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Apocalypse Now


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Apocalypse Now (1979) Dir: Francis Ford Coppola



A flawed but unmistakable triumph of filmmaking, Apocalypse Now is more about the descent into madness of war than about war itself. Coppola was once famously quoted as saying, "This isn't a film about Viet Nam, this film is Viet Nam."  Filmmaking masterpieces are often products of destiny rather than design, and while Francis Ford Coppola's fierce ambition to create a great work of art is clearly evident in Apocalypse Now, the same ambition often threatens to crush the picture under its own load.

Notorious for all the problems that emerged during filming, the picture still manages to fascinate with its ambiguity, thematic richness and the stunning vividness with which the chaos and carnage of war is so very skilfully portrayed. The gruelling production and Coppola's insistence on genuineness led to vast budget overruns and physical and emotional breakdowns (Martin Sheen, for example, suffered a heart attack during the strenuous shoot). Considered by many critics to be one of the best war movies ever filmed, Apocalypse Now truly is one of the greatest, a film to be seen and loved by any movie lover.


Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic, loosely based on the novel Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a special agent sent into Cambodia to assassinate an errant American colonel (Marlon Brando). Willard is assigned a navy patrol boat operated by Chief (Albert Hall) and three hapless soldiers (Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and Laurence Fishburne). They are escorted on part of their journey by an air cavalry unit led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a gung-ho commander with a love of Wagner, surfing, and napalm. After witnessing a surreal USO show featuring Playboy playmates and an anarchic battle with the Viet Cong at a bridge, Willard reaches Colonel Kurtz's compound. A crazed photo journalist and Kurtz groupie (Dennis Hopper) welcomes the crew, and Willard begins to question his orders to "terminate the colonels command."


There are sequences in the film that are incredibly powerful, relying on their sheer cinematic strength;  the air attack set to Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries is exhilarating, spine-tingling, genius. Once you see it you will know what I mean, because there are few words to describe it. Apocalypse Now masterfully captures the essence, terror and hell of war like few other movies have done. The battle sequences are all impressively choreographed and executed, exemplifying the massacre of war with incredible technical audacity. There's blood, smoke, dust, explosions, shouts, screams of excruciating pain, agony, confusion, pain, pain, pain. And they're all strikingly realised by Coppola, who, one can plainly observe, knows what he is doing. On the whole, the film is surrounded by an odd singularity which distinguishes it so much from the rest. The utter chaos that constantly lurks everywhere is given a special place in this film; one could argue that chaos is precisely what the film is about. 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 cleverly shown in the film.


On a more allegorical echelon, the film serves as a magnificent illustration of the darkness that lies inside everyone's hearts and the insanity that may bring some people to do the most outrageous of things. The film is not just about the horror of war itself, but about what it may bring. Apocalypse Now depicts humans as ferocious beasts, animals with no true soul and without remorse. The film provides us with a fascinating look at the evil nature of man, and this proves to be incredibly effective. We are left pondering. We are left reflecting. Because, one has to bear in mind, this is us the film is mainly talking about  - and criticising, for that matter. It's an incredible psychological investigation.


Once Marlon Brando first appears (what a marvellous revelation - coming out of the shadows like that), he instantly illuminates the screen with his astonishing performance as Colonel Kurtz, who, in my opinion, is one of the most psychologically complex character in the history of cinema. It is his malevolence and seemingly preposterous purposes to kill which make him so memorable, and Brandon pulls it all of with extraordinary fluidity and talent. Though he's only onscreen for a few minutes there's no denying that he completely steals the show. Martin Sheen also delivers a superb performance as Captain Willard and there's also excellent supporting work from the likes of a napalm-lovin Robert Duvall (who was Oscar-nominated for his role), Frederic Forrest and a young Laurence Fishburne (his facial acne is even more visible).


The further that Captain Willard and his men travel up the river the more profound they are drawn into a dreamlike nightmare where nothing is what it seems - and that's another brilliant element of the film, given that it plays with the audience's expectations. I first thought it was going to be another of those war films but, besides being one, it also turns out to be a film about our fears and vulnerabilities. A film which makes us reflect and consider because of the questions it asks, but seldom answers.  The film is a paradox of ineffable beauty and horror. Its 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. This is no mere war film, I tell you. It is a singular, surreal tale of terror that engulfs the viewer with indescribable force. Such is the strangeness of the human heart, it tells us. And did I mention it features one of the most bewitching endings ever?  Apocalypse Now proves to be Coppola's last great movie and a masterpiece in its own right.  The horror. The horror. 

Reviewed by The Third M?n, 2003