Blast From the Past: Apocalypse Now

Another old school movie assignment.  This time I did actually have to review a film. In hindsight, however, it’s really less of a review and more of a completely biased argument written by a fan in utter awe of Apocalypse Now’s fucking brilliance.

Grotesque Harmony:  A review of Apocalypse Now

After seeing the first sixty seconds of this film, it is an easy assessment to make that this is unlike any other film ever made.  How does one turn their attention away from the melodic entrancement of Jim Morrison’s voice and an entire beachfront of Vietnam going up in flames?  Perhaps one of the most enthralling scenes in all of movie history, this is but a sign of things to come.  Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now perfects every aspect of filmmaking, but one would expect nothing less from the man who brought us The Godfather.

Based on the 1902 novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Coppola set the film in the jungles of Vietnam at the height of the war.  Martin Sheen stars as Captain Benjamin L. Willard in the role that cemented him as a movie star along side Marlon Brando as the mad Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.  Willard is assigned a classified mission by Col. Lucas (Harrison Ford) to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Col. Kurtz’s command.  Once the epitome of an ideal Green Beret, Kurtz’s methods have since become “unsound.”  He has gone AWOL, established a village past enemy lines in Cambodia, and has the inhabitants believing he is their god.  Willard is taken down the river in a tiny Navy PBR boat.  Crewed by three “kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their grave,” Chef, Lance, and Mr. Clean (a fourteen year old Laurence Fishburne), Chief Phillips is the only one among them with any real war experience.

The gold-standard of Vietnam War movies, Apocalypse Now puts as much emphasis on having visually stunning shots as other movies put on having a camera to film with.  A scene with Willard and Chef roaming the jungle looking for mangoes flawlessly captures the insignificance of human existence.  In a luscious sea of blue-green, the two climb over roots ten feet high, step around leaves as large as grown men, and stand at the foot of a tree that would humble even the most inflated ego.

What is even more impressive than the sheer beauty of almost every scene is how ironic it is at the same time.  A flock of black helicopters freckle the orange sky, all in faultless formation, ready to air raid an unsuspecting village.  Set to Richard Wagner’s The Flight of the Valkyries, Coppola is able to encapsulate the paradox of war.  One of the most infamous lines in cinema serves as another obvious representation of irony.  The unflinching Captain Kilgore (Robert Duvall) declares, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” and then starts talking about surfing the waves in the midst of battle.

This film is also able to draw in the viewer with its powerfully complex emotional narrative.  Chef, against Willard’s request, stops a passing peasant boat to inspect the supplies they are carrying when a girl on board makes a move toward one of the containers.  A trigger happy Mr. Clean opens fire, but upon further inspection, they find out she is still alive and was merely trying to save her puppy.  In one of the most touching moments in the film, Lance stands on the boat, his face covered with camouflage paint, the reflection of the sunset on the water in the background, and he holds a gun in one hand and the puppy in the other.  Unable to endure more complication and setbacks, instead of taking the girl with them to get treatment for her, Willard shoots her and orders Chef to keep on going.  Having followed Willard’s journey and seeing his mental transformation along the way, the viewer, and even Willard himself, cannot help but wonder if he is beginning to resemble an earlier Kurtz.

In addition to the aesthetics of the movie, Apocalypse Now depends heavily on the sound.  When we are first introduced to Willard, the haunting image of his face superimposed over that of the burning beach fades into one another just as seamlessly as The Doors’ song The End transforms into the hum of the ceiling fan in his Saigon hotel room.  In the tensest of moments, the sound does more for the scene than any dialogue or action ever could.  While floating down the river, people on the bank start shooting at their boat, and Mr. Clean is shot.  When the noise and chaos die down, the only sound that can be heard is that of the tape player he was listening to before the attack.  It is the voice of his mother:  “Stay outta the way of the bullets, and bring your heinie home all in one piece…”

Apocalypse Now strikes the absolute balance between story, audio, and visual precision.  Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was hired by Coppola to create the entire image of the film and consequently won an Oscar for doing so.  The movie also won the award for Best Sound and was nominated for six more Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  This film captures the emotion of the Vietnam War in all its brutal glory.  It grabs your attention from the first shot and leaves you breathless with its closing scene.  There are no wasted elements in this movie, no unnecessary lines or gratuitously shocking images, only profoundly efficient moments that come together to create depth and feeling beyond that of any other film.  There is beauty in chaos and Coppola succeeds tremendously in capturing that essence.

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