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Film Review

May 09, 2023

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews a classic war film

The origins of the epic and spectacle-filled Apocalypse Now (1979) date back to the late 1960s, when two students at film school in southern California discussed making a film about the war in Vietnam. John Milius had heard a lot of stories about excessive and bizarre behaviour by US soldiers in Vietnam, like going surfing while attacking a peasant village. Milius began work on a script. The other student was George Lucas.

The film never got made, and it was several years later, after US forces had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973 (see MHM April/May 2023), that Oscar award-winning film-maker Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) became excited about the project. By this time, George Lucas was immersed in making Star Wars and told Coppola that, if he was interested in the film, he should direct it.

Vietnam was still a very touchy subject in the US, and it was difficult at first for Coppola to attract interest in funding the movie. The only Vietnam film to date had been The Green Berets in 1968, a John Wayne whitewash. Wayne had been annoyed by anti-war protests and wanted to make a film that was pro-military-intervention and anti-communist.

While Coppola was in the process of fundraising for his project, the final humiliating withdrawal took place, with American helicopters evacuating the last of their citizens and Vietnamese supporters from the roof of its embassy in Saigon in April 1975. The time did not seem right for a Vietnam movie.

Nevertheless, Milius and Coppola worked on the script together. They had differing views on what the film was about. Milius was interested in telling some of the weird stories he had heard from Vietnam. But Coppola was interested in turning the film into a cinematic version of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. The Pentagon usually provided assistance to film-makers of military subjects by supplying men and machines. But when the US Army public-relations team saw a draft script, they ran a mile. Stories of drug-taking and surfing US troops made them reject the project outright.

Coppola raised partial finance from United Artists due to his Oscar-winning reputation, and decided to borrow the rest of the money to complete the funding. But he then found it difficult to cast the film. Steve McQueen demanded $3 million for what amounted to three weeks of location work. Others like Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Orson Welles, and Marlon Brando turned him down flat.

Meanwhile, his location scouts thought they had found the place to film the movie. The Philippines was not a country that frequently attracted Hollywood. The heat and the damp, snakes, and spiders of the jungle usually kept film-makers away. But President Ferdinand Marcos was keen to attract Coppola and his team, and offered to supply American Huey helicopters from the Philippines Air Force.

It took six months to complete the casting. Brando finally agreed to appear for a fee of $3 million and 11% of receipts. Filming began in March 1976 in a remote spot north of Manila. Within days, things had started to go wrong. Marcos faced an insurgency by Muslim guerrillas in the south and frequently had to recall his helicopters to fight the rebels. Several of the special effects went wrong, with explosions not happening in the right place.

The jungle conditions also made life extremely hard for actors and crew. Harvey Keitel found it particularly tough and objectionable, so Coppola took the extraordinary step of firing his lead actor, and replacing him with Martin Sheen.

Then, in mid-May, Typhoon Olga blew in from the South China Sea, flooding the set, wrecking the crew's accommodation, and blowing away tents and props. Coppola was forced to give up, and closed down filming for six weeks until the sets could be rebuilt. The film was already way over budget, and only 15 minutes of usable material had been shot. Coppola was losing confidence in his ability to complete the project. After refinancing the film by committing more of his own money and reworking the script, filming began again at the end of July.

Once more, production was tough. The rains turned the set into a mud bath almost daily. Everyone on the production lived in squalor and complained about being continuously bitten by mosquitoes. Drug-taking and heavy drinking was widespread among the American crew. Equipment frequently broke down. Scenes that should have taken a few days to film ended up taking more than a week. Robbers raided the set, at one point stealing a week's payroll in cash.

Coppola grew increasingly depressed, convinced that he was not able to carry on. He argued furiously with the crew and actors. Morale on the set hit a new low. And Coppola knew that, if the film failed, he would be personally bankrupted.

Then, after months of filming and intense strain, Martin Sheen had a heart attack and nearly died. After a pause, filming continued, and Sheen's brother was flown in as a stand-in until the star had recuperated. Under the pressure, Coppola himself had a form of breakdown and at one point climbed on to a lighting tower and lay there in the rain for hours. Filming was finally completed in May 1977, 15 months after commencement, and after 268 days of shooting. From an initial costing of $12 million, the production was now $15 million over budget.

Coppola had shot 2 million feet (370 hours) of film. Post-production was slow, and there were audio challenges in trying to produce a surround-sound version on 70mm that very few cinemas had the technology to present. The editing went on for two years, prompting regular press headlines of ‘Apocalypse When?’

The cinematographer Vittorio Storaro saw the film as representing a clash between high-tech American culture and the natural world of the jungle. Several scenes bring this alive, especially the opening sequence, where helicopter blades hover and the green jungle explodes into red balls of flame. It sets the mood for a film that is brilliantly shot throughout.

The film tells the story of a mission by Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) to hunt down a renegade Special Forces leader, Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has withdrawn to an outpost in Cambodia where he is conducting his own brutal war against the North Vietnamese and has become a demigod to the locals. Willard's orders are to ‘terminate Kurtz's command with extreme prejudice’. In other words, kill him.

Coppola was persuaded to add a voiceover from Willard describing his thoughts as the story unfolds. Michael Herr, whose bestselling book Dispatches describes his own extreme experiences in Vietnam, was brought in to write this. It provides an effective way of narrating Willard's own odyssey of discovery about Kurtz, his background, and character. Kurtz was a brilliant officer, clearly heading for high command, before he went AWOL and, according to those in command, insane.

The main section of the film deals with Willard's journey on a naval patrol boat up the Nung river. The journey is a sort of parable through the story of the war in Vietnam. Early on, Willard and his crew join an Air Cavalry unit led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who is delighted to discover that one of the boat's crew, Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), is a famous Californian surfer.

In one of the craziest sequences ever shot in a war movie, Kilgore leads his Hueys into a dawn attack on a Vietnamese village infiltrated by the Viet Cong. Playing Wagner's ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from one of the choppers, the Hueys rocket and machine-gun the inhabitants of the village with massive loss of life.

With the attack still going on, Kilgore orders the surfers to take to the waves. They are hesitant, but Kilgore shouts: ‘If I say it's safe to surf, it's safe to surf!’ As jet bombers come in to napalm the jungle from where the Viet Cong are mortaring the Americans on the beach, Kilgore utters the now infamous words: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning… Smelled like victory.’

As the patrol boat heads further upriver, past scenes of smoke, fire, and destruction, the film gets increasingly surreal. Lance Johnson waterskis up the river, behind the boat. At a brightly lit riverside transport depot in the heart of the jungle, a helicopter brings in a group of Playboy Playmates who dance for the men. And at a medical camp beyond this in torrential rain (actually filmed during Typhoon Olga), Willard trades some fuel for the crew to have two hours of sex with the Playmates. The scene was intended to show that women, too, are exploited by war – in this case, sexually.

Alongside the river is the debris of war, shot-down helicopters, bodies hanging in trees, and the tailfin of a downed B-52 bomber. When the patrol boat stops a sampan, the crew panic and open fire, killing the innocent Vietnamese, who are simply trying to earn a living trading fruit and vegetables. At the last army outpost along the river, the crew take LSD and visit a nightmarish camp where there is no one in command and US soldiers fire wildly into the night.

In a scene that was not included in the original version, the crew, having crossed into Cambodia, come across a remote rubber plantation run by a French family who have been there for generations. There is an argumentative dinner, during which the French say the Americans should learn from their mistakes. Then, in an erotic sequence, Willard is seduced by a young Frenchwoman (Aurore Clément). It is intended to show that soldiers can love as well as fight.

The last section of the film deals with the confrontation between Willard and Kurtz. When Brando arrived on set in August 1976, he had ballooned after his performance in The Godfather and was grossly overweight at about 250lbs (18 stone). And he had barely looked at the script. Coppola decided to dress him not in military fatigues as intended but in loose-fitting, black Asian-type pyjamas and to shoot him mostly in close-up so as not to reveal his obesity. When he needed long shots, another actor stood in for Brando.

Coppola and Brando spent days discussing the script and how to play Kurtz. Coppola saw him as a great warrior. But Brando wanted him to be a mystery figure. In the end, Storaro filmed Kurtz shifting in and out of darkness, and the way he shot the compound, based on the abandoned ruins of the Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, made him seem supremely mysterious and dangerous.

Everywhere bodies are strung up and decapitated heads and skulls litter the ground, revealing the intense violence of Kurtz's war. But Kurtz's supporters, the local tribesmen, worship him like a god. Among his entourage is a manic photographer, a caricature of a late 1960s hippie, who thinks Kurtz is a genius. He is played by Dennis Hopper.

Instead of using extras, a mountain tribe, the Ifugao, were brought in to provide Kurtz's guard. When they arrived on set, they held a feast that included dancing and chanting that lasted nearly two days. It also included the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo, which gave Coppola the idea of reshooting the sacrifice for the film.

When we finally get to see Kurtz, a bald and huge Brando, he knows Willard has come to kill him. There is a series of weird meetings between them. Kurtz reads poetry, an extract from T S Eliot's ‘The Hollow Men’. Brando's voice and presence haunts this final section of the movie.

Coppola and Brando repeatedly discussed the ending, which Brando thought was a mess. Coppola was impressed by Brando's ability to improvise on camera, and the final scenes of the film include two long improvisations that had never been scripted, on Kurtz's philosophy of war. He comes across as far from insane.

In a psychedelic finale, a blackened, punk-like Willard goes after Kurtz as the local natives slaughter a buffalo. In this scene, as throughout the film, the audio provides a spooky and strange combination of atonal music and sound effects to suggest the etheral world in which the action takes place.

With a runtime of more than three hours, Apocalypse Now Redux is, by any reckoning, far too long. It's easy to be overwhelmed, almost literally, by the epic quality of the film, especially when seeing it on the big screen – the best way to experience it. But, although parts of the movie, especially the journey upriver, are still compelling, it has not dated well. Its drug-induced psychedelic ending is one of the weirdest sequences ever included in a war film, intending to show how good can turn into evil.

When he produced the original 1979 version, Coppola felt compelled to deliver a more conventional action-adventure movie, and did not want to puzzle audiences with its strangeness. In the Redux version, he produces something closer to his original concept, challenging the morality of war and how Vietnam was full of lies and myths that were used to justify the violence, terrible death, and destruction. For me, this gets lost in the excess of the spectacle and surrealism of the narrative.

Apocalypse Now is a seminal anti-war movie, with a powerful journey into darkness at its core – but it is flawed by the extremes of its production and the bizarreness of its finale.

In 1979, two versions of Apocalypse Now were released. The 70mm version (147mins) had no credits at the end – audiences were instead given a paper programme with the credits listed. The 35mm version (153mins) had the credits over explosions in the jungle, suggesting a very different ending and prompting accusations that Coppola did not know how to conclude the film.

After seeing the film on TV in 2000, Coppola decided to rework it with the editor Walter Murch, going back to the original negatives. He added 49 minutes and several complete scenes that had not featured in the original, including the French colonists’ dinner and a second sequence with the Playmates. Coppola said he thought this made the film ‘richer, fuller and more textured’ and brought out the ‘moral dilemma of America's most surreal and nightmarish war’. This version was called Redux and had a new running time of 196 minutes.

Finally, to mark the 40th anniversary of the film in 2019, Coppola issued a third version, called Final Cut, digitally restored at 4K with the audio remastered. Some of the scenes from Redux were removed and the running time of this version was 179 minutes. Many critics argued that this was the best version, easier to watch and shorter than Redux.

Apocalypse Now (1979)Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Michael Herr. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. Editing by Walter Murch. Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Marlon Brando.

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Apocalypse Now (1979)