The movie is difficult to swallow; some of the best movies are. This is a trip I recommend, just be aware of the dangers and the absurdities.
There are already more than two dozen reviews of the film. I typically wait until I have finished my review to read them so I am coming to it as cleanly as possible. I glanced at a few and they point, correctly, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the armature for Apocalypse Now (for the purposes of this review Apocalypse Now Redux). Redux was released in 2000 with footage removed from the original theatrical release in 1979. While I run through the analysis, I’m going to use a different source. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I see Apocalypse Now as a counterpoint to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The plot is nearly as absurd as are several moments in the film. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission to kill a seriously dedicated and decorated officer in the Army, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). His mission is secret but he nevertheless has to use a swift boat up the river into Cambodia when the US was not officially in Cambodia for any purposes. He shares the boat with Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), “Chef” (Frederic Forrest), “Clean” (Laurence Fishbourne), and Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms) who is also a world class surfer. Once this boat leaves Vietnam they are totally on their own when something happens it will be only the 5 on the boat who will take care of things no matter how “hairy” as they call dangerous areas along the river.
I think most people who have heard of the movie (not just the famous lines) are generally aware of what happens but the details must be seen and the last fifteen minutes or so need to be seen as freshly as possible to stick.
There will be some plot spoilers, but I will mark where they occur.
Without a doubt I have never seen a serious film that contained anything like the level of absurdity that Apocalypse shows. It is possible that within a few years after the US leaves Iraq we will get something similar, but any more absurdity will require someone of Mr. Coppola’s skill and a good deal of luck for any audience to know what the hell is happening.
It is easier to cover the negatives because they are so few. I’m not fond of a narrator because, more than not, it distracts. It isn’t as bad in this film, but it is still heavy handed; I understand that the complexity of the film and the facts have to be compressed so that a movie clocking at over 3 hours wouldn’t be double the length.
Also, though it is one of the most famously quoted (though spoken by more people than have seen it) scenes, the entire airstrike on a specific area because it has a good beach for surfing. Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) insists on sending surfers out into the ocean despite mortars landing near them. This is the first of the truly absurd moments so it has its reason, but the way it is handled is ham fisted and, honestly, silly. These famous statements are in this silly scene “Charlie don’t surf,” “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning, it smells like . . . victory.” What saves this scene is something beyond my understanding. The film was released in 1979—the last people out of Saigon when it fell happened in 1975. In the interim, Mr. Coppola was able to use military helicopters and jets and what looks very much like Napalm (to my eyes anyway) in a, forgive me, awesome scene.
Fortunately, until the end, there are no catch phrases. It’s hard to catch a phrase here or there with a mouth totally agape because of the story and what happens as they go farther and farther up the river. And, like it or not, it is also a beautiful film to watch. The panorama shots in calm are pretty; but the same panorama is used in battle sequences that are as heart stopping as any good scary movie.
The movie is difficult to recommend because the subject matter is so touchy. Vietnam is still a sore subject for many people who were in it and those of us left at home when the draftees (this was the last conscripted war) were in country. And with the country in a similar position, it makes it that much harder to recommend. There is nothing pretty in war, but when even parts of it can be caught on film it makes it that much more difficult. I can’t say that Apocalypse Now Redux is honest, but I can say it scared the crap out of me and saddened me and I think that was a major reason for making it in the first place.
And still I recommend it. Be warned that the situation is emotionally over the top. The gore factor is low especially for a movie covering war, but the battle sequences and the tension from beginning to end will not allow the viewer much time to relax.
Plot spoilers in the author’s attempt to look at the film compared to Huck Finn.
Some of this is esoteric, but I think we should remember that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was specific to Belgium, the Belgian Congo, and locked specifically in its time. Apocalypse Now is specifically American and I can argue that it is timeless. Wandering up a river to find a crazy trader is one thing, but war is something that transcends time—the specifics are endemic, but war is brutal, only the toys change ultimately.
Neither trip is necessary. To free Jim, all the pair has to do is just row across the river to Illinois and Jim is in no longer in a slave state. And yet they take the raft down and down deeper into slave territory. With regards to Willard, he is sent on a secret mission to kill one man. The airpower that the US had at the time could have done away not only with Kurtz but the people in the cult of personality that surrounded him. No, the US was not “in” Cambodia, but it was one of those very poorly kept secrets. A relatively quiet bomber mission could bomb Kurtz’s area and flown back again claiming that it just went off course.
In Huck the pair was only safe while on the river, every time they left it something odd or dangerous would happen. Willard and his boatmates are safe only when they are on shore. Huck and Jim run into some odd people (the Duke and Dauphin) and the strange feud among others to name just two. Apart from the surfing episode, the soldiers run into a supply depot that seems to be more like a black market that then becomes a show for a trio of Playboy bunnies. Then they run into a base that seems to be in an area where the rain never stops. No one knows who is in charge and in a supremely odd moment, the bunny helicopter is stuck. Willard uses some fuel to barter in order to let the men on the boat have a few minutes with the bunnies; the two they show are brainless but never stop talking. Then the reach the end of Vietnam where an endless battle is going on—the US builds the bridge the Viet Cong tear it down at night, and then the US builds it again in an endless circle.
The plantation that the crew discovers is surreal, but in the same way as the Grangerfords or the Shepherdsons are surreal in Huck, take your pick. The French family will not leave because they have always lived there, the very notion of leaving is offensive. That they are in or near a war zone doesn’t matter because they have always lived there.
Unfortunately the ironic comparison doesn’t fall apart when Willard finds Kurtz, but it does have to be stretched a bit. Freedom is easy enough. Jim finally gets his by way of a letter and Kurtz gets his on the bad end of a machete.
Before this, however, Tom Sawyer has to keep Jim locked up and creates scheme after unnecessary scheme to free him. These are awful and readers have argued for over a hundred years about the end of the book. This is not true of Apocalypse.
There is no scheme just a goal. Willard must kill Kurtz (Jim need never be freed). Willard does spend some time confined, but he is let out, apparently by Kurtz himself so that Willard can complete his mission.
I have never liked the last words, I think they cover something other than the story itself. What the crew, diminished to Willard and Lance only at this point, experience isn’t horror until the end—with executed people here and there and severed heads here and there. What they find is absurdity. Horror sounds better, but absurd is the best word, even for the last fifteen minutes. Still, that is the famous ending. In this case danger is always very close to the absurd, but the idea of true horror is lost on me (in both the movie and Heart of Darkness).
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