Film With Foote: APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

I started this Film with Foote column because I worry about the education of younger film buffs. I do not think many of them see films made before the year they were born. Lecturing Film History in Ontario, Canada I walk into a lecture and ask if anyone has seen The Godfather (1972) and perhaps three hands go up…among film students.
Every film you have not seen is a new experience, that is my motto and the words I live by. I hope you will too, if you love cinema as I do. So once a week, I will offer up a review of a film that might be famous, should famous, might have won Oscars, should have but did not, a film that made an impact historically somehow. Hopefully it challenges you to see the picture and talk about with me. I do so love debate, but without seeing the film, you have no right to discuss it.


Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The lights went down in the massive University Theater on Bloor Street in downtown Toronto, August 1979 and the screen flickered to life. Two hours and forty five minutes later I emerged galvanized by the experience of seeing this film for the first time, stunned by what I saw on the screen, overwhelmed by the horrors of war and what they do to man. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before, and Coppola had created a seething work of art, that even critics who did not care for the film admitted was new, was in its own way extraordinary. Though he began shooting two years before The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978) were released, it took longer to finish the film and longer to edit the picture than Coppola believed it would. Instead of being the first major work about the war in Viet Nam, his was the third, released the year after the Oscars had been dominated by the aforementioned films.
There was no discussion about which was the greater film. None.
No credits. The lights in the cinema went dark and the film began, thrusting us into Viet Nam. A jungle setting. gently the trees sway back and forth as the sounds begin on track. Under the sounds of the birds is a guitar, familiar, and it begins Jim Morrison and the Doors mournful somg The End. Helicopter sounds begin on the track, slowed down electronically, distorted to where it all could be a dream. As Morrison begins to croon, “This is the end…” the screen suddenly erupts in flames, the jungle suddenly a blazing inferno. We are in the memory of Willard (Martin Sheen) who is slowly going mad in Saigon, waiting for his next assignment from military intelligence, and when he gets it he tells us, “I would never want another”.
Willard is an assassin for the Marines, and is being in Cambodia to assassinate an American Colonel who has gone mad in the jungle and created his own kingdom among the natives. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a star among the military, being groomed for one of the top spots in Washington when he volunteered for special forces work in Viet Nam. They denied him until he threatened to resign and then they gave it to him while he was twice the age of the other men taking it.
Willard cannot believe they want this man dead, but on his journey along the river, into the heart of darkness, he will come to know Kurtz, and understand that in fact Kurtz himself wants to die more than the army can possibly know.
Aboard the boat that will take him to Kurtz is a cross section of American youth. Chef (Fredric Forrest) is a high strung New Orleans saucier, while Lance (Timothy Bottoms) is a famous surfer from the beaches of California. Clean (Lawrence Fishburne) is a teenage from the Bronx, while Chief (Albert Hall) is a proud black man watching closely over Clean as though to protect the boy. He looks at Willard and knows wherever they are going is going to be into the mouth of madness.
Along their way Lance is recognized by Lt. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a surfer though not in the same league as Lance. He is to help get the boat closer to Kurtz, but before doing so, he decides to take out a village of Viet Cong because the waves there are higher, and as he roars, “Charlie (referring to the Viet Cong) don’t surf!”
They take off at dawn, the helicopters looking like prehistoric mosquitoes as they climb over the sea, surf boards strapped to the sides, the boat lifted in the air. Kilgore has little to say to Willard, but a great deal to say to Lance, who he wants to see surf. As they approach the village they lay the music, and they commence their attack, destroying a village that has likely stood for a thousand years, just so the men can surf. Later as they are cleaning up the mess, Kilgore struts on the beach, oblivious to the bombs and grenades exploding all around him. he cannot believe they do not want to get in the water. Disgusted with them he calls in a napalm strike which will end army resistance from the Cong.
“Do you smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm son, nothing else in the world smells like that”, he tells them, almost wistfully, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Kilgore’s last words to them will be, “you know someday this war’s gonna end” and he stalks offscreen, with regret, his towering presence gone. Is bombing a village, killing men, women and children not an act of madness? Yet this man, this hero struts around the beach, fearless to anything going off around him believes himself to be doing the right thing, just so he can see a man surf.
Willard, himself damaged by the war is stunned by Kilgore, but nothing prepares him for what he sees when he gets to Kurtz (Marlon Brando). By the time they arrive at the compound where Kurtz lives, they have seen horrors, unspeakable horrors that none of them will forget, yet Kurtz will somehow take them further into the pit of madness. One of the military’s finest he is now a man lost in his own nightmares. He lives among the natives in the jungle, has organized his own army who do his command and look to him as some sort of corrupted Buddha. A brilliant man, he is opposed to the American involvement because he sees no point in it anymore, no manner for the Americans to win. Americans are being killed, Viet Cong are being killed and the Vietnamese, caught in the middle are being killed. Kurtz knows that the Viet Cong are stronger, and will eventually win the war because they possess a strength the Americans do not have, and he know because he has been witness to that. Of course he wants Willard to kill him, but he also wants Willard to take his place among his people, to take in everything that he has seen on his journey, and that Kurtz has told him, to continue to do the work Kurtz was doing here in the jungle.
“They train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write fuck on their airplanes…because it’s obscene”, Kurtz rants into a microphone as Willard moves in for the kill, slaughtering the older man like water buffalo being slaughtered by the natives below. So yes, Willard will kill him, a mercy killing if there ever was one, but will he stay? Can he stay? Does he believe in the war anymore? Like the war itself, there are no easy answers nor endings to Coppola’s film.

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s electrifying Apocalypse Now was unlike any film I had seen before. A surrealistic masterpiece, with startling cinematography, superb editing and masterful performances it plunged its audiences into the nightmare of Viet Nam. Executed with an almost operatic sense of tragedy, it is an extraordinary experience that has thrilled and confounded audiences for years now, remaining one of the grea cinematic experiences of all time.
Incredibly the film first began as a comedy set in Viet Nam as conceived by a very young George Lucas. As the men became more famous and much more powerful in the industry, Coppola made the decision he was going to direct the film, and would re-write it with help from John Milius. They would gut the script Lucas wrote and merge their story with that of Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness. As Coppola explained to the press at Cannes where he first screened the film, “my film is not about Viet Nam, my film is Viet Nam. We were much like the American military. We were there in the jungle, with access to too much equipment, to much money and little by little we went insane.” Watching the extraordinary documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1992) one might wonder how Coppola ever managed to make a film out of the chaotic shooting in the Phillipines. He would fire actor Harvey Keitel after a couple of days shooting and replaced him with Martin Sheen, who would then suffer a massive heart attack and be given the last rites in anticipation of his death. Production was slowed while Sheen recovered.
The monsoon season wiped out their sets and the massive compound built on the jungle as typhoons hammered the area where the filmmakers had decided to shoot the film. The government, after agreeing to loan the film company their helicopters, would routinely call away the choppers to go fight the rebels in the hills without telling Coppola. Drug use on the set was rampant, as stated by Dennis Hopper, who arrived stoned and remained such throughout the shoot, making Coppola’s life hell. And then Brando, having been paid one million dollars up front, arrived nearly one hundred pounds overweight, not having read the script (he said) and hoping to find inspiration would shave his head. While the company waited for them to be set, Coppola would talk endlessly with Brando, who finally improvised most of, if not all of his character’s lines. Putting all this together must have been another nightmare, yet they did, and what they achieved was a startling, urgent film about the nightmare that was Viet Nam and how it took men into their heart of darkness.
Much was made of the Brando performance when the film first opened. There were complaints about the manner in which the director indulged Brando on the set, which is entirely his option and none of our business, but seemed to make their way into opinion pieces about the film. Name me another American actor in the seventies who could have given the performance Brando does as Kurtz, who could have given that character the baggage and weight Brando brought to the part. There is no one, and Brando is perfect. As he lays bleeding, choking out his last words, “the horror, the horror” does he speak of the things he has seen here, or the hell he is moving towards as he dies on the floor? HIs performance is heartbreaking because he knows his time has come, he knows the army must kill him for what he has done, but more, having seen mankind at its worst, he no lonbger wants to be a part of humanity.
Martin Sheen is astounding as Willard, the army assassin sent to kill one of their own by the military he loves so much. We see WIllard evolving the closer they get to Kurtz, we see the wheels turning, the midnd at work, and when he comes face to face with the man, does he still wish him dead? Is he going to be able to do what he came to do?
Best of all, and towering over the film itself is Robert Duvall as Kilgore, the fearless warrior who knew he would never be harmed in battle. He is in his element here, a war monger, and cannot imagine peace time again. What would he do? This is a man who knows he is not going to hurt here, and struts around on the beach which is under attack, as though he were invincible to everything. His eyes aglow with the talk of the war and what is happening all around him, this man is high on life, and life for him is war. Duvall is terrifying as Kilgore because we know men like existed, men like this win wars because they have no fear. Duvall’s performance is among the finest of his career, and only onscreen perhaps twenty minutes he all but steals the film, and in many ways the film never quite recovers from his absence. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Duvall’s performance is among the finest supporting performances ever given.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards after winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Incredibly, it would win just two Oscars, for best cinematography and best sound. The top film that year according tot he Academy was Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) a very good film, beautifully acted, but hardly the work of art Apocalypse Now was and remains.
In the years after the film, Coppola never again enjoyed the sort of acclaim he received in the seventies for his body of work. It was almost as though his talent as a filmmaker remained lost in the jungles along with the humanity of many of the men who fought this terrible war.

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John Foote

John Foote