Friday, February 15, 2019


"You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist."

One of my all-time favorite movie posters.  I like it so much that after watching the film once in 1995
and not loving it, I gave it another chance years later.  Good thing I did, because that's when the film clicked for me.

Why has Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War tour de force Apocalypse Now, whose production was hampered by just about every turmoil and anxiety imaginable, endured the last 40+ years as a genuine classic?   How was its director able to weather the perfect storm of location problems, unpredictable equipment availability, cast changes, health scares, and a wholly mercurial and unprepared star, and come out the other side with one of the greatest of all war films, indeed one of the greatest films of any genre?  Perhaps adversity really is key to making great art.  Maybe the filmmakers' creative anguish formed a cinematic powderkeg, the volatility of which can be felt in every frame.  Or maybe Apocalypse Now remains in our collective lexicon because it is not a "war film" in the traditional sense, but rather a story about traveling inward to the darkest recesses of the human soul and confronting what we find.  Perhaps the above quote from Harrison Ford's character Colonel G. Lucas (get it?) is more significant than just a plot-related throwaway line.

The film begins with a beautiful slow-motion shot - a reject from the vast collection of dailies that Coppola just happened to fish out of the trash, depicting a forest being incinerated by a fleet of helicopters - before blending into a composite shot.  The jungle becomes the background for an upside-down closeup of Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin Willard and a closeup of a temple face carved out of stone.  The soundtrack to this beautifully disturbing montage is The Doors epic "The End," which in its own right would become another character in the film.  This combined image is a harbinger of the introspective, surrealistic journey Willard, and we, are about to take.

Effin' trippy, dude.

"There is no way to tell (Colonel Kurtz's) story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine."

Capt. Willard is a broken man when we first meet him.  Like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, he has been at war so long he no longer knows how to live without it; how to relate to the outside world.  His marriage has ended and he's chosen to return to battle, but without a mission he rots away in a Saigon hotel room, spending most waking hours in a drunken haze.  He is a man devoid of purpose, and when his superiors finally give him something to do, it is the unenviable (and classified) task of traveling upriver through the war-mutilated country to kill a rogue US Colonel.  The film then becomes a series of detached events resembling Homer's Odyssey, as Willard and his boat crew travel deeper and deeper into the jungle.

Willard's target, the highly decorated Colonel Walter Kurtz, has established a cult-like settlement deep in the Laotian jungle (where he is worshiped by the local tribes) and wages his own chaotic form of war.  Willard reluctantly agrees to the mission despite its profound moral ambiguity, and as his journey progresses he finds himself both fearing and deeply respecting Kurtz for all his accomplishments.  He begins to doubt his ability to carry out the mission.

Apocalypse Now is full of great shots.  This one is simple but perfectly captures
the overwhelming heat and claustrophobia of the location. 

The events Willard and his crew encounter during their quest force him to examine his own morality, and the increasingly questionable virtue of American involvement in the war.  This film is as much about the corruption of the human condition, as much about the debasement of America's soul, as it is about the war in Vietnam specifically.  The US military wants Kurtz dead not because he's a murderer, but because he can no longer be controlled.  Kurtz has waded through the hypocrisy surrounding the war and it has left him poisoned.  His belief in American, and even human, ethical superiority has been destroyed.

"Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature."

Willard's journey is at least partly about cleansing himself of his various demons; about banishing that into which this war has turned him, and reclaiming his righteous sense of self.  Like Dr. Jekyll's potion to segregate his most base instincts, allowing the good in him to carry on unhindered, Willard must destroy Kurtz in order to rid himself of the damaged fragments of his psyche and regain some semblance of honor.

The boat's trek upriver resembles the Greek mythical journey of Theseus through the labyrinth to kill the fearsome Minotaur.  The eventual appearance of Kurtz is so brilliantly suggested and anticipated; we gain knowledge of him through Willard's perusing of the dossier and his character is given a tremendous sense of weight and foreboding.  We doubt Willard's ability to kill him just as much as Willard does.

The spectre of Kurtz hovers over the entire film leading up to his first appearance.  I'm not sure there's ever been a more effective use of a mostly unseen character.  Through the scripting and the atmosphere we get such a complete sense of Kurtz's stature as a character without ever laying eyes on him.  Kurtz is the ogre at the end of the maze.  From his file we understand what he is capable of, but we don't at all know what to expect when Willard finally confronts him.  This sense of dread permeates the film and keeps us riveted.

The Kurtz Compound is a terrifying, mythical setting, guarded by the fearsome tribe and littered with corpses.

Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.

Marlon Brando as Kurtz infamously arrived at the set hugely overweight and completely unprepared, even at the rate of a million dollars a week.  Coppola envisioned Kurtz as gaunt and emaciated; a hardened shell of a man, as he appears in the original Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness.  Brando's bloated appearance forced Coppola to rethink the character as a symbol of excess; a man so corrupted by his God-like stature he has become an obese recluse.  Coppola had to take several days to read the script aloud to Brando (who showed up without having read it himself) and explain what the character of Kurtz was about.  Brando's dialogue was all improvised on the set, leaving Coppola to edit together an ending on the fly.

The iconic first real look at the face of evil.

That the characterization of Kurtz ended up so perfectly satisfying and enigmatic is nothing short of a miracle, and I'm not sure if that's a reflection on Brando's genius as an actor or Coppola's as a filmmaker.  Probably a bit of both.  Somehow I don't think we would've accepted a carefully scripted, meticulously prepped performance of this character.  It would've felt too sterile; too manufactured.  Given the way his first appearance is hyped and foreshadowed over the first two hours of the film, anything shy of Willard coming face-to-face with the devil himself would've been a letdown.  I think on some level Brando knew this, and transformed himself into an uncontrollable, rambling maniac.  Kurtz's monologues are nearly incomprehensible and don't provide the answers Willard or we are looking for (how could they - the questions raised are too colossal for human understanding), and yet just below the surface is a perfect grain of truth - that man is a repugnant, ruthless, violent animal, and as much as we as Americans pretended to be civilized and enlightened, we were no better than the enemy we pledged to destroy.  The difference was the enemy had no illusions about what scruples must be abandoned in order to win.  This concept is articulated in Kurtz's speech about the children he and his men inoculated years ago.

"We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm....And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that, these were not monsters, these were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling."
Brando presents Kurtz as both something more and something less than human.  Coppola wisely keeps Kurtz mostly hidden in the shadows, preserving the commanding mystique of this man.  He never reveals too much about the character or what he looks like, and as we watch Willard interact with him, we are in awe.  In a way the presentation of Kurtz is like the shark in Jaws, or the monster in Alien.  He is a truly frightening onscreen presence, largely because we see so little of him.  This character is both an immense genius, and a brutally savage barbarian.  And at the same time he represents to Willard everything that is rotten within himself, that must be annihilated if he is to ever be whole again.

Another iconic shot of Willard emerging from the bog, poised to kill.

The journey for Willard has been one of self-examination, and while his excursion upriver is comprised of an amazing series of episodes, this film all boils down to the one-on-one encounter between Willard and Kurtz.  The argument could be made that the entire movie is all happening in Willard's head; that the journey to the Kurtz compound is simply a voyage inward to purge his own self-destructive impulses.  Another Jekyll & Hyde comparison: Kurtz's enormous physique is an appropriate metaphor for how massive the evil nature has become within humanity. 

His intention when he returns to the outside world is to disclose the full truth about Kurtz and ensure that he is remembered not as a monster, but as a misunderstood soldier.  Perhaps this is what Willard wants for himself as well.

Interesting poster that seems to echo my

"Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared."

After 40+ years and multiple versions, Apocalypse Now continues to be an utterly compelling cinematic experience.  This seemingly simple tale of a soldier traveling deep into the Vietnam jungle to kill a rogue officer is so much more than it appears on the surface.  While other Vietnam War movies tend to have a shorter shelf life, this one is timeless because of its universal themes.  It is about the dual nature of man; how increasingly contaminated; how morally bankrupt we as a species are becoming.  It suggests that our only salvation is to reach inward and pluck out our own tumorous malevolence before it destroys us.  The acts of horror we are capable of inflicting on ourselves, on each other, on our world, will unravel our existence if we fail to address them.  Along with the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now is a Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece.

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