the mounting anticipation that the film created beforehand (and I could not disagree more, really). Martin Sheen also delivers a superb performance as Captain Willard, and there is fine supporting work from the likes of Robin Duvall, who's as insane as he's bewildering (he was nominated for an Oscar in 1979 for his portrayal), Frederic Forrest and young Laurence Fishburne, whose facial acne is more visible than ever.

 

The further that Captain Willard and his men travel up the river, the more profound that they are drawn into a dreamlike, almost nihilistic nightmare where nothing is what it seems -  and that is yet another brilliant element of the film, given that it plays with the audiences' expectations. I first thought it was going to be another of those war films but, besides being one, it also turns out that Apocalypse Now is a film about our fears and vulnerabilities. A film which makes us meditate because of the innumerable questions it rises, but seldom answers. The film is a paradox of ineffable beauty and horror -  a clever juxtaposition of the two. It is a film with two sides, each as incredible as the other. Perhaps Apocalypse Now could be described as a majestic war poem because of all the themes it touches. It is an outstanding, surreal tale of terror that engulfs us with indescribable force. Such is the strangeness of the human heart, it tells us. And did I mention that it features one of the most bewitching finales ever? Apocalypse Now proves to be Coppola's last great film and a masterpiece in its own right. "The horror. The horror."

 

[90]  

Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004