New Eyes on Apocalypse Now

It is 1969: the Vietnam War has been going on for fourteen years,  and will continue for five more. Captain Willard, a special operations veteran of multiple tours, is sent upriver into the jungle on a naval launch. His mission? To track down Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a decorated US war hero – and assassinate him.

Although considered iconic today, the shooting and release of Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) was beset with problems (the list is too long to include here), and the finished product was far from universally acclaimed at the time. Given the troubled release and the volume of footage available (Coppola was reputed to have shot over one million feet of film), it is unsurprising that the picture has been revisited over the years. The original theatrical cut clocks in at around two and a half
hours, while APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (2001) piles on another 49 minutes.

THE FINAL CUT, released this year, splits the difference at 182 minutes. Both REDUX and FINAL CUT were released under Coppola’s supervision, and so it is fair to say that the latter represents the director’s definitive vision of the final product. But does it stand up?

APOCALYPSE NOW chronicles a languid slide into a very special kind of hell. From the beginning, the audience is immersed in war. Death feels random, the enemy faceless, part of the land itself. The American soldiers are little more than children. No one knows who is in charge, and everything is on fire. We accompany Willard (Martin Sheen), into situations of ever-stranger insanity and violence. Our final destination is Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who embodies the logical apex of this madness. The higher-ups want him gone because he’s gone AWOL, setting up his own jungle stronghold which he rules with the authority of a god. His methods for fighting the Viet Cong have become “unsound” – for which, read: “batshit crazy.” But this isn’t the whole truth. As we approach him, we approach, too, a disturbing idea: perhaps Kurtz is not mad. Perhaps in the business of war, those who are prepared to commit
great evil to achieve their goals are the sanest people of all. Thus the horror at the heart of APOCALYPSE NOW is not the things Kurtz has done. The horror is that his actions can be rationalised.

There is a lot to love about FINAL CUT (much of which the theatrical cut shares). It opens on a long shot of trees swishing in the wind. Helicopters clatter nearby, occasionally swooping into shot. The trees disappear in a fireball which engulfs the screen, and pleasant music plays. This dissonant serenity recurs again and again over the course of the film, most notably embodied by Lt. Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore (the deservedly award-laden Robert Duvall). The attitude of Kilgore (who is casual about the fight against “Charlie,” but views surfing as serious business) and the men who surround him falls in direct contrast to what we, the audience, experience. The opening of FINAL CUT is a sensory assault on both the eyes and the ears. We are exposed, a raw nerve – surrounded by fire, smoke, constant explosions. The score is by turns imposing, epic and eerie. The line between diegetic and non-diegetic is blurred, adding to the dreamlike quality of the narrative. Early on, the theatre of operations of the Vietnam War is described as ‘confused.’ The film doubles down on confirming this to be a colossal understatement. The aimless need to obey pointless orders (such as rebuilding the Do Lung bridge, only for it to be blown up again and again) is reminiscent of the mindless bureaucracy of BRAZIL.

There are two key stumbling blocks which prevent FINAL CUT from fulfilling its nightmarish potential. The first is a scene set in a French rubber plantation. In amongst a series of vignettes of increasing insanity, this segment appears to have parachuted in from a different movie. Everything is remarkably civilized. Wine and cognac are drunk. Cigar smoke curls in the air. (In your cinema seat, you glance at your watch and begin to long for the purity of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.) French men argue about what it means to be French. (Or perhaps the sweet release of death.) Lastly, a gauzy woman swans in to spout profundities about the duality of man and provide us with a serving of obligatory manic pixie boobs (because all films, even great ones, require female nudity to keep the audience engaged). The pacing of APOCALYPSE NOW is never propulsive, but the French plantation scene kills it stone dead. Tom Bombadil would be proud.

The second issue is the ending itself, specifically the portrayal of Kurtz. His shadow looms large over the entire story. He is both a king and a god of his own making – and he represents the terrible dark thesis of the film: that to win wars one must be ready to commit greater evil than one’s enemies. He is built up as a magnetic figure, a cult leader (references to Charles Manson in an early scene cannot be accidental), mythologised, revered and feared in equal measure. We are told all this. The problem
is that when we meet Kurtz (Brando), he does not live up to expectation. The first meeting between Willard and Kurtz is effective – but it is sparse on dialogue. The mysterious lighting and Brando’s shaved skull do a lot of the heavy lifting. After this, we see far too much of him, and all that we do see undermines the entire journey we have taken up until this point. He commits no horrors that we see. He talks too much, and very little of what he has to say is interesting. Where is the magnetic leader, the brilliant and brutal strategist? Where is his elite army? It comes to this: we are told a
lot about Kurtz, but nothing we are shown convinces us of his godlike power. Kurtz is reduced from the apex of the madness of war to a collection of philosophical platitudes. Thus the ending is disappointing.

Against the surreal excellence of the remainder of the film, these foibles are forgivable. The “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence is spine-tingling. Whatever version you choose to watch, APOCALYPSE NOW deserves its cult status. But it is a film where the journey is more interesting than the destination.

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