AP Lit & Comp
January 5, 2015
Apocalypse Now Movie Review
In dozens of such scenes Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now lives up to its grand title, disclosing not only the various faces of war but also the contradictions between excitement and boredom, terror and pity, brutality and beauty.
Apocalypse Now is not about any war but about the disastrous United States involvement in Vietnam, which, probably because it was disastrous, seems now to have been different, but was it really? The technology was as up-to-date as taxpayers' billions could buy, but everything else was essentially the same. At its confused heart: a fearful hunger to survive. No matter what.
When it is evoking the look and feelings of the Vietnam War, dealing in sense impressions for which no explanations are necessary, Apocalypse Now is a stunning movie. It's as technically complex and masterful as any war movie I have seen, including David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is similar because both productions are themselves military campaigns to subdue the hostile landscapes in which they were made. Kwai was shot in Ceylon; Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, which became, for Mr. Coppola, his Vietnam, swallowing men, money, and equipment as voraciously as any enemy.
Apocalypse Now, though, wants to be something more than a kind of movie-like tone poem. Mr. Coppola himself describes it as "operatic," but this is a word the director hit upon after the fact. Ultimately, Apocalypse Now is neither a tone poem nor an opera. It's an adventure yarn with delusions of grandeur, a movie that ends—in the all-too-familiar words of the poet Mr. Coppola drags in by the bootstraps—not with a bang, but a whimper.
I realize that a movie's ending should not deny all that has gone before, but almost from the beginning of Apocalypse Now there have been portents that the film means to deal not only with the looks and expressions of war but also with such heavy things as the human condition, good, evil, fate, and various other subjects.
Mr. Coppola and John Milius, with whom he wrote the screenplay, have taken as their source material Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's classic story about a mad ivory hunter in nineteenth-century Africa. This shadowy man, named Kurtz, comes to represent to Conrad's narrator, Marlow, all the terrible possibilities of a soul returned to some pre-civilized state. Conrad is rather vague about the terrible things that Kurtz is up to. We know only that he rules his local tribes with a bloody hand and charms them with his fake sorcery. The point of the story is Marlow's realization that Kurtz is a now unrecognized aspect of himself, which, being known, is safely manageable.
Mr. Coppola and Mr. Milius have attempted to update Conrad, who really doesn't need updating, by placing this story on top of the Vietnam War. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), whom we meet in the film's concluding section, is a renegade Green Berets officer who has taken refuge in the Cambodian jungles, where, to the fury of his superiors, he wages his own wars—for and against whom is left blurry—at the head of a group of ferocious Montagnard tribesmen.
The Marlow character is now a battle-scarred Special Services officer named Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who is assigned by the commanding general to go into Cambodia, find Kurtz, and to "terminate" him "with extreme prejudice." This plot, which seems to have been imposed on the film from above, keeps interrupting the natural flow of Mr. Coppola's perfectly sound, sometimes incredibly beautiful, description of war.
The major part of the film