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Apocalypse Now (1979,USA)

17/06/2011

Director: Francis Ford Coppola   Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne

As endeavours go, Apocalypse Now was an epic one. Endless mishaps and calamities pushed the shoot massively over schedule and over budget. The tales of Coppola’s near mental collapse and Sheen’s almost fatal heart attack have passed into cinema folklore but such legendary exploits only serve to underscore the difficult gestitation of a project that would go on to become a legend in its own right.

The film is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness about a mission to track down an ivory trader in deepest Africa whose attempts to civilise the natives have backfired, the primeval nature of the jungle driving him insane. In the Coppola version (a virtual rewrite of a script by John Milius) the action is transferred to the Vietnam war. Special forces assassin Captain Willard (Sheen) is sent on a mission across the border into Cambodia to terminate (with extreme prejudice) rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a man who has gone insane and is fighting his own Vietnam war with questionable methods. Teamed up with a patrol boat crew who are tasked with taking him upriver to find his target, Willard must face the darkness within himself before he confronts the maniacal Kurtz, deep in the heart of the jungle.

The sheer scale of the film is mind blowing. Willard and his comrades are dwarfed by the environment they are travelling through which becomes more and more of a Dante-esque hell the further they travel upstream. Not only does the level of fighting intensify, but the jungle itself becomes more threatening and hostile with each passing mile. How cinematographer Vittorio Storaro managed to capture the majesty of the journey in such difficult conditions is a mystery to me but his pallet of burnished copper and lush jungle greens cut with the violent orange of napalm is a wonder to behold. This brand new blu ray transfer from what I assume is a fully restored 70mm print really does it justice, bringing a clarity to the film that is probably better than it has ever looked. The experience is made all the more authentic by the knowledge that the film was shot entirely on location in the Philippines. There are no sound stages, no mocked up sets. It’s real jungle and the toll this took on the actors was part of the plan to get the same authenticity to show through in their performances.

Martin Sheen’s turn as Willard is absolutely iconic. In the opening scene in the movie we witness a booze fuelled Willard self destructing in a Saigon hotel, clearly a man struggling to come to terms with the secrets he is carrying, secrets that have taken their toll on his humanity and that he cannot share the burden of with anyone. Sheen, a struggling alcoholic at the time, was blind drunk for the scene and slashed his hand on a broken mirror. That’s his real blood he’s covered in when he has his real minor breakdown. If there is a more raw and sincere show of emotion in a film I’ve yet to see it. These first few minutes set the level for the rest of the film and as the story unfolds Willard begins to realise that he is not so different to Kurtz. Sheen handles this flirtation with madness well and while summoning it was probably not that hard given his mental state at the time it’s a testament to his character that he managed to control it, even after a massive, nearly fatal heart attack. Brando’s Kurtz is a man driven demented by the deeds he has done and sights he has seen, conflicted by the hypocrisy of the army (“we train pilots to drop fire on people but don’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their ‘planes because it’s obscene….”) and haunted by the realisation that to win the war means to drop all pretense of being civilised. His ramblings, half crazed rhetoric, half profound insight are delivered in a hauntingly distant tone really giving the impression of a man whose mind has become completely detached.

The good performances don’t stop there. Informed by their environment and given leeway to improvise within their scenes all the cast do a fine job. An early performance from a fresh faced, teenage Fishburne shows it’s little wonder he has enjoyed the success he has had since and Dennis Hopper shines as a deranged photojournalist who has bought into Kurtz’ self deification. Out of all the characters Willard meets on his travels though, few are as memorable as Robert Duvall’s Air Cavalry commander, Colonel Kilgore. Sporting his cowboy hat and an obsession with surfing he is the epitome of a seasoned veteran of combat who seems to survive unscathed out of sheer bloody mindedness. Terrifying and amusing at the same time, he is an early indication that, in this war at least, it’s impossible to tell the sane people from the crazy ones.

It’s not all soul searching and existential dread though. There is plenty of action along the way. An especially impressive moment comes courtesy of Kilgore and is Air Cav squadron of helicopter gunships. In a moment that has forever branded Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as synonymous with attack helicopters the unit assaults a beach partially to help Willard make progress along the river but mostly because the beach has the best surfing in ‘Nam. In what must have been a logistical nightmare, the village at the beach is annihilated in a storm of rockets, machine gun fire and napalm. It’s heart pounding, chaotic and insanely beautiful. Little wonder then that it has insinuated itself into the collective unconscious of cinema goers over the last thirty years.

Apocalypse Now is a lot of things rolled into one. It’s a Vietnam film, one that doesn’t shy away from the less heroic aspects of the American involvement in the conflict and that is one of the earliest examples of a Vietnam film that is open and honest about the drug use and goofing off that were presumably common among the forces. It’s also a journey, not just for Willard but for the audience, where we are invited to challenge our opinions on a regular basis and to ask if it’s really possible to label one person sane and other not in an environment like that where sanity seems to count for very little. It’s also a brilliant example of what can be achieved with enough determination. It’s all these things and more, an end product that is substantially greater than the sum of it’s already impressive parts.

Just released this week in a collectors edition blu ray box with both the original theatrical cut, the very exteneded Redux cut (which I have never seen but look forward to watching) and the never before released on disc Hearts Of Darkness documentary about the making of the film. Oh yeah, plus over nine hours of extra features on a third disc. Presented in a very high quality package with a replica of the original cinema programme (during the first 70mm screenigns in cinemas there were no credits on the film, this information being provided via the programme for a more theatrical experience) a collectors booklet and some high quality postcards featuring stills from the production, it’s an absolute must for film fans and another compelling reason to make the leap to blu ray.

 

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