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Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Premise: Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, an army captain (Martin Sheen) is given a secret mission to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the Vietnamese jungle.

What Works: Apocalypse Now is an unconventional war film. There are none of the typical war film clichés; no taking the hill, no waving flags, no Rambo-style heroics, no buddies in combat. What the film does include is a fusion of the politics of films like Patton with the visceral nature of later war films like Platoon. The result is a picture that is a commentary on war, the way they are fought and why they are fought, and on war stories, how they are told and the values and themes they reflect. The picture is structured to take its protagonist through the Vietnam War, but also through civilization, gradually stripping away social and technological signs of human advancement and returning man to a primal state of nature. By doing this the film is able to take a look into the origins of violence and the nature of warfare, making Apocalypse Now a deeper exploration of the Thanatos drive. As a technical exercise, Apocalypse Now has some great examples of visuals and sound working together. The helicopter attack is an iconic piece of film history with a sensory overload of explosions, camerawork, and music that satirizes the contemporary war film (and is quite clearly referenced—without irony—in Rambo: First Blood – Part II). There are also some great performances in the film. Marlon Brando gives the last great performance of his career as Colonel Kurtz, a tortured soul burdened with terrifying insight into the truth of war and the worst elements of human existence. Martin Sheen stars as Willard, a conflicted army captain who has lost his way in the amoral nature of warfare. Willard’s narration of the tale provides the film with direction and shapes the themes of the story, making them much clearer than if they were just presented visually and Sheen’s performance is the glue that holds the film together. Apocalypse Now also has some terrific supporting performances by Robert Duvall as the reckless Colonel Kilgore and Dennis Hopper as an eccentric photojournalist. The two add some insanity but just as importantly they contribute a wicked sense of humor. Apocalypse Now Redux, the extended cut of the film, adds to these performances and unlike some other director’s cuts that add a few seconds of footage here or there, Redux alters the entire layout of the film, moving sequences around and adding entirely new sequences that build upon the themes and further develop the characters. The most interesting addition is a sequence on a French plantation in Vietnam. It links the film to its literary source and gives the film a chance to lighten its tone before going to the Kurtz compound.

What Doesn’t: Although additions like the plantation scene expand the scope and deepen the themes of Apocalypse Now Redux, they also grind the narrative to a halt. It’s disrupting to the flow of the film and many of the new sequences overstay their welcome, especially a scene in which the PBR crew encounters Playboy bunnies at a chaotic army base. Apocalypse Now is not a flag waving patriotism fest and those expecting reverence and traditional depictions of national pride and noble self-sacrifice will not find it here. Apocalypse Now is an intellectual film with an emotional style and an art film on a blockbuster scale, and those contradictions may confuse or frustrate the viewer. Also, Apocalypse Now completists will note the absence of the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse from “The Complete Dossier” set. 

DVD Extras: “The Complete Dossier” edition includes both versions of the film, an introduction and commentary track by Francis Ford Coppola, complete reading of “The Hollow Men” by Marlon Brando, deleted scenes, featurettes on the sound and cinematography of the film, retrospectives by the cast and crew, and a Redux marker.

Bottom Line: While Apocalypse Now is one of the most controversial war films of all time, it’s also one of best, a film that mixes art house style with Hollywood spectacle to create an engaging and sophisticated portrait of modern warfare set against the primeval barbarity of human nature.

Episode: #142 (May 27, 2007); Revised #191 (May 25, 2008)