Apocalypse Now Revisited – A look back at Francis Ford Coppola’s classic

The Gryphon re-experiences Apocalypse Now as part of Leeds International Film Festival on Monday 16th November 2015

The story of Captain Benjamin Willard’s search for reportedly deranged Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has been regarded as one of, if not the best war film of all time, yet how well has it stood the test of time?

The loose, cinematic adaptation of the Novella ‘Heart of Darkness,’ authored by Joseph Conrad, received both critical and commercial success, with two Academy Awards, including a nomination for best picture, a further 18 award wins, on top of a box office gross of $150m worldwide. And it’s cast and crew, from the inimitable Francis Ford Coppola behind the camera to 18-year-old Larry Fishburne’s first appearance on film – not to mention that performance by a shaven-headed Marlon Brando – have only become more enviable with the passage of time.

Approaching this question of longevity at face value (simply appreciating it as a film depicting a fictional story set in the Vietnam War) it would perhaps be easy to disregard Apocalypse as irrelevant, nothing more than historical artistic licence. Yet it would be heinous to ignore the messages and themes present in the film that are still debated today. The notorious brutality and violence of the Vietnam War, such as the My Lai massacre, has been the basis for much debate on morality and justifiable military tactics. The explicit depiction of the aggression towards Vietnamese natives comes through prominently in Apocalypse and provides the roots for some very troubling images. It’s something that has been touched upon in many films since – see American Sniper, where the protagonist, Chris Kyle, reiterates how he views the locals as ‘savages’ and ‘not human’ – and it remains as important an issue as ever.

The film also approaches the traumatic stresses of war on the psyches of individuals, explored through the descent of its characters into traumatic stress – the journey into the ‘savage heart’ of Vietnam is as much a journey into the souls of its characters as it is a physical trip. The opening scene of the film, where images of jungle warfare are interlaced with scenes of Willard (Martin Sheen) staring out of the screen, underpinned by the pulsing beat of The Doors’ ‘The End’ and Sheen’s monologue, is a particularly powerful scene, ending in Willard’s psychotic breakdown. It’s even more impactful when viewed in light of the infamous making-of documentary, Hearts of Darkness, where we see Sheen’s own breakdown and realise that that the blood is, in fact, very real. It’s a theme explored throughout the movie, particularly with the story arcs of Chef and Lance on the boat, and again it remains a pertinent and riveting topic.

the journey into the ‘savage heart’ of Vietnam is as much a journey into the souls of its characters as it is a physical trip

Cinematically, the film very much still has the right to be hailed as a masterpiece. The writing, cinematography, acting, even visual effects still hold up remarkably well today. There are areas in which some of the combat scenes look a tad dated, yet on the whole, they are very much passable, especially with the recent digital remaster. The famous bombing run, sparking the iconic line “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning”, is enough to make even Michael Bay excited. It’s an exceptional demonstration of the effectiveness of practical effects and simply looks spectacular. The script provides other strong moments of memorable dialogue, too – “Charlie don’t surf!”

The real mastery however, lies within the cinematography. The enigmatic approach to certain scenes, especially the ultimate reveal of Colonel Kurtz, tied with the long sweeping shots of the landscape tied with very personal close-ups, actively portraying the emotion of certain characters really provides excellent atmosphere and really allows you to delve into the nature of the characters. Finally, there are some outstanding performances throughout the film. Sheen’s effortless commanding presence ties in nicely with an eclectic mix of performances from the boat crew, Duvall’s outgoing CO, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore representing much of the humour and recklessness displayed by the US Military. Dennis Hopper shines as a photojournalist descending into insanity trapped under the influence of Kurtz (although, apparently that performance was less put-on than we were led to believe…). Of course, there is still much debate over Marlon Brando’s performance. His infamously uncooperative attitude on set (rumour has it, constantly arriving late and overweight), apparently stunted his performance and caused difficulty for others around him – yet, despite the slightly odd look of his character due to his apparent lack of preparation, I still feel he delivers a respectfully chilling performance and really builds up his character in his own way.

All in all, Apocalypse Now is still a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It has its occasional flaws, but overall it is a masterpiece. Its powerful themes, still relevant today, are worthy of reflection and bring this historical film very much into modern day scenarios and society. A masterclass in writing, direction, acting and photography, it’s a leviathan of modern cinema, only bettering with age. It truly is a classic. (Although I do still prefer The Deer Hunter. *cough*)

Matt Bolland

Image: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/Miramax

Leave a Reply