It couldn’t really be anything else from 1979 – Apocalypse Now ticks all the boxes in nearly every genre possible (it misses screwball comedy I think) and looms over everything else that year. A gigantic mess of a movie (and we’re talking about the original version here rather than the Redux, Redux adds very little to the pot and weakens the pacing considerably), Apocalypse Now moves from Weird Film Noir through Boys Own Adventure to Horror Film to Existential Thriller and back again with at times little sense of connection between what is happening and what has come before. By any logical analysis it doesn’t work, it’s too uneven in tone, too loosely plotted, just too plain weird to do so – but somehow, as a whole it defies expectation and sits together perfectly. Perhaps it’s because come the end you’ve accepted that anything could happen (and does) and been taken over by its madness that it does. I can’t think of another explanation.
It’s a film that becomes better the more you know about it (and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend the documentary “Heart of Darkness” by Coppola’s wife Eleanor detailing the filming of it – it’s a wonder that we got the film at all – or survived), those opening scenes of Martin Sheen in a hotel, filmed on his birthday in the middle of an alcohol fuelled binge that left him needing stitches and wanting to kill Coppola. Does Brando seem rambling? That’s because he couldn’t be bothered to learn his lines. The ending? Coppola was struggling to make sense of the film (did he ever?) until Eleanor happened upon a religious rite held by the tribe they were living with and showed it to Coppola. The film nearly killed its star, bankrupted a studio and Coppola would never again be given absolute control over something like this. Along with Heaven’s Gate it nearly destroyed the system, no studio would take a risk like this for nearly ten years, and certainly not without an already established audience in place. Only Spielberg would leave the seventies with this much power, the Movie Brats had gone too far, too quickly, something had to be done. The film mirrors Coppola’s own decent into near madness, he’s both Willard (searching for an answer) and Kurtz (bloated, unhinged and taking orders from the jungle) – it’s an extremely personnel film in that regard despite the massive scale.
Every criticism that can be levelled at it is also a reason to love it. The scale of the ambition is breath taking, the willingness to experiment inside the genre (whatever genre it falls into, take your pick), its rambling nature. As films seem more and more to be made by committee, this remains the sum of one man’s work. There’s a sense that everyone else has just strapped on for the ride and that they’ll be dragged to the finish line no matter what it does to them. Even the voiceover works, rooting the film with a pulp sensibility and allowing it to focus on the weird visuals and explaining that even the characters find the whole experience to be a disorientating one.
Away from the madness of everything it’s technically superb, and a film that demands to be seen on a big screen if possible (I managed it in a long defunct flea pit of a cinema where it was projected on the world’s worst equipment, it was still superb). The film moves from lush greens through to burnt oranges as it progresses, but whenever the war encroaches on the characters (it’s a war film with only one conventional battle) it moves to grey, the jungle recedes from view and everything is shot in a manner that emphasises the sense of encroachment by foreign forces. The sound design is even more extraordinary, the famous opening indicative of the mixture of sound and music to convey a sense of dread through the sound of slowed down helicopters. The stark, atonal score seems more suited to a horror film, but given that the film at times shifts into that territory it isn’t completely out of place. Martin Sheen gives a fascinating performance as an almost stand in for the audience, completely blitzed by what’s unfolding in front of him and unable to comprehend the bigger picture until the very end, but by then too affected by it to act in a rational manner. Robert Duvall shows up from a different film altogether but remains unforgettable because of it, barking orders to everyone as if he were doing a bad impression of Coppola (who appears in the film as the cameraman shouting “Don’t look at the camera, just go by like you’re fighting!”) and when Brando finally appears he’s part monster, part poet – unsure as to what he’s involved with and more intent on soaking up the mood of the location rather than playing a role in the conventional sense. Dennis Hopper? Well, he’s just Dennis Hopper, only more so. When you add in a teenage Laurence Fishburne looking as if he hasn’t a clue what is going on (apparently the film introduced him to a lot of drugs), Playboy Bunnies and a bizarre cameo by Harrison Ford you get a sense of the scale and madness.
None of this really matters however, Apocalypse Now exists as an experience that simply cannot be translated into another media (not even cinema’s closest form television), an experiment in throwing every idea in the pot and seeing what emerges. I briefly commented on Redux at the beginning, Redux cleans it up, tries to make sense of the experience, but in doing so loses the madness that makes it so exciting. Redux is a better structured film, a clearer narrative, but sometimes that gets in the way of a directors vision (however crazed). We may never really see the real version that Coppola sought to deliver; it’s probably lost in the Philippines jungle being enacted by some long lost tribe. But for now the original version remains the film he dragged out of the madness, and thankfully a sense of the madness remains.