Apocalypse Now: A Transcendental Cinematic Experience

Such was the excess that after finishing the extravagant and epic war film, the director Francis Ford Coppola said, "Sometimes I think, why don't I just make my wine and do some dumbbell movie every two years?" As Charles Champlin wrote of the film “noble use of the medium and as a timeless expression of national anguish, it towers over everything that has been attempted by an American filmmaker in a very long time".

Apocalypse Now: A Transcendental Experience Apocalypse Now: A Transcendental Experience Source : Film Still|United Artists

At a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival in May 1979, Coppola introduced the Palme d'Or winner as: "Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane. After a while, I was a little frightened, because I was getting deeper in debt and no longer recognized the kind of movie I was making. The film was making itself, or the jungle was making it for me."

Francis Ford Coppola was the world's most respected film director during the 70s. Coppola was riding on the success of his last three films-The Godfather I, The Godfather II and The Conversation. There was nothing left to prove anymore. He was the best. End of story. But for Coppola himself, he wanted to test the limits, of how far he could go. The addition $20 million on the budget was only one thing of all the disasters that happened during the shoot. Martin Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel after almost a month of shooting, and then he suffered a heart attack because of the strain of carrying a demanding role, Marlon Brando turned up unfit for the role, the shoot ran for 15 months and the film took four years to complete.

Notwithstanding the budget constraints in today's time, it is the persistence bordering on downright madness and the unprecedented magnitude of vision that make it difficult to conceive a film being made today on a scale proportionate to Apocalypse Now. It's a monumental work, period. It is not overwhelming, it is overbearing and I am not complaining, I am merely stating that at some point you will got lost in jungle like vastness of Apocalypse Now. It takes you to places you have never visited and also the places you have been forever circumventing. You will run out of energy but Apocalypse Now will go on for a bit more. No wonder Coppola took four years to finish the film. It's exhausting not because it's indulging, but because we don't have the capacity to absorb all of it at once. Certainly, it is a film that demands deliberate examination over the course of multiple viewings. Yet, it is a film and it works as an experience that is remarkably surreal and visceral as it is cerebral and thought provoking.

Screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, John Milius said: "When I was writing Apocalypse Now I wanted them to meet people and become involved in the war, but I could never think of anything that was appropriate. Every time I would get them into a firefight or an ambush or something it would degenerate into just another meaningless Vietnam war scene. They had to be thrown into the war at its most insane and most intense."

Roger Ebert wrote about the film: "What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge. It shames modern Hollywood's timidity. To watch it is to feel yourself lifted up to the heights where the cinema can take you, but so rarely does. The film is a mirror reflecting our feelings about the war in Vietnam, in all their complexity and sadness."

So much has been spoken and written about Apocalypse Now-the arresting performances by Brando, Sheen, Duvall and Hopper among many others; the alluring images of bewitching Philippine landscape by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Milius and Coppola's lyrical and striking screenplay whose translated the rhythm and pace was translated by editors Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg and Lisa Fruchtman into the screen from the 250 hour footage at their disposal; and Walter Murch's encapsulating sound design.

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), which also features a river journey and an insane soldier was a major influence on Apocalypse Now. The theme of the movie is the same as that of Conrad's novella. "In Apocalypse Now just as in 'Heart of Darkness,' the central journey is both a literal and a metaphoric one," writes Joy Boyum. It is fundamentally "a voyage of discovery into the dark heart of man, and an encounter with his capacity for evil." In harmony with this observation, Coppola tells me that he too "sees Willard's journey upriver as a metaphor for the voyage of life, during the course of which each of us must choose between good and evil."

"Apocalypse Now, as released in 1979, opens with a riveting scene, a hypnotic montage of a phantom helicopter flying through the jungle amid smoke and napalm flames, accompanied by the whirling of a chopper's rotary blades. Jim Morrison and the Doors sing the phantasmagoric "The End" on the sound track, an ironic choice to have at the beginning of the film. The image dissolves to Willard, a burnt-out intelligence officer lying drunk and nearly naked on a rumpled, sweat-soaked bed in a Saigon hotel, while a ceiling fan slowly revolves above him. He is groggily awakening from a nightmare about the war, which was prompted by the thump of the ceiling fan sounding like a helicopter. A full-time Green Beret and a part time CIA assassin, Willard is awaiting a secret assignment."

In 1975 Francis Ford Coppola announced that he intended to make a film about the Vietnam War. Hollywood filmmakers had avoided that subject, fearing that a movie about the war would be too controversial and financially risky. The resulting movie was Apocalypse Now, directed by Coppola and co-written by Coppola and John Milius. The film was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," updating the novella's setting from the Belgian Congo in the 1890s to Vietnam in the 1960s.

"The film tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a CIA assassin ordered to find Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Green Beret accused of murdering four suspected Vietcong agents. Kurtz has escaped, gathered a force of Montagnard tribesmen, and moved into Cambodia, where he is waging a private war, "operating," an American General says, "without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct." Kurtz's superiors have concluded that he is insane, and they order Willard to "terminate" Kurtz "with extreme prejudice." A navy patrol boat carries Willard upriver into Cambodia. Along the way, he and the crew experience adventures that become more and more surreal: a helicopter assault on a village, an encounter with a tiger in the jungle, a USO Playboy Bunny show, the killing of civilians in a sampan, a battle at an isolated bridge, and an attack by natives with arrows and spears. Eventually, Willard finds Kurtz and assassinates him."

"Apocalypse Now is a rewriting of the traditional adventure story, a kind of story told in every culture, the story that comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has called "the monomyth." John Milius has said that he based Willard on Aeneas and Dante. "The film begins, as does Dante's Inferno, with the protagonist alone, in midlife, having lost his moral and spiritual compass and undergoing a tortured, agonizing dark night of the soul. The Nung River in the film corresponds to the rivers of the Underworld and, as Frank Tomasulo has pointed out, the scene at the Do Lung Bridge in which soldiers stand in water and beg for the patrol boat to pick them up calls to mind Canto XII of The Inferno, in which the makers of war are submerged in a river of blood. The identification of Willard with Jesus and Oedipus figures is established in the opening scene of the film. As two soldiers drag a drunken Willard to the shower in his Saigon hotel room, Willard is in a crucifixion posture and the shower into which they put him becomes a symbolic baptism."

"Apocalypse Now is a non-didactic film that takes no clear moral or political stand on the Vietnam War. Willard returns with two things from his journey. One is a manuscript written by Kurtz. The other is Lance, one of the sailors from the boat. Depending on which of these we take to be the boon, the film can be understood as either prowar or anti-war, an ambiguity that reflects the different positions taken on the war by Milius and Coppola. Milius believed the decision to go to war in Vietnam was a mistake, but that once in the war, the United States should have done whatever was necessary to win, quickly and decisively. For Milius, Kurtz is crazy, but he is also telling the truth. The wisdom that Willard is bringing back with him, the wisdom that will regenerate society, is the message of Kurtz's manuscript: "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all." Coppola opposed the war. In his view the Vietnam War had descended into primitivism and savagery, and America had become the mirror image of what it was supposed to be against. By killing Kurtz, Willard takes his place, becomes the new Kurtz and the leader of Kurtz's Montagnard army. Willard lays down his weapon at the end, and the Montagnards do the same. Willard is leading them, Coppola says, into a future without war. In this interpretation, the boon is Lance. Lance has given in to the primitivism and savagery represented by Kurtz, but Willard pulls Lance away from savagery and brings him home, symbolically ending the war."

Apocalypse Now Redux premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001 where the 1979 original version had won the Palme d'Or. The redux version includes an expansion of the Air Cavalry sequence as well as three entire sequences that had been deleted from the 1979 cut: a second segment involving the Playboy Bunnies; a "French plantation" sequence; and a scene with Willard confined to a metal container, where Kurtz lucidly reads him passages from Time magazine's coverage of the war. Coppola explains that, in response to the distributors' reactions to the film, "We pretty much stripped out some of the surreal elements . . .we made it much more a kind of forward, linear movie, more like a war movie of that time. . . .We decided that we had to shorten it and make it more normal if we were going to save our skins."

Coppola has said of the Air Cavalry scenes: "These scenes began to be so surreal to me that I think the whole direction of Apocalypse Now began to change, and it began to go from a so-called war film into this ‘journey into the surreal.'" Gene D. Phillips points out that "the exteriors for the second bunny scene were shot during the torrential rains that caused the production to be shut down in 1976. Here Coppola explores a parallel that he saw between the exploitation of young men (by sending them off to what he calls "the obscenity of war") and the sexual exploitation of young women. In Variety, Todd McCarthy calls the restored Playmates scene a "passage striking for its utter newness as well as for its exceedingly sad, poignant tone." The sequence in which Willard and the patrol boat crew stop off at a French plantation that seems to emerge from the fog, as though from a dream and their spirits survive as a cautionary specter for the Americans. Coppola explained: "My idea was that as they progressed up the river, they were like going back more and more in time in a funny kind of way, that we were revisiting the history of Vietnam in reverse, and the first stop was in the '50s . . . we now are with the French. That was what I was looking for in the French plantation. It was a kind of ghostly afterview of something-almost like they talk about the light from the stars: we see it, but the star's already dead."

In its original cut, the dinner scene featured the following voiceover by Willard: "It was like having dinner with a family of ghosts. There were still a few hundred of them left on plantations all over Vietnam, trying to keep themselves convinced that it was still 1950. They weren't French anymore, and they'd never be Vietnamese. They were floating loose in history without a country. They were hanging on by their fingernails, but so were we; we just had more fingernails in it." Dinner is followed by a romantic scene in which Willard and the young widow Roxanne (Aurore Clément) smoke an opium pipe and prepare to make love. The sequence ends with Roxanne's musings on Willard's dual nature, as both someone who kills and someone who loves. Coppola describes Brando in this way: "A man of incredible intellect...one of the few really brilliant men I've ever met. But he has a lot of techniques to sabotage the situation...I don't know why, but maybe he feels that if he can break up and disrupt everything, then it should be [disrupted]." The scene fits particularly well with what Coppola terms an "anti-lie" theme of the film (and its source novella): "If the government, if the publications, if people lie about things, then there can be no morality; because the lie does away with the natural check that would happen. If people really had to deal with what the truth was, they wouldn't permit it. So governments over history, organs of state and what have you, are often lying, and really that's the theme of ‘Heart of Darkness.' He has the line, I think, where he says something like, ‘I hate the stench of a lie.'"

Sheen says in the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the first scene where he smashes his own image in the mirror: "Francis wanted to stop filming, but I said, 'No, let it go.' Willard was looking for the killer inside himself." The first rough cut, which was finished in the late summer of 1977, ran seven hours, remembers Richard Marks. It ultimately took two years to create the final cut. "I'll probably never work on anything that monumental again."


Gene D. Phillips, Godfather-The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola-The University Press of Kentucky (2004)

James M. Welsh, The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia-The Scarecrow Press, Inc. (2010)

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