and all the children are insane. . .
Of all the Vietnam War films, Apocalypse Now is the one that the largest number of Vietnam veterans have told me is the most realistic. That’s not the word that came to mind when I first saw it, nor have I ever thought of it that way; but then I’ve never been in combat, and the lush hallucination of this movie (beginning with that header image, a few minutes into the film) may well come closer to the reality of that war than any other. In any case, I’ll take their word for it, and remember a good general principle: reality is much broader than realism, and great art demonstrates that.
Director Francis Ford Coppola and co-writer John Milius keep the central current from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (my favorite novel) of a journey upriver to Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the best and brightest of his civilization who went too far into another one and went mad or became who he always was, assuming those are different things. Coppola may have set this in the Vietnam War but he keeps closer to Conrad’s lush, hyperreal tone than he usually gets credit for, with Dennis Hopper’s take on the Russian (“I tell you, this man has enlarged my mind”) as perhaps the best example of it. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, possibly the best of his career, becomes the visual equivalent of Conrad’s prose too, and the great Walter Murch cut the whole damn thing together. (Anyone who has seen the necessary documentary Hearts of Darkness knows the degree of difficulty there.)
Apocalypse Now is a monumental film, the kind that go beyond questions of “do you like it?”, the kind of work that becomes part of our culture and language. (When you hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?) Martin Sheen (as the Marlowe character, Willard), Brando, Hopper, an incredibly young Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, and Robert Duvall all give iconic, even legendary performances here, Michael Herr wrote the hardboiled narration (making him an integral part of the two best Vietnam War films in my book) and Carmine Coppola (Francis Ford’s dad) creates an eerie, ambient score with a strong assist from The Doors.
Also available is the recut extended version Apocalypse Now Redux. This adds in or extends some sequences, most notably a late-film visit to a French colonial plantation; it deepens Conrad’s sense that “going up that river was like traveling back to the origins of the world.” There’s some great stuff in it, but I have to give it second place to the original, which has a perfect exit line for Duvall: “someday this war’s gonna end.”
Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux stream free on Hulu and Amazon Prime.