Scene from Apocalypse Now with Sheen Hopper and Forrest

Image courtesy of United Artists/Zoetrope Pictures

Reflections Upon the
40th Anniversary of
Apocalypse Now

| published January 25, 2019 |

By R.Alan Clanton,
Thursday Review editor

One measure of a movie’s place in film history is its endurance. It’s a question, really: does a particular motion picture stand the test of time beyond the box office power of its audiences in those first few weeks and the positive reviews of critics steeped in that cultural moment and place? Films which endure this test and survive the rigors of time obviously become—and remain—iconic. Then there are those rarest of movies which have the even more powerful artistic talent of improving with age, working their way up those great compilation lists, years later, decades later. These films eventually become what film critics and historians alike deem masterpieces.

The fortieth anniversary of one of the most important films ever made is upon us this very year, 120 years after the screenplay’s original literary inspiration—Joseph Conrad’s fiction tale Heart of Darkness—was published in serial form in the magazine Blackwood’s in 1899.

Conrad’s deeply intense and atmospheric story—republished as a complete novel in 1902—tells the tale of dark journey by boat up the Congo River in Africa, a detailed and lavish account retold by the novel’s fictional English narrator, Charles Marlow. Widely interpreted, especially by 20th century readers and critics, as an indictment of imperialism and colonialism, greed, evil versus good, racism and violence, civilization and its effects upon the “uncivilized,” Heart of Darkness translated well into the realm of late 20th century criticism, and even now holds its own as a tale of both adventure and of moral complexity and darkness.

In 1976, three quarters of a century after that novel was first published, Francis Ford Coppola began shooting in the jungles of the Philippines, working from a series of scripts and screen adaptations written and developed by Coppola and screenwriter-director John Milius. The movie would become known as Apocalypse Now, a film masterpiece whose story was famously retrofitted to graft Conrad’s African adventure narrative upon the still smoldering history of Vietnam and a decade’s long military entanglement by American troops in Southeast Asia. Though filming began in 1976, the movie would not be completed until 1979.

The title of the film is a testament to the story’s complex yin yang quality: Milius, who had churned through a variety of possible film titles to fit his various Vietnam scripts, reportedly settled on the name only after seeing hippies in California sporting buttons which said “Nirvana Now!” That concept stuck, and the title fell into place. Coppola’s film would be the ironic portrayal of a reversal of that sentiment—a sort of reality check on the Vietnam War and a powerful if complicated anti-war statement.

Hollywood history held then (and holds now) that the story could not be made into a film, no matter the title, the adaptive venue, the screenplay, the cast, the director. Over the course of several decades, various treatments of Heart of Darkness had passed across the desks of a dozen producers and a series of possible directors, including Orson Welles, who himself had twice adapted the novel to radio with mixed critical results. By the 1960s the story—as a possible movie—remained languishing. Milius, as a college student, has said he was challenged by one of his film and writing instructors: why not tackle the daunting task of writing a screenplay based on Conrad’s work, a creative dare which would coincide and soon mesh with Milius’ deep interest in making a film about Vietnam. It became an ongoing project for Milius, who would later partner with Coppola. The director urged Milius to pour everything into the Vietnam screenplay, though it would be many years before that series of scripts and rewrites would come anywhere close to a camera.

The fact is that Apocalypse Now is arguably the most infamous case of a movie that very nearly never got shot nor completed, the lone competitor for that dubious distinction being Werner Herzog's 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo.

Setting aside its artistic merits and its visceral power—it would eventually receive eight Oscar nominations, four Golden Globes wins, and claim the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979—the arduous backstory of its production remains legendary even decades later. In fact, the complex and harrowing tale of the movie’s journey became, in an ironic and costly twist of Hollywood fate, a weird parallel to Conrad’s original tale and the film’s intense descent into madness: massive production cost overruns, deteriorating health among some of the cast and crew, untimely weather catastrophes, a producer-director sliding deeply into financial ruin—all these things played roles in making the film’s own journey to completion a uncertain bet. The film’s difficult path to completion also became appropriately symbolic of the Vietnam experience for Americans.

Apocalypse Now arrived in theaters in the summer of 1979 amidst a brief spate of major Vietnam War films, including Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (which starred Robert Di Niro, John Cazale, Christopher Walker, and Meryl Streep) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home [1978] (Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine). Both of these 1978 predecessors to Apocalypse Now won high honors and warm reviews from film critics, and both were considered emotionally powerful treatments of a war still all-too-fresh in the collective memory of many Americans and within the era of post-traumatic political disorder which followed. All three (including Coppola’s film) were also considered part of the great cultural and political re-evaluation of a war in which more than 58,000 Americans died, and tens of thousands more arrived home wounded—both physically and spiritually.

Perhaps more important—from both the perspective of film quality and historical credibility—all three motion pictures were considered then (and now) to be movies of such high caliber as to set a standard which many directors and producers would find challenging to meet or exceed, paving the way for other critically successful Vietnam treatments: Platoon; Born on the Fourth of July (both directed by Oliver Stone); Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick); Casualties of War (Brian De Palma); Hamburger Hill (John Irvin).

All eight films mentioned above are of quality ranging from far-better-than-average to downright excellent. All, however, were regarded then—in the angst-ridden and pratfall-filled world of trying to encapsulate the Vietnam War into traditional narrative film—in some way flawed. The Deer Hunter suffered mightily at the hands of some critics who objected to the film’s scenery-chewing hysterics and the narrative’s not-so-subtle anti-Asian racism. Platoon, which was pompously marketed at the time as the first film to tell the “real” story about Vietnam, damages its own credibility through its overt, oversimplifications of the good-versus-evil man, and its sometimes tiresome, overt symbolism. Full Metal Jacket was viewed by some critics as cold, detached, and steeped too deeply in the theme of dehumanization (this should have come as no surprise to film critics since this is a central device in nearly all Kubrick films).

Apocalypse Now suffered none of these complaints, but did receive some tepid reviews upon its initial release by reviewers who found the movie to be both anti-climactic and devoid of meaningful closure. Many of these complaints focused on the de-crescendo ending, which, in a perhaps deliberate way, mirrors the poetry of T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men”) referred to and quoted several times during the final 30 minutes of the film. The “official” version of the film ends with a whimper, and a whipser, not a bang (more about that later).

Still, Apocalypse Now’s complex, arduous, and troubling journey to completion may have muddied the waters for the film when it was first released in theaters, perhaps unwittingly raising critical expectations even as buzz about the movie’s problems—budget overages, sets destroyed by storms, problems with the principal actors, illnesses, and seemingly endless rewrites of Milius’s already formidable reams of script, and Coppola admitting that he often stayed up late during the jungle shooting typing scenes for the very next day. Despite this wing-and-a-prayer improvisational screenplay approach, Coppola managed to shepherd the daily shooting toward some form of completion, which would then take more than a year to edit to his—or anyone’s satisfaction. That the film emerged from its own chaos at all is remarkable; that it became a masterpiece is something of a miracle.

The movie’s plot takes filmgoers on a hypnotic, harrowing journey—a voyage which is at once physical as well as psychological. At the height of the Vietnam War, a highly-trained Special Forces Captain, Benjamin Willard (played by Martin Sheen), is tapped to carry out the secretive and sensitive task of tracking down a rogue U.S. Army Colonel by the name of Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard meets with his handlers—a general, a colonel, and a civilian, presumably CIA—who explain to Willard that Kurtz has not only gone insane, but now commands an indigenous army of Montagnard troops operating out of a hidden base somewhere inside Cambodia. Kurtz and his blindly loyal “troops” engage in unauthorized actions against combatants and civilians alike. Willard is tasked with finding Kurtz and, if possible, “terminating” the colonel’s command. He is not to discuss the mission, which, for all practical purposes, does not exist.

Willard is instructed he will be ferried upriver from Saigon toward Cambodia aboard a small Navy patrol and recon boat (PBR). Aboard the cramped boat: a handful a young sailors, including Lance (played by Sam Bottoms), “Chef” (played by Frederic Forrest), and “Clean” (played by Laurence Fishburne in his screen debut), all under the command of a seasoned Chief Petty Officer Phillips, aka “Chief,” (played by Albert Hall). Willard, who prefers his role as a loner for such missions, at first remains aloof from the tightknit crew, but over time begins to bond with them, if uneasily. The team’s journey upriver through Vietnam is, at times arduous and frightening, at other times otherworldly, and at still other times shrouded in a quasi-delirium; several crew members openly consume drugs, smoking marijuana frequently and dropping acid. Willard demurs from the drugs, but drinks heavily, spending much of his time poring over the extensive files he has been given regarding Colonel Kurtz.

The circuitous journey upriver is fraught with dangers and increasingly strange encounters of Homerian experience which, some critics have noted, include close parallels to The Odyssey: cyclops, sirens, ogres, dreamlike and hallucinatory interludes, and gruesome violence, including a horrifying sequence in which a “routine” inspection of a civilian boat ends with every man and woman aboard the boat being killed when the Americans overreact—a sort of My Lai Massacre parallel. The voyage also includes Willard’s inner monologue (most of it written by real life war correspondent Michael Herr) as he delves deeper into the files of Kurtz, and his need to understand what forces would drive a man of such impeccable credentials—Kurtz, Willard learns, was being “groomed for a top spot” in the Pentagon—into madness and delusion. At first reluctant about a mission which requires the assassination of an American, he begins to feel a deep compulsion to see the task through, no matter the risk.

Willard, at first seemingly apolitical and willing to suspend traditional measures of morality, must use his wiles to occasionally seduce, trick, bully or badger his way along the journey. When the crew of the small boat requires the reluctant services of Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall), a cavalry commander of a squadron of helicopter fighters and soldiers, Willard deftly links Kilgore’s passion for surfing to that of Lance, who was a famous surfer back in California. Kilgore agrees to airlift the boat to the next navigable stretch of the river, but only if he can surf with Lance upon their arrival there, where rumor has it that the delta-like beachhead offers great waves. The next morning at daybreak, Kilgore’s squadron—flying to the loudspeaker sounds of Wagner’s operatic “Ride of the Valkyries”—brutally attacks the tiny Viet Cong-controlled village near the delta, destroying almost everything in a visceral heavy-weapons firefight. The attack ends with a massive Air Force napalm airstrike—called-in personally by Kilgore—in an effort to clear not just the beaches and the village but all surrounding jungle, all for the sake of a few minutes of surfing. Near the end of the scene Kilgore (Duvall) utters one of the movie’s many famous lines, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

A night or two later and further along the river, the crew of the boat encounter an elaborate stage being constructed for a huge entertainment show for the troops. Willard and crew dock their boat and go in search of supplies, then, after a brief altercation with a supply sergeant, receive tickets to remain and watch the show, which includes rock music and the arrival by helicopter of several scantily-clad Playboy playmates who dance erotically for the thousands of troops. Pulsing to the sounds of “Susie Q,” the show rapidly deteriorates into chaos and rioting, and the Playmates and their handlers must make a hasty departure into the night sky. The next morning, amidst the still smoldering ruins of the rock and roll show, Willard, Chief and the others depart again by boat.

Each segment and each encounter along their journey becomes more disconnected from reality, and more steeped in a hallucinatory state. Far from Saigon now, and deeper into the countryside where the Viet Cong maintain substantial control over rural and remote areas, the boat arrives late one night at a surrealistically lighted bridge under the tentative control of American Marines and soldiers, even as the unseen enemy uses small arms fire, mortars, and loudspeaker verbal taunts to harass the weary Americans, most of whom are dug-in among low trenches or hunkered down in sandbag foxholes. Seeking more information about enemy troop movements north of the bridge, Willard and Lance go on a fruitless search for a commander while the others remain aboard the boat. The majority of the soldiers at the bridge are clustered in small huddles using drugs while listening to acid guitar music. Many seem confused as to their own mission. Unable to glean any useful intelligence, Willard and Lance return to the boat just before an all-out attack on the bridge commences. As the boat speeds off into the darkness, we see the bridge collapsing in the background amidst a fiery series of artillery explosions.

Along the boat journey Clean is killed in a violent firefight with Vietcong soldiers along the riverbanks. Later still, during a brief attack using small wooden arrows, Chief is killed by a spear thrown from what we surmise is one of Kurtz’s tribesmen. Over the next days, the surviving crew pass through a jungle landscape which becomes more oppressive and overgrown they further upriver they travel, entering Cambodia near where a downed U.S. fighter plane remains partially entrenched in the riverbank, partially enclosed by the massive trees and relentless vines of the jungle. The river—once wide and expansive—now encloses the crew in a frightening and claustrophobic tunnel.

Finally, amid an eerie silence, the crew arrives at Kurtz’s compound—an ancient reclaimed and terraced series of structures and icons apparently built by Buddhists. Leaving Chef to guard the boat—and with instructions to call-in his exact coordinates for an airstrike if needed—Willard and Lance enter the compound surrounded by hundreds of Kurtz’s native fighters, along with a few straggler Americans held under the influence of Kurtz. Among them is an (unnamed) American photojournalist, played to manic perfection by Dennis Hopper. Hopper acts as a sort of self-appointed liaison between outsiders and Kurtz, and assumes the role of intellectual and philosophical translator for Kurtz’s distorted and dystopian hyper-pragmatic worldview. Hopper’s performance as the chattering, hyperactive photographer is a parallel to “The Russian” character in Heart of Darkness, a kind of court jester. Willard is taken hostage, placed in a bamboo cage, and tortured over the next days, leaving Chef to assume the worst as he prepares to call-in the airstrike. But before that call can be made Chef is killed—beheaded by Kurtz’s men.

Set free, and soon allowed to interact with Kurtz, Willard sits in a dark stone room and listens as Kurtz rambles. Over the next days and nights, Willard must decide what action to take while he interacts occasionally with Kurtz or the photojournalist. Finally, the next night, to the intense guitar and sitar sounds of The Doors’ “The End,” Willard kills Kurtz with a machete. As he exits the building, Kurtz’s stunned troops slowly begin to lay down their weapons, seemingly freed of the power which once controlled their actions. Willard and Lance—the sole survivors of the mission—walk out of the compound and leave quietly by boat. We hear Kurtz’s voice (Brando) mutter only the words “the horror, the horror” (a reference to both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land) as the screen slowly fades to black.

Like many famous Hollywood films, Apocalypse Now went through a variety of incarnations before the first frames were shot. Coppola, who had intended only to produce the movie, ended up so enamored with the idea that he took on the role of director only after many others passed, including Milius, George Lucas, and Stephen Spielberg. Other directors were considered, including Dusan Makavejev, but none were available due to scheduling conflicts. Lucas, working with Gary Kurtz, who had travelled to The Philippines for previous films, had even considered shooting the story documentary style—on a shoestring budget using mostly lightweight 16 mm equipment—a tact which would have certainly taken the film in a radically different direction stylistically. Milius himself wanted Lucas to direct, but by the middle 1970s Lucas was already deep into the development and shooting of Star Wars. Ultimately Coppola assumed ownership as both director and producer, and it was Coppola who scuttled any thought of making the movie in the style of a news documentary. Coppola’s vision for Apocalypse Now was epic, operatic, big-screen.

At the time that Coppola got United Artists and other deep-pocket backers to agree to put up part of the funding, UA and the others did so with the assumption that the film would include several big names in the top roles. Among them: Steve McQueen, who was Coppola’s first choice to play Captain Willard, and James Caan, who Coppola envisioned in the role of Colonel Lucas. Caan was rejected after his asking price was deemed too high for the relatively small part; the role of Lucas went to Harrison Ford instead. McQueen personally rejected the idea of being away for so long—especially if it meant being stuck in a hot humid jungle. McQueen was already noted for his persistent, hacking cough—a condition, it would later turn out, which was the result of the mesothelioma which ended his life early. Other top names considered for top parts included Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford—each huge box office draws at the time. Neither took an interest in the parts of Willard or Kurtz and winced at the notion of being in The Philippine jungles for months. Clint Eastwood was also offered the role of Willard, which he rejected for much the same reasons as the others. Other names were floated for various major roles; Gene Hackman, who had already worked with Coppola on The Conversation, and Al Pacino, who also balked at the notion of being stuck in the jungle for months.

Finally Coppola settled on Harvey Keitel—then still relatively unknown outside of those who saw his performance in Mean Streets—for the role of Willard. Newcomer Keitel’s asking price was low, allowing Coppola to consider upping the ante for the role of Kurtz. Still seeking star-power, Coppola eventually persuaded Marlon Brando to sign on: Brando would be paid an unprecedented $3.5 million for only a few weeks work. But Coppola reasoned that Brando’s box office clout would draw in moviegoers, even those not disposed toward war films.

With casting issues settled and sets under construction in the jungle, filming began.

Keitel’s energetic performance, however, would prove problematic for Coppola, who was displeased after only four days of shooting. According to Coppola biographer Peter Cowie, Keitel found it a struggle to portray the passive, disconnected Willard—a figure at first detached emotionally from the mission as he struggles in his interior monologues to reconcile the Kurtz he has been dispatched to assassinate and the Kurtz found among the dossier he has been handed. Coppola made the almost unheard of decision to fire an actor after filming had begun. Enter Martin Sheen, who was able to make the part his own and willing to take on the part of Willard the way Coppola envisioned—a Special Forces killer whose inner journey is fraught with uncertainty and doubt.

But the false start with Keitel as protagonist would prove to be just the beginning of a long series of major problems during the shooting. Even as the principal photography was set to begin and only a week or so after millions of dollars’ worth of major set pieces had been constructed, a massive tropical storm—Typhoon Olga—began to batter parts of the Philippines. The typhoon was followed by weeks of monsoon rains, sometimes accompanied by heavy winds and flooding. Among the things destroyed were numerous of the Buddhist statuary and monoliths and the entire Playboy playmate rock and roll show set. Scores of crew members and dozens of the cast were forced to shelter in place in motels, hotels and private homes while the storms passed. When it was over, some $2 million in sets had been wrecked. Insurance agents from Hong Kong arrived to assess the costs, and Coppola sent most cast members back to the United States while designer Dean Tavoularis and his crew went about rebuilding. Then, according to some sources, the payroll for an entire week was stolen, creating another financial setback.

But things would get worse. During the stressful early weeks of shooting on the boat, Martin Sheen—then relatively young—collapsed, suffering from what would be diagnosed hours later as a heart attack. Sheen was flown back to California for treatment and rest, and Coppola—behind schedule and over budget—improvised an ingenious solution, bringing in Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez. Coppola and his camera operators scrupulously staged shots to avoid direct images of Estevez’s face, shooting over his shoulders and back, and even using Estevez’s voice for some scenes.

Brando’s appearance on the set proved challenging as well. Arriving in The Philippines some 80 pounds overweight—in Conrad’s novel Kurtz is described as lean and gaunt with hollowed cavernous eyes—Brando’s obesity forced Coppola to quickly improvise again. At first, Coppola suggested that Brando play into the character’s weight as a symptom of his megalomania: a delusional warlord drunk on his own power and grown fat on the spoils of rapid, dazzling victories, perhaps even playing into the Buddhist statuary around Kurtz’s compound. But Brando, sensitive about his weight, pouted, demurring from such a tactic. So Coppola chose instead to shroud Brando in black robes, shoot many scenes in near total darkness with only portions of Brando’s face visible, and use taller, thinner doubles in still other scenes.

Making things more difficult for Coppola, according to Coppola’s wife Eleanor, Brando had taken almost no proactive interest in the script, admitting upon his arrival had read little of it, and balking at the few lines he had bothered to study once in the jungle. Coppola was forced for days to work one-on-one with the obtuse Brando to coax the Kurtz character out of him and coach a performance. Brando seemed interested in little except running out the clock and the calendar, reminding the crew frequently of his intentions to leave as soon as he had stayed the required number of days in The Philippines to meet the bottom line mandate of his $3.5 million guaranteed fee. Eventually Brando bought into the character, and, working with Coppola, even developed some of his own lines and short scenes.

Even scenes shot exactly according to the script presented problems. In what may be to this day the most famous long-form sequence never used in a movie, Coppola was so dissatisfied with the so-called “French plantation sequence” that he scuttled the whole segment after $285,000 dollars was spent on sets, materials, decorations, lighting and bilingual English and French-speaking cast. The French sequence had been a part of one of the underlying devices of the film—a voyage not only through darkness and through evil, but also through time itself, taking moviegoers into a tiny remnant pocket of colonial French Indochina (a piece of history which should have served as a harbinger for American military involvement a decade later). But after the entire sequence was filmed and then deemed insufficient by Coppola, he decided almost immediately to scrap it. (Coppola’s would revisit that long sequence in the “Redux” version of the film in 2001, when certain digital editing devices were employed to improve the look and feel of the “dinner” scene, the lynchpin of the French sequence; Apocalypse Now Redux includes roughly 45 minutes of previously deleted footage).

Then there was the lingering issue of Coppola’s own creative uncertainties and insecurities: he had no sure ending. For weeks, then months, it was not clear how the narrative of his grand masterpiece would end. Even as shooting progressed, Coppola sat at his typewriter churning out variables for the ending, of which he envisioned two or three major outcomes, but dozens of minor variations. Finally tossed out: an alternate version in which Willard teams up with Kurtz to battle the Americans during the violent finale and airstrike. Coppola decided that this was a distasteful approach to a complex tale of morality, darkness and light, and an unsatisfactory code to the journey. Also scrapped was any version in which Willard, after killing Kurtz, would simply take on the role as leader of the cult-like army. The King is dead; long live the King. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Instead, Coppola wisely chose the more ambiguous and anti-climactic ending, though this coda chafed some critics who found the “whimper” ending—compatible though it was with the writing of both T.S. Eliot and Joseph Conrad—intellectually dissatisfying. Despite these contemporaneous complaints, it is difficult to imagine the film ending with any form of collaboration between Kurtz and Willard, and over time most film historians have agreed that Coppola’s haunting, near-silent final frames—only Kurtz’s whispered words and the soft sounds of crickets and night insects can be heard—bring the adventure to its most powerful and indelible conclusion.

Other versions of the finale emerged from the final weeks and days immediately prior to the widespread theatrical release of Apocalypse Now. The version first screened at Cannes differed somewhat in its ending, as did versions shown months later when the movie was released at select theaters in only certain U.S. and Canadian cities.

Example: when I saw the film on the first night it opened in one theater in Florida, Kurtz mutters those haunting final words, the screen fades to black, and after a momentary interlude credits appeared over footage of the entire Kurtz compound being blown up in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics, leaving those in the theater to conclude that Willard had, in fact, called in the air strike, and presumably killing all remnants of Kurtz’s indigenous army of fighters. Less than one week later, accompanied by friend and fellow Thursday Review contributor and founding writer John Herndon, those vast, gut-wrenching scenes of napalm and heavy ordnance had been dropped; instead, the same credits appeared randomly over a black screen. Still other moviegoers saw the film with no credits at all, as if it were a stage play; those in attendance were handed a slickly-produced multipage program with cast and crew listings printed. Mine was apparently a “hybrid” screening, since I received the program (and still have it neatly stored) and saw the credits projected over the napalm strike. Still other version exist in which company credits have been altered or changed, some including the United Artists logo, others American Zoetrope.

The variations on the film’s ending, especially the credits, speak volumes about not only the complexities involved with bringing such a massive project to the screen, but also the creative indecision facing Coppola, a the director of The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two; the former, already a classic, ended with the reluctant son stepping into his father’s shoes; the latter masterpiece, even larger than the first, ends with the unfathomable emotional pain of what only a single decade has wrought to Michael Corleone. Clearly, Coppola did not want Apocalypse Now to misfire because of a few minutes of ill-conceived final footage.

The film’s editing and pacing prove to be a large component in its strength. Once Willard accepts the job of killing Kurtz, though through Sheen we sense his reluctance and his uncertainties, the journey is set in motion to great effect. Over time, Willard’s initial standoffishness to the crew on the boat diminishes, and he begins to bond with the crew, even with the Chief, with whom he occasionally clashes over mission priorities and tactics. Indeed, part of the power of Apocalypse Now is its ability to keep the pacing appropriately uniform while also increasing the tension as it takes us along on its journey—a delicate balancing act which could have easily derailed the narrative at any point. Coppola was at the height of his skills as the sort of director able to envision the editing process during shooting, and taking what he had forged in The Godfather Part II to a whole new and more complex level. By the time Willard and the surviving crew round that last bend in the river and enter Kurtz’s compound, filmgoers are in a state of hypnosis, unable—like Willard and the others—to turn back even in the face of what may be unspeakable horrors.

Each chapter in the journey raises questions of war itself. Though Coppola probably did not intend for the film to carry an overt anti-war sentiment (and certainly not Milius, whose own more conservative and hawkish views prevailed in some of the earliest drafts of the screenplay), each encounter between the crew and those they meet along the river forces us to stare unflinchingly at the horrible realities or war, and constantly weigh the irony of Willard’s mission: terminating an U.S. Army colonel because that colonel is killing people during wartime. Cases in point: the absurdly one-sided battle between Kilgore’s helicopter squadron and a few dozen Vietcong fighters armed with rifles and a single antiquated machine gun; the overreaction by the boat’s crew while performing a routine inspection of the civilian sampan; the breathtakingly pointless defense of the distant bridge by U.S. soldiers and Marines, a close historical parallel—some have suggested—of the infamous battle at Hill 875 during the Battle of Dak To.

In addition to its covered Palme d’Or received at Cannes, Apocalypse Now collected scores of awards across the spectrum: eight Academy Award nominations all told, with Oscars for Best Sound (Walter Murch, Richard Beggs, et al) and Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro); three Golden Globe awards, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Duvall), and Best Original Score Carmine Coppola); and two BAFTA’s, one for Coppola and one for Duvall. Apocalypse Now would end the 1970s for Coppola on still another high note, sealing his reputation as a director and film visionary of remarkable skill, including his prescient and still relevant The Conversation.

The 2001 “Redux” version, which includes the entire French Plantation Sequence as originally envisioned by Coppola, along with a smattering of other scenes, proves the age-old canon that sometimes less is more. Though certainly interesting for its historical injections into the film—at the elaborate dinner table scene some adult members of the extended family debate both French and American involvement in Indochina, and point out to Willard the obvious irony that it was the Americans, after all, who trained and supplied the Viet Minh during World War II—the sequence does little to carry the dark journey forward toward Kurtz, and may serve only as a not-so-welcome tension-breaker for a film otherwise flawless in its careful pacing.

Apocalypse Now resides in a league very nearly of its own making. Though it cannot escape its legacy as a Vietnam War epic, it is difficult—especially considering the strength of Ken Burns’ recent mega documentary series about the Vietnam War and the biographical documentary based on hundreds of hours of interviews with RobertWe Were Soldiers, or Oliver Stone’s Platoon, or, for that matter, even Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. Still, Milius’ script and Coppola’s directorial guidance bring forth a film which cannot be far removed from the great collective cultural and artistic reconciliation Americans waded through in the decades of healing after the war.

In addition, Apocalypse Now joins an elite club of films worth watching, for maximum effect and power, from start to finish, uninterrupted and without distraction. The short list might include Stephen Spielberg’s holocaust epic Schindler’s List, Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (it was originally shown with an intermission), and Kubrick’s groundbreaking horror film The Shining.

Apocalypse Now also stands the rigors of time, one of my most crucial tests of any movie’s true historical significance and cultural weight, far better than a dozen other films about the Vietnam experience, including Stone’s (at the time) much-touted and much-hyped Platoon, which—upon recent viewings—can alternate between threadbare, or preachy and moralizing, or ham-fisted. The fact-based Born on the Fourth of July would eventually prove to be Stone’s finer Vietnam experience film.

But this is where Apocalypse Now looms as a giant achievement and a stunning experience, even in recent viewings. After weathering the intervening decades of evolving U.S. history and rapidly improving film technologies, Coppola’s masterpiece manages to still tower large.

Related Thursday Review articles:

2001: A Space Odyssey: Fifty Years Ago Science Fiction Changed Our World; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 12, 2018.

Francis Ford Coppola's Best Year: 1974; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 22, 2014.