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A Look Back: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Veteran’s Day was recently upon us, so it is time to look at a classic war movie. One of America’s most famous wars is the Vietnam War, so what better choice than a movie that, according to its director, Francis Ford Coppola, “is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” One commonly noted characteristic about the 1979 classic Apocalypse Now is how it is incredibly accurate in portraying the chaotic experience of those who fought in the Vietnam War.

For those who haven’t yet seen or heard of Apocalypse Now, it is loosely based off of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which follows US Army Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, as he is sent upriver to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, who is believed to have gone insane. As Willard travels upriver, the film explores what the war reveals about the dark side of the human soul, and we are asked the question of whether Kurtz is insane, or if he has just discovered something so completely twisted it’s impossible to comprehend. However, this is not to say Kurtz is the only insane one. As well-known as the film is as a masterpiece on its own, it is just as famous for its incredibly troubled production.

To say that there were a few struggles making this movie is a major understatement. According to Francis Ford Coppola, “we were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment and little by little, we went insane.”  Coppola had to finance the film himself, and Willard had to be recast just days into filming (he was originally played by Harvey Keitel). Filming lasted one year, two months and three weeks, production went $2 million over-budget,  and sets were wrecked by a typhoon. Sheen had a heart attack while filming, helicopters had to be called away during shooting, Marlon Brando arrived overweight and under-prepared, a proper ending couldn’t be decided upon, and over 200 feet of film was shot, all of which had to be edited down to a 2 ½ hour running time. The fact that the movie itself isn’t a colossal mess is pretty impressive, but the fact that it’s one of the best of all time is simply amazing.

The film captures the insanity of the Vietnam War excellently. The movie conveys a haunting and disturbing tone. It has a rather fantastical feel, which is established in the hallucinogenic opening scene. The film is like a journey back through time, as things seem to progress backwards throughout the film. The entire movie can be summed up by the four words Kurtz utters in the film’s final minutes, “the horror…the horror.”

The movie contains several outstanding performances. Even though he only has 30 minutes of screen-time, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz leaves a huge impression, due to his ability to effortlessly become an intimidating character by only reading dialogue. Robert Duvall’s iconic Lieutenant Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore provides a dark humor that lightens the film’s otherwise serious mood with his utter disregard for the serious nature of war. Basically, he’s kind of nuts, as evidenced in a scene where he bombs a beach just so he can go surfing. Dennis Hopper plays an unnamed photojournalist who provides a contrast to people’s opinions of Kurtz by viewing his as a messiah rather than a killer.. And then there is Martin Sheen as Willard, who acts as the audience’s representative throughout the film. Everything is seen through his eyes, as he fights to accomplish his mission while not going insane.

Another great aspect of the film is despite it’s being haunting and disturbing, it is still vastly entertaining. The film is 2 ½ hours but it rarely feels slow, with just one or two scenes that could have been trimmed around. The pacing is almost flawless, with more than enough action scenes to claim a place among the better war movies. The action is very well-shot and choreographed, with the Ride of the Valkyries sequence being one of the most iconic of all time. The movie has plenty of gunfire and explosions, although not at an extravagant level. There are also the film’s several iconic lines and scenes. Kilgore’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” monologue has gone down as one of the best in cinematic history, and every word Brando utters is gold.

The soundtrack is just fantastic. The most well-known song in the movie would be the Doors’s The End, used in the film’s opening and closing scenes, which brilliantly establishing the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. There is also Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which complements the air raid scene in which it appears, showing off the power and skill of the Army.

The fact that Apocalypse Now is as good as it is, despite all the problems that occurred, is simply mind-blowing. It is brilliantly executed with everything handled perfectly, and it haunts you long after it finishes. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it ASAP, Apocalypse Now is a definite 10/10.