*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 poll rank: #14
**For the purposes of this article, the original 1979 theatrical cut of the film was viewed, not the 2001 Redux cut.**
It seems appropriate that Apocalypse Now, a film about a war that nearly (or perhaps successfully?) broke the might of the American military, would be the film that nearly broke director Francis Ford Coppola. Filmed in 1976 in the Philippines, what was planned to be six-week shoot turned into a grueling sixteen-month slog, as expensive sets were destroyed by typhoons, actors such as Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen proved to be difficult to work with, and much of the audio was found unusable, resulting in extensive re-recording of dialogue. Sheen had a heart attack during filming that sidelined him for a month, and Coppola reportedly considered taking his own life several times during the production. The film premiered, unfinished, at Cannes Film Festival in 1979, and won the Palme d'Or (along with Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum), making it the only incomplete film to ever win the top prize. The finished product earned critical raves, and it's reputation has only become more esteemed with the passing of time.
Yet for all of that, Coppola spent so much of his own money - including mortgaging his Napa Valley home and winery - that he would spend the subsequent decade-and-change working as a director-for-hire in order to pay off his debts. It was a costly, emotionally, and physically taxing film, and the repercussions of its creation were felt by the main players for years afterward.
(As with all famously-troubled productions, there's a terrific documentary about the making of this film: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.)
If it sounds like the making of the film has a lot in common with its subject matter, the Vietnam War, Coppola certainly wouldn't disagree. But it's not just the troubled production that makes Apocalypse Now a remarkable and important film. There is no shortage of American films about the Vietnam War (along with the Civil War and World War II, it's the most common war on film, based on my own observations). But what separates Apocalypse Now from the rest of the pack is the way that unlike, say, Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), the film is content to simply sit back and let the carnage speak for itself.
More after the jump.
What helps in this regard is that the story isn't rooted in the war itself. Instead, Coppola and co-writer John Milius loosely adapted Joseph Conrad's classic 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, transplanting the action from late-19th century Belgian Congo to war-torn Vietnam and Cambodia. Like the novel, the film follows an officer, Captain Willard (Sheen), as he journeys down a treacherous river to find a high-ranking officer, Colonel Kurtz (Brando), who has gone rogue. Unlike the novel, though, Willard's mission isn't to find and return him; he's tasked with killing Kurtz for his actions.
Kurtz isn't the only one who's gone insane, though. The film opens with Willard in a Saigon hotel room, eyes wide and hollow, jumping about and punching a mirror. In fact, just about every character Willard encounters on his martial odyssey appears to have lost their sanity, either temporarily or permanently. Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, in an Oscar-nominated performance) stands tall during the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence, standing on the beach while bullets and explosives whiz by him, rhapsodizing about the smell of napalm and ordering his soldiers to strip and go surfing in the middle of a firefight. Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Lance (Sam Bottoms) take unmistakable glee in setting off smokescreens and opening fire on armed militants and unarmed civilians alike. And a photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who's joined Kurtz in lording over a local tribe seems to truly believe that the deranged colonel is a deity, rambling as if his language center is scrambled.
Yet Coppola isn't content to just have the characters represent the insanity of war. The film is shot like a drug-induced hallucination, with images piled atop each other and yellow filters making this world seem unreal. Indeed, the impressionistic editing leads to characters being introduced and then simply walking out of frame, never to be seen or heard from again. How do we know that they were real? How do we know that any of this is real? The only tether to continuity that Coppola allows for Willard is the crew that joins him for his mission: Chef, Lance, Clean (a fourteen-year-old Laurence Fishburne), and Phillips (Albert Hall). Yet they, too, are slowly losing their grips on reality, costing some of them their lives.
One of the key themes of Conrad's novella was discerning who the real "savages" were, the natives or the invaders. Apocalypse Now doesn't spend enough time with the Viet Cong (or any non-American character, for that matter) to really delve into this point with balanced perspective, and it's because of this that the film, at times, seems to land on "the invaders" as the more malicious force. On only a few occasions in the film - two separate ambushes along the riverbank immediately come to mind - do the Viet Cong instigate the fight. In the "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter sequence, it's the American helicopters that open fire on the village, killing anyone who's not in an American uniform. When Willard's party happens upon a fishing boat along the river, it's not the civilian family aboard the vessel who brutally open fire. The film's soldiers indiscriminately kill anyone who looks like "one of them," a method that can't be described as anything but "savage."
While the film's main theme about the insanity of war is what makes it such an enduring work of war cinema, it's not just about war in general. Really, this is a film about the insanity of this war, the American involvement in what was essentially a Vietnamese civil war. The United States sent massive amounts of troops to Southeast Asia off the basis of "domino theory," which stated that if one country fell to Communist forces, it would set of a chain reaction that ended in the total defeat of democracy. This was, in hindsight, a poorly-rendered logical progression, yet at the height of the Cold War, with most of Eastern Europe, Cuba, China, and North Korea already having successful Communist revolutions and the backing of the Soviet Union, the United States was not willing to let Vietnam fall as well.
And yet, Ho Chi Minh's forces prevailed. Vietnam became a Communist nation, as did Cambodia and Laos (only Laos and Vietnam remain so, loosely, today). Despite overwhelming manpower superiority, the coalition of South Vietnamese and American forces lost the war. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, the United States began calling its troops home. Not only had the idea of democracy lost in Vietnam, so had the idea of the United States military being an unbeatable force of good. Reports of atrocities committed by American soldiers dominated the news. Gone where the days of unwavering patriotic support for the American war effort. The Vietnam War dealt a loss that the United States continues to reel from to this day.
But "domino theory" also lost. The spread of communism stopped at the three aforementioned nations in southeast Asia; a would-be revolution in Thailand was never perceived as a serious threat. And it wasn't because of a successful military intervention, but rather because communism wasn't a virus that could infect the whole world. It succeeded in the nations where it was most appealing to the masses (or at least the superior military leader), and failed in the ones where it wasn't.
To bring this all back to Apocalypse Now, American involvement in the Vietnam War was consistently marked by the "insanity" of everyone involved. It was based on a theory, and entering the war meant entering a situation that no one was prepared to handle. Apocalypse Now captures this idea better than any other film to explore the subject. With this film, Coppola didn't take audiences into the heart of darkness so much as into the hellish mentality of insanity. And what he finds there is best summed up in the film's final lines: "the horror…the horror…"
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: The Rules of the Game (1939)