d. Francis Ford Coppola / USA / 153m.
At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now made its world premiere, the director said something during a press conference that is as an important a place as any to begin discussion of the film:
My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.Coppola has been rightly derided for the arrogance and pretension of such a statement, of equating a frenzied production of a movie to an actual calamitous war, but in many respects it’s an intriguing proposition to consider. What is the relationship, if any, between the chaos of a film’s production and the subsequent chaos captured on film? Must a filmmaker and the crew experience the truly harrowing highs and lows in order to create the most realistic — most expressionistic — depictions of fear, anxiety, and turmoil? Is a war film likelier to resonate with the audience if making the film is also a battle or a journey through the darkest corridors of the soul?
That metaphoric drumbeat — “war is hell, war is hell, this film was war, this film was hell” — plays almost ad nauseam in Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), which pieces together after-the-fact interviews with cast and crew and footage shot on location by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. The Coppolas are very insistent on the point that their journey in making the film was as much of a journey into the darkest corners of the soul as the film’s protagonist, Willard (Martin Sheen), a fraught Army captain sent on a mission upriver into Cambodia to assassinate Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an AWOL colonel. In fact, the Coppolas are so insistent on the point that it begins to get under one’s skin after a while, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to the discussion of the film’s success.
I can’t speak to what it must have been like for Coppola and his crew to film in the jungles of the Philippines, their stand-in for Vietnam. Principal photography took 238 days. Filming was sidetracked by a typhoon, the Philippine government, and mental and physical problems among the actors and crew. The leading man was fired; the replacement had a heart attack. The script was incomplete, with Coppola toiling away into the night doing rewrites and many of the actors simply improvising their lines. Drugs were rampant. The studio was nervous, money ran out, and Coppola invested his personal Godfather fortunes into the film. Nor can I speak to whether it’s an authentic hell, as I didn’t fight in Vietnam and have never participated in a war. Everything I know about the film’s behind-the-scenes story suggests it was the nightmare it’s been portrayed to be. What I can speak to — the only thing I can speak to — is the sort of film Apocalypse Now became: a milestone of American cinema and one of the best films about war.
The film is not subtle; carnivals of horror rarely are. Coppola, in revising an early script from John Milius, doesn’t paint with a small brush. Tigers jump out of the jungle. A helicopter attack led by the aptly named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” permanently altering the popular impression of the composition for a generation. A carabao is ritualistically slaughtered and spliced to juxtapose the film’s ultimate kill. Humanity is laid bare in the film’s spectrum. This film’s Kurtz, in similarity to the Kurtz of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (the film’s source material), is baldly presented as a corrupted ideal — the ravaging power of colonialism, the futility of American-led containment through ground war, a bull trying to “do good” in a china shop. Even the title itself invokes the tense duality of awe and catastrophe lingering on the precipice or, perhaps worse, occurring in the very moment.
These expressionistic elements, however, are the origins of the film’s tremendous strength, and what has been frequently cited as the film’s weaknesses — the episodic structure the journey upriver, the stark and mysterious third act, the anticlimactic final moments where explanation is supplanted by stillness — are instead better viewed as existential rejoinders to the shocking and inexplicable elements of war, the way the world begins to fall apart and what once made sense becomes maddening. Apocalypse Now is a collection of strange and haunting moments, emotions, sounds, and visuals held together by alarm, a sensation that closely mirrors the unexpected aspects of war. Whether this is an accident or, as Rob Humanick puts it, a cunning use of “what are obviously troubled elements to subversive and ingenious ends,” is ultimately beside the point. Many war films collapse under the weight of cliche or cleanliness, and while Apocalypse Now doesn’t prove a war film must have a turbulent production in order to capture war’s splintering effect, it does suggest that a successful rendering of war must provide a new (unseen, unheard, unfelt) and disquieting experience.
In order to stand apart from its peers, a war film must present something that feels fundamentally new. Cinema will never be able to capture the true reality of war — as Samuel Fuller once suggested, there would need to be a sniper in the theater actually shooting audience members in order to capture that — but it can come close by magnetizing the audience either through extraordinary realism or unsettling surrealism. Apocalypse Now falls into the latter and succeeds through its frenzied aural and visual elements. The soundscape, crafted by a team that took home that year’s Oscar, has a hallucinatory effect that weaves rock music and synthesized battle noises and spirals deep into the ear. The cinematography of the great Vittorio Storaro is fluid, revealing, and expertly handled. The camera often moves with the same creeping slowness of the patrol boat gliding downriver. In fact, throughout the film’s first half there always seems to be something moving: whether it is a single soldier moving across the bottom of the screen or a black helicopter moving across the top, a smoldering fire caught in the right side of the frame or smoke billowing in the left. In the famous helicopter attack sequence, the frame is often crowded and layered, the eye pulled in numerous directions, each shot revealing previously unseen from the prior viewing.
This stylistic device is balanced in the film’s final third by the heavy shadows that eclipse much of Brando’s Kurtz. Although the result of Brando’s vanity and general refusal to be photographed in light (which would have revealed the weight he’d gained), the simplifying but focused effect plays well against the film’s earlier, densely composed moments. For all the trouble Brando caused Coppola during the filming, his presence on screen in Apocalypse Now is arresting, and what he says — part poeticism, part nonsense, all in all captivating — gains potency as he remains the cynosure of Willard and the audience.
Coppola’s interviews in Hearts of Darkness reveal that, more than anything, he feared the film emerging as a form of unadulterated pretentiousness. For a film that succeeded so monumentally in its first incarnation — and without his, or anyone’s, guiding interpretation — he’s remained strangely fickle about its elements, even going so far as to re-edit and re-release the film in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux, with a restoration of its previously excised, and increasingly sought after, footage. That fickleness often manifests itself as defensiveness, and one begins to sense that Coppola will never be satisfied with the product and will never see the film the same way the rest of the world does. Perhaps that’s related to his emotional, financial, and psychological investment in the film, perhaps not: regardless, the film is a towering achievement. Few attempt something so ambitious, and even fewer succeed. When it ends, with the patrol boat back on the river and the empty silence without ending credits, the film severs itself from the viewer, but it lingers — and lingers, and lingers — and, whether appreciated or not, is not easily forgotten.