Rating and Review:
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Lawrence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall and Sam Bottoms
"Apocalypse Now", a masterpiece on the Vietnam War, could have been Francis Coppola's very own apocalypse, because its production was repeatedly crippled by time constraints and budget problems. The star of the film, Martin Sheen, suffered a heart attack that halted shooting for weeks, and Marlon Brando's uncooperative manner create more problems. Coppola once admitted that there was a moment during the shooting when he literally wanted to kill himself, which may explain why the finished product seems to take the perspective of a madman, and excel in portraying the hell out there in the war and the twisted minds of those in it.
The film is a journey into the darkest waters of humanity, brought about by Captain Willard, who is assigned by his superiors to travel upstream into North Vietnam and then Cambodia to assassinate a high ranking official that has gone insane, a Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz has left his command and set up his own army in the jungles, waging his own war against his 'enemy'.
Assigned a gunboat and its crew (which includes a fourteen year old Lawrence Fishburne), Willard witnesses how humanity and sanity seems to disappear bit by bit as he travels deeper and deeper towards enemy territory. Their first stop before entering the jungles is an outpost led by a Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who cares more about surfing than fighting the war. The man is willing to launch a full scale attack on a nearby VC stronghold just because he wants to liberate a beach so he can surf. There is obviously something wrong with the man's wiring, for he does not duck when bombs hit nearby, and he asks his men to surf when mortars are falling like rain. He would be the maniac if he is in another movie, but here in "Apocalypse Now", he is already the least insane.
The attack on the VC outpost is one of the best sequences I have seen in war movies. We have a fleet of helicopters charging towards the village at full speed, soldiers firing at their enemies while Wagner's "War of the Valkyries" plays in the air (Kilgore thinks the symphony will "scare the shit out of those people"), and a napalm blast that is so magnificent that I am sure it has made its way into film history books.
As the gunboat travels deeper and deeper into the jungles, time seems to go backwards, and civilization gradually replaced by primitive brutality. At the last stop before entering their destination, Willard and his men come across an American outpost under heavy attack by the VC. To Willard's surprise, there is no commanding officer there, and the men are actually left to fight on their own. Marines are seen sitting in bunkers waiting for the inevitable, while others waste bullets shooting at the dark void of the jungles. As Willard and his men leave the place, which is ready to collapse like a ghost city, the atmosphere is almost apocalyptic, a complete contrast to the beautiful lights produced by flares and mortar fire.
Willard and his men soon arrive at their destination, a temple controlled by Kurtz and his army, which consists of tribal men and women who believe Kurtz is God. I think this is the point when flaws start to emerge. Kurtz is friendly to his visitors at first, especially Willard, and he talks with the man about almost everything, from the war to the dark side of human nature. Most of the conversations are incomprehensible, and it soon becomes clear that both Kurtz and Willard have gone insane because of the "horror". An hour is spent on the Kurtz character, who offers the audience with more confusion than answers, and turns the film into sheer frustration. Why does he have to raise his own army? Why does he want someone to take his place? Why does he want Willard to kill him?
Coppola himself admitted that he had re-written the last part of the film over and over again, and at one stage it became almost impossible for him to find an appropriate ending that could bring out all he wanted to present to the audience. Judging from what I saw, I wouldn't be surprised if the turth is he hadn't found it even in the end. Nevertheless, this film still qualifies as a modern masterpiece, for it contains so much that ought to be remembered, and it manages to create a hellish mood that can rarely be found in other Vietnam War movies.
© Marcus Chan 2001