Apocalypse Now: Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealistic, psychedelic, metaphysical Odyssey into heart of darkness is as hypnotic as ever

It was about forty-two years ago that Francis Ford Coppola premiered his long delayed, troubled production, Apocalypse Now, in Cannes. The film was not yet finished and it was shown as a work in progress. But still it won the Palme D’or. Looks like the film is still a work in progress for Coppola. He has made  and released two more different versions of the film in subsequent years. But i am damn sure that nothing beats the perfection of the original 1979 release version.

My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane” 

Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain,

How would you describe a film that literally begins with Jim Morrison’s rendering of “This is the End“?. The movie has only just begun and here we are talking about the end.  The screen is filled with apocalyptic images of explosions and whirring helicopter blades that morphs into the blades of a ceiling fan in the dingy bedroom of Captain Willard(Martin Sheen). We see the  images of Willard upside down as he lies in his bed: Drunk, washed up and  a little insane, he tries to pump himself up by trying out some martial arts moves which ends with him smashing his image in the mirror. His hands start to bleed and he cries out in pain, both physical and emotional. These opening images (and sounds) from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film  Apocalypse Now are the greatest (opening) scenes in movie history. Its bizarre, brilliant, weird  ,hypnotic, hallucinogenic; by the way, all these epithets would fit the film as well.  All Coppola films . whether its The Godfather or The Conversation or Rumble Fish or even Patton- for which he only wrote the screenplay- have out of the box, very unique and memorable opening scenes. So where does a film go when it starts at the end, well naturally to the beginning.  In a way, this film provides a reverse narrative to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. That film started with the Dawn of man and proceeded into the future, ending with the creation of the star-child. In Apocalypse Now, The beginning point in the film depicts the ultimate end point of humanity.  A sort of future-present, depicting the destruction of the world by advanced technology. From here on we are going to be travelling back in time to the primitive past.

Though this film looks very different from other Coppola films,  once you get into it, we realize that the film is filled with his pet themes. One of the most important themes in his films is the ‘Family’; its integrity and its disintegration, and as opposed to the mafia family in The Godfather, this film deals with the ‘Warrior family’, the Army. It’s 1969, Saigon  and the war is raging in Vietnam. As an obedient member of the military family, Willard is called upon by the heads of the family to take a journey up river and kill another head of the family who has now gone rogue; Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), once a brilliant soldier who was groomed for a top position in the corporation has now become renegade and insane. He has split from the army and set up his own warrior family, in the jungles of Cambodia, made up of native Montagnard tribesmen who worship him as a god and execute his every whim and command. The scene where the army top brass- which features actors like G.D.Spradlin and Harrison Ford – brief Willard over lunch about the situation,  and gives him the order to kill Kurtz,  is very similar to the scene in The Godfather where the Corleone family members gather around the dinner table conferring with Michael as he is setting forth  to  kill their family enemy Sollozo who had injured the family patriarch Vito Corleone. But here, they are not targeting some enemy outsider, but they are conspiring to kill a patriarch of the family; one of their own, and the official term that is repeatedly used to mask this act of patricide is ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice’ . Thus, Willard’s  odyssey up river to assassinate Kurtz takes on oedipal dimensions. This also brings into context the usage of Jim Morison’s “This is the end”; it’s primary objective is to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, the late 60s,  but it also has a secondary objective: with its lyrics of oedipal angst, it perfectly resonates with the theme of patricide inherent in the film.

Willard accepts the mission and gets into the boat that’ll take him up river. The crew members of the boat makes for another family, with nicknames like Chef, Clean, Lance the surfer. The boat belongs to ‘chief’ Captain Phillips who is smart enough not to ask too many questions about Willard’s mission. Willard tries his best to be part of this little family, and for sometime he does become one among them. But then the ugly nature of  his mission intervenes to make sure that he is not fully integrated into the family, and that he remains an outsider. Starting with the boat journey, Sheen’s voice over starts kicking in to high gear. The voice over was written by Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr and his words and Sheen’s reading of it, accentuates the hypnotic quality of the movie. Sheen’s performance is understated and brilliant. Willard’s first stop  on his journey would be at a war zone where he meets up with Col. Kilgore, who is tasked with taking Willard and crew to an opening in the Nung river that would set them on course to Kurtz’s hideout. Kilgore is a mad warrior in the mold of General Patton and a surfing nut to boot. Screenwriter John Milius imagined the film on the lines of Homer’s Odyssey and this episode was to mirror Odysseus’  encounter with the cyclops. This episode contains some really bizarre images like cattle being airlifted by helicopters and director Francis Coppola himself making an appearance as a News cameraman covering the war.

Kilgore is disinterested in the mission at first, but when he realizes that the spot is a great place for surfing and one of the crew members is Lance, the great surfer, he decided to go all out to take the place. When he is warned by one of his boys that it is Charlie’s point, he retorts with the famous words “Charlie don’t surf“. The next scene: the all out ‘cavalry’ attack by Kilgore with helicopters as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays in the background, is one of the greatest action scenes ever committed to film. The almost twelve minute sequence was all shot for real, meaning no miniature work, no back projection and of course there was no CGI back then and is still to be topped. The sequence pushes the madness and immorality of war to its absurd , ironic extreme. the scene with its rousing Wagnerian music plays out like an ode to heroism, but the fact is that what’s happening on screen is anything but heroic. its just a surfing nut soldier killing innocent civilians and destroying property just so that he can indulge in his hobby. The scene, with its advanced military hardware and ammunition, showcases human technology at its cutting edge. From this point on the technology will get more and more primitive. Robert Duvall’s performance as Kilgore is a wonder to behold. He appears for less than 20 minutes in the film, but his electrifying theatricality makes sure that this moment almost becomes the highpoint of the film. His performance is big and operatic, keeping with the nature of the film; this is the guy who struts on the beach fearlessly, tearing off his shirt, ordering a napalm drop; his men are diving for cover all around him to escape the explosions and bullets, but he stands tall as if he was immune to death. The moment is very similar to a scene in Coppola scripted Patton(1970), where George C. Scott’s General Patton jumps into the middle of an air raid and starts firing at the planes dropping fire. While Scott’s performance was rather straight, there is a strong undercurrent of dark humor in Duvall’s performance as Kilgore. His flamboyance and braggadocio masking a pitiful Don Quixote like character. He deservedly won an Oscar nomination for his performance.

We also see Kilgore exhorting his soldiers, who are ducking for cover,  to surf the waves even when the battle is till going on. His mantra is  either you fight or you Surf. Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz  represents three different faces of war. Kilgore is technically a sane man, but he is blessedly amoral; he relishes and propagates the horrors of war; its fun and games for him; war is something he never wants to end. As it is apparent from his great lines “I love waking to the smell of Napalm in the morning , smells like victory“, But then as always the case with great movie lines, the best part   comes afterwards , as he says ruefully “This war is gonna end“, the sad expression on his face is something to behold.  Willard, on the other hand is an immoral man, who passively observes and even facilitates the horror knowing fully well what he is doing is wrong. Kurtz is the sad victim of the horrors propagated by the Kilgores of the war; A moral man driven insane by the horrors of war and now driven to commit even more horrible acts. This is the irony that the film is tackling. The army top brass expect their soldiers to be Kilgores, but when that  leads to the creation of Kurtz, they send someone like Willard to terminate him. As Willard says, prosecuting someone for murder during the war is like handing out speeding tickets at Indy 500. 

We see in the above scenes how young men are exploited in the war. We next see the spectacle of women getting exploited as Willard’s next stop is at a place which is hosting a show for the soldiers by the Playboy bunnies. The young, horny soldiers are seen to be aggressively coming on to the stage to get hold of the dancing women and the guards doing their best to stop them. Finally, when the women are  airlifted out to safety, the soldiers hang on to the bars of the helicopter; it resembles both a rescue operation as well as the images of cattle being airlifted earlier in the film; another stirring image showcasing the dehumanizing effects of war. Willard’s  journey takes a dark turn at their next stop, as the chief stops the boat to inspect a sampan. The suspicious behavior of one the natives on the sampan triggers a violent massacre in which all the members of the sampan are killed. It turns out the person was only going after their pet dog (This massacre scene was supposed to be a nod to the infamous My Lai massacre in which US troops killed unarmed south Vietnamese  civilians). One of the inmates who is only  wounded is killed by Willard because the captain insisted on taking him along and  giving him medical attention. Willard has no time to loose and he wants to reach Kurtz as quickly as possible. This incident changes the crew’s perception of Willard and he will remain an outsider for them, always looked on with suspicion.

Their next stop is at Do Lung bridge, which could be considered the final outpost of civilization. The soldiers fighting at the bridge are close to losing their sanity, that’s if they haven’t lost it already. They don’t know who is in charge and whom they are fighting. The chief asks Willard whether they should proceed further or turn back, but Willard insists they go forward. We hear the ominous electronic score on the soundtrack as Willard’s boat crosses the bridge. Now they have left civilization behind; there will be now journeying through a space that’s going to get more and more primitive. Before they reach Kurtz’s compound, both Clean and  chief will be killed in attacks by primitive tribesmen. The Chief is killed by a spear – the most primitive of weapons – and we see the horror on his face as he mutters “A spear”. Finally they reach Kurtz’s place, and are welcomed by Dennis Hopper’s photographer. He is now functioning as a sort of court jester to Kurtz and he does his best to convey the greatness of Kurtz to the new arrivals. The compound, decorated with images of pagan gods is littered with corpses and mutilated body parts. The whole area is filled with the members of native tribes who stand guard for Kurtz. Willard also meets Colby, who was sent before him to kill Kurtz, but who is now his disciple and  has become one among the natives worshiping Kurtz.

After some delay, Willard is allowed an audience with Kurtz. He is ritualistically draped in mud by the natives and taken to meet the god. And true to his godly stature ,Kurtz appears like a ray of light out of the darkness . We see only parts of his face . He is like a mythical beast, like King Kong, which with its skull Island was a major inspiration for Coppola in tackling the character of Kurtz. He talks with Willard about his mission and whether he is an assassin. Willard answers that he is a soldier. Kurtz now reveals his face fully as he says “You are just an errand boy send by grocery clerks to collect the bill”. Willard is imprisoned and tortured by Kurtz, but later released.  meanwhile, Kurtz kills Chef and places his head on Willard’s lap. Kurtz enunciates his mad philosophy to Willard – about horror and moral terror – and the horrors of war that made him insane. It was like being shot by a diamond bullet, he tells him. He requests Willard to meet his son , when he gets  out of there and tell him the truth about his father, whose reputation has been stained by the stench of lies. In the end , in the backdrop of the ritual of an animal sacrifice conducted by the natives, Willard sneaks into Kurtz’s room and murders him with a machete. As he comes out of the temple, the natives bow down to him , but he refuses to stay and assume the mantle of the new king. He takes lance by his hand and gets on the boat and starts on his journey back, while Kurtz’s words “Horror, Horror”  echoes in the background.

So as  The Godfather Part II ended with an act of fratricide from Michael; killing his own brother Fredo, Apocalypse now ends with a figurative act of patricide. But Willard, unlike Michael does not succumb to dark side. he actually has a revelation to renounce the power and not to be king after father’s death. Unlike Michael , who ascended to the throne after his father’s death and went over to the dark side. In that way, Willard follows a reverse character trajectory to that of Michael. He is an immoral person who is embracing a moral path here.  The film also emulates this reverse trajectory in its narrative progression. The conventional logic of a big commercial blockbuster is that it starts slow and keep building and building until it goes out with a bang in the climax. Here Coppola begins with a bang and then the film starts to get slower, stranger and in the end it goes out in a whimper. The final third – the Brando portions – which received much criticism for being pretentious at the time are the most fascinating aspect of the film for me. In these portions, the film stops being a conventional movie and becomes poetry in motion. Brando is simply phenomenal as Kurtz . It’s impossible to imagine any other actor providing this much of artistic weight and mythic persona to carry through the picture at the end.

In 1975, when 36 year old Francis Ford  Coppola went into production on Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, he was the King of Hollywood. He had made three back to back critically acclaimed, commercially successful movies in The Godfather, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, with all three nominated for best picture Oscars and the two Godfathers winning the top prize. Coppola himself had won 5 Oscars by then. Apocalypse Now was the brain child of Writer\director John Milius , a  surfing nut and a gun nut, he was obsessed with the idea of adapting  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He wrote it for his friend  George Lucas who was planning to direct it in cinema vérité style, on locations in Vietnam when the war was still going on. But they couldn’t raise the funds required for it as American Zoetrope, the company founded by Francis Ford Coppola  went bankrupt. But then in 1975, when he regained his financial clout , Coppola decided to revive the project with himself as the director. But he wanted to go in a completely opposite direction to what Lucas has planned. He wanted to make the grandest, most spectacular war film, if possible in Cinerama, in the style of great war epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Guns of Navarone. The idea was to make a big successful film and from the huge profits that the film would generate, they will be able to make small experimental films, which is what he wanted to do. And as one could see, the film definitely had a “Men on a mission during war” template made famous by films like Guns of Navarone and the Dirty Dozen.

But as he got deeper and deeper into the making of the film, he started losing interest in making a conventional war action picture . He started driving the film closer to the serious , artistic roots of its source novella Heart of Darkness, which explored grand themes of humanity, civilization and war. The film was originally scheduled for a 13 week shoot at a cost of 13 million dollars. But the shoot turned out to be one of the worst nightmares in movie history. There was typhoons that destroyed the sets; there was a civil war that was raging on in Philippines that made it difficult to get the military hardware; There was a change in leading man as Harvey Keitel who was set to play Willard was replaced by Martin Sheen. Sheen suffered a heart attack and almost died, and even as all this was going on, Coppola was painting himself into a corner by making the film more and more surreal and weird, departing heavily from Milius’ script to the extend that he didn’t have an ending to the film as the original ending written by Milius was unworkable  in the new context. So he turned to Acting legend Marlon Brando, who was slated to play Col. Kurtz, to help him find an ending. But when Brando arrived on the set to shoot his scenes, he was overweight, looking nothing like the weak, skeletal Kurtz; he hadn’t read the script or Heart of Darkness. So Coppola decided to improvise the scenes with Brando and most of the dialogues spoken by the actor was Brando’s own. Brando considered it some of the best work he had done, almost 45 minutes of pure improvisations in gestures and  words and as Michael Herr the author of the narration said: Brando’s lines were so good that it would make any great writer envious. From all this, Coppola was able to cobble together some material for the ending. By this time the film was already shooting for almost two years and the budget had escalated to a colossal 31 million dollars. But even after this, the film was in post production for more than a year, as Coppola, with  a team of editors,  had a hard time whittling down about 100 hours of footage down to a cohesive film. All throughout the lengthy four year production, the film had become a butt of jokes with memes like Apocalypse when and Apocalypse Never thrown at the film by the movie journalists, who claimed that film will never be released as Coppola hasn’t got an ending.

To beat the bad press, Coppola decided to premier his unfinished film at Cannes film festival in 1979. As it was not yet finished , it was shown as a work in progress. But still it won the Palme D’or , sharing the honor with The Tin Drum. The film was finally released in theaters later that year at a running time of two and half hours. The film received mixed reviews from critics, But a good response from the audience helped Coppola to recoup the money he had invested in the film. The film continues to be a work in progress for Coppola.  He has made two more edits of the film of various lengths. I have seen them both and it pales in comparison to the 1979 version. The 1979  cut was perfect; it had a rhythm; a perfectly structured episodic quality that was missing in 2001 version which expanded the film to 200 minutes. The additional scenes in that version, especially the French plantation sequence did not add anything to the film , except to externalize  the themes and ideas that  the film had brilliantly internalized. The additional scenes just remained additional scenes and he should have left it as special features in the DVD. Coppola’s logic was that he had to cut out a lot of scenes as he felt pressured by the distributors to make it a more conventional war film. But then as it happens, some of the best decisions are the ones taken under pressure. Obviously , these things do not distract from the overall quality of the original film, which is undoubtedly a supreme achievement in cinema. Coppola’s artistic megalomania and devil may care attitude would finally bring him down from the pedestal , but only someone with that big an ego and that big a heart , not to mention talent can even aspire to make a film of this scale, this depth and this ambition. Coppola is always compared with Orson Welles, mainly due to the fact that both geniuses made great films at the beginning of their career, but then lost their way. Interestingly Orson Welles had planned to make Heart of darkness as his first project, but it became so expensive that the studio forced him to drop it. so he made Citizen Kane instead, which was a huge artistic success but failed commercially. And when his next film The Magnificent Ambersons went the same way, the RKO studios, that had given Welles a dream contract, showed the boy genius the door . In order to never cultivate  geniuses like him again , the studio began promoting its new corporate motto, “Showmanship In Place of Genius”. But in Apocalypse Now, Coppola proves that showmanship and genius does not have to be mutually exclusive. The film was, and continues to be, and perhaps forever will be the  grandest phantasmagorical show put up by a cinema genius .