Paramount // 1979 // 153 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // January 8th, 2000
There's nothing like a little drugs, politics, and firepower to make a man think.
Francis Ford Copolla's epic film, Apocalypse Now, is not one of those films that people tend to be iffy about. Its extremely intense, psychedelic, violent, and chaotic look at war and what war does to people tends to either be seen as a work of genius, or just self indulgent crap. Personally, I take the former view. This film, when seen properly as an allegorical tale of self discovery, is a mesmerizing visual and auditory feast of the wickedness that is man, and the insanity that is war.
There was some discussion among the reviewers about this film, and it was mentioned that this wasn't a very good Vietnam war film, that Platoon was much better. This is true, if one looks at Apocalypse Now as a Vietnam war film. But I think its better seen as an exploration of the madness of war in general, with the Vietnam war (a pretty mad war by anyone's standards) as just a convenient backdrop against which it unfolds. We see the effects of war magnified and distorted though the drugs, fear induced adrenaline, and jaded cynicism of the characters.
I'm sure that many of you read, or perhaps were forced to read, Joseph Conrad's famous novel, "Heart of Darkness" in school. That novel uses the story of an increasingly uneasy trip up a river as a symbol for a man taking a trip into his own self, to face the darkness lurking there. Apocalypse Now is a loose adaptation of that story set against the Vietnam war.
The films starts with the main character, Captain Willard played by Martin Sheen (The American President, Hot Shots! Part Deux, Wall Street), slowly freaking out in a hotel in Saigon. Willard is an army officer who specializes in political assassinations and other such assignments that never officially exist. Having done one stint of service already, and not being able to stay sane once back home, he's come back to Vietnam and is coming unraveled as he waits for his next mission. And he gets a mission that will change him forever.
Willard is assigned to take a trip up a river into Cambodia where a renegade special forces officer, Colonel Walter Kurtz played by Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Superman, On the Waterfront), has set himself up as a sort of God among the natives and his troops. Kurtz has seemingly gone over the deep end, is assassinating suspected double agents in the South Vietnamese government, and just generally fighting the war in an uncompromising way that is becoming an embarrassment to the US military. Willard is told that he is to terminate the Colonel's command, to "terminate with...extreme prejudice."
As a relatively low key way to get up river, Willard takes a ride on a patrol boat that is common along the river ways. The boat is run by Chief Phillips, played by Albert Hall (Malcom X, Get on the Bus, Devil in a Blue Dress), who has three guys (basically kids) on his crew. First is Chef played by Frederic Forrest (Falling Down, Citizen Cohn, The End of Violence), from New Orleans who really just wanted to be a real chef, but ended up in Vietnam. Next is Lance Johnson, played by Sam Bottoms (The Last Picture Show, Sugar Hill, The Outlaw Josey Wales), a famous surfer from southern California. And last but not least is Mr. Clean, played by a very young Laurence Fishburne (The Cotton Club, The Matrix, The Tuskegee Airmen.) The bulk of the story is of the trip up river with these characters.
During the trip, Willard begins to read the confidential material on Kurtz that he has been provided, and this is where the inward journey part begins. Kurtz, as it turns out, might be the only actually sane person fighting this war, in a twisted sort of way. He was a very highly decorated officer, being groomed for a big position in military establishment. But after a stint early in the US involvement in Vietnam, he evidently had an epiphany and decided to join the special forces and be sent back to Vietnam. But the insanity of a war run by politicians eventually pushes him over the edge, and he goes out on his own. Willard thinks to himself that they cut people in half with a machine gun, then assuage their guilt by handing out band aids. Perhaps Kurtz' way of fighting the war is really more honest and humane in the end, because it makes no attempt to sugar coat the reality. Charging Kurtz with murder in Vietnam, he thinks, is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
At one point, the boat needs to get into another river, the mouth of which is controlled by the Viet Cong. So they call on the air cavalry to escort them through. Here they meet up with Lt Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall (The Apostle, Sling Blade, A Family Thing), in a hilariously over the top performance. Kilgore, as Willard notes, is one of those guys that you just look at and know he's never going to get a scratch. He's so wide open, that Vietnam is probably just his ball of wax. He turns out to be a surfing fan and, when he figures out who Lance is, he takes the beach at the river entrance so that they can surf. Kilgore delivers the now very famous line that he loves the smell of napalm in the morning because it reminds him "of victory."
After many other bizarre and brutal adventures, Willard finally makes it up stream and faces Kurtz. By this time, only Chef and Lance have survived. And, true to the symbolic journey, Willard is forced to face the darkness he finds there, and its pretty danged dark. Kurtz has truly gone fishing, and his troops have gone with him. His camp is a veritable wonderland of severed heads, hanging corpses, pagan idolatry, and assorted other inhumanities to man. Kurtz meanwhile sits in his abandoned temple and reads poetry and makes tape recordings of his twisted-though-maybe-correct philosophy. Kurtz attempts to bring Willard into the fold, and Willard must decide whether to carry out his mission or join the family.
Another notable performance is that of a photojournalist, played by Dennis Hopper (EdTV, Basquiat, The Last Days of Frankie the Fly.) As I understand it, this was sort of a comeback for Hopper who had come to be seen at that time as a total freakshow and unreliable. His performance here is almost that of a parody of his own wide eyed, drugged out persona. He has become one of Kurtz followers and basically captures all of the fun in pictures for posterity. And his rambling also provides some needed back story on Kurtz and what's going on at the camp.
The video quality of this anamorphic disc is quite good considering how old this film is. I never found myself being pulled out of the action by artifacts, but then again this kind of film tends to pull you deeply in anyway, so I might have missed some iffy bits along the way. A lot of the film is spent in darkness, though filled with extremely bright explosions, so having a set that does both good blacks and which holds black level well will benefit this material.
The audio is not reference quality by today's standards, but its definitely the kind of film that benefits from a 5.1 soundtrack, since there is often plenty of ordinance to keep the surrounds busy. Compared to the last time I saw it, about four years ago, via VHS tape, on a 27" set, using the TV speakers, I can't complain. It was a very immersive experience, with the battle scenes being appropriately loud and chaotic. The attack sequence with the air cavalry is quite impressive. And the opening scene with The Doors music sounded good.
If you get a chance, you should watch the documentary film "Hearts of Darkness," which is about the making of Apocalypse Now. Its a very interesting watch, in that the making of the film is almost as insane as the film made. It was filmed in a very turbulent political time, and at a time when Copolla was very much questioning his ability to make it work. At the time at least, he thought the ending was a complete cop out. And the beginning was a rough, with the original actor chosen to portray Willard getting the axe after shooting had already begun. At one point some very elaborate sets are completely wasted by a storm and the whole cast has to be sent back to the US to wait for them to be rebuilt. It ended up going grossly over its money and time budgets, proving perhaps that filmmaking on that scale actually does require the kind of egos that big time directors tend to have.
Why oh why was this not a special edition? Why did Copolla not do a commentary track? Why wasn't the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary at least included? The lights are on, but...If there was ever a disc that deserved the special edition treatment, this is one of them. Oy.
As mentioned above, this type of film is not for everyone. It's filled with drugs, violence, human sacrifice, and cynicism. If this kind of 'hold your face to the flame' type of film turns you off, you'll want to avoid this one.
What can I say that hasn't already been said a thousand times? It's an epic adventure into the more dank corners of the human psyche, its director and many of its actors are now legendary or soon to be so, and it absolutely refuses to paint anything in black and white, forcing the viewer to really think. It's one of the great films of our times and would certainly have to be in my top twenty if not top ten. Only its egregious lack of extras pulled its score down.
Acquitted...acquitted with extreme prejudice. Sorry, I couldn't resist that even though you probably heard it coming about ten paragraphs ago.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scenes from Destruction of the Kurtz Compound with commentary by Francis Ford Coppola
* Excerpts from the original theatrical program
* American Zoetrope
* Martin Sheen Fan Site