I put his movie off till the end for a couple of reasons; first it has always been difficult to watch because of the hyper psychedelic style it is shot in, and second because my opinion on it changes much like my opinion on Rollerball. Each time I see the movie I have a different impression of it’s strengths and weaknesses. I am not sure my comments will be consistent, but they will be honest. There is in fact much to be admired about the film from a technical point of view but the story seems so weighted against American action in Vietnam, that it is difficult to judge outside of the political issues that surround it. Francis Ford Coppola was the greatest film maker of the 1970’s. He wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for Patton, he directed the Godfather (considered by many as the greatest film ever made), he co-wrote and directed the Godfather Part 2 (The Greatest Film ever made), wrote and directed the Best picture Nominee, the Conversation, and produced American Graffiti, as well as just about everything on this movie. That is a ten year streak that has not been matched by anyone when it comes to quality. In that context I can render a largely favorable opinion of the movie.
Apocalypse Now opened in the Summer of 1979 at the Cinerama Dome, in an exclusive engagement. One thing that I recall about how exclusive it was is that there were no on-screen credits shown for the movie, not even a title card. The credits were provided to the audience on a brochure that you received in the theater. I can’t recall who went with me that first time, it may have been Rusty, my Dad’s friend that I have mentioned before. My memory of the second time I saw the movie was much more vivid. Rick Rollino and I had gone Christmas shopping and we were at the Del Almo Mall down in the South Bay. It had been a long day and I think originally we went in to see “10”, and maybe we did, but I know we also saw Apocalypse just a day or two before Christmas and I thought it was sort of a strange way to spend a day that close to the holiday. As I recall, our reaction to the movie was very strong and positive at the time. Rick if you read this, maybe you could comment on your memory here.
There are so many beautiful and horrifying moments in the film, that it overcomes some of the pretentiousness it falls into at the end. The opening double exposure of the helicopters and the ceiling fan in Captain Willard’s Saigon hotel room is brilliant. The attack on the village by the air cavalry, accompanied by Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyrie is spectacular and thrilling in a way that may not have been intended. Robert Duvall is in the movie for fifteen minutes and steals the whole picture. When the Wagner music is playing and the helicopters are attacking, it is really stirring, war with a soundtrack is another one of those clever twists that made the movie distinct. Right after that scene is when things start to go awry. The USO show is shot very effectively and the mayhem and imagery of the lights against the dark of the night and the water is magnetic. The problem is that this is where the ambiguous messages start to get a be pompous. The V.C. idea of a USO show is a cold bowl of rice? The immediate implication is that we are too weak in comparison to have ever had a chance to win. John Milius co-wrote the screenplay, and he may well have contributed to the Nietzsche philosophy lesson. Later when Willard is looking at Kurtz’s journal, he comes across the phrase “Drop the Bomb, eliminate them all”. If this is an anti-war movie, I guess the strategy is to show that war has to be so ruthless that it can never be waged. Of course that is a lot clearer than what happens in the last forty-five minutes of the picture.
From the time the Captain’s boat arrives at the Colonel’s camp, until the final resolution, we have an acid trip masquerading as a screenplay. Part of the problem was apparently Marlon Brando showed up so far overweight and so under prepared, that they have to shoot him in half light most of the time and he makes up a lot of the dialogue. Dennis Hopper shows up and was clearly spaced out, and his frenzied improvisational lines are probably quoted by fans of this film in a geek like manner similar to our quoting JAWS or Star Wars. The killing of the water buffalo in these scenes is reportedly real. which makes all the dead bodies and dismembered limbs in the background more disgusting than horrifying. As I listened to the music in the third act, I was reminded of the modern symphony music we heard at Disney concert hall a few years ago. As part of the “Tristan” project, a multi-media presentation accompanied the bleak music, and it sounded like a sustained violin note with images of fog in the background for twenty minutes. This was one of the first movies to use synthesizers for the majority of the score. I looked and the music was done by the director’s father, an accomplished musician, but Francis is given a co-credit on the music and my guess is that the repetitive two note bass is his contribution.
I watched this on my laserdisc player and the images were quite good. I imagine the DVD versions are superior to even this. The movie was re-edited for a different version several years ago and called Apocalypse Now Redux. Unlike Lucas with his tinkering on the Star Wars film, Coppola is not claiming this is a definitive version, but just an alternate take on the film. I have yet to see it so maybe a future post will make some comparisons. I am a little worried because my disc player was very temperamental in trying to run this movie. I don’t want to pack all my discs up and turn them into crap in the garage, but if I can’t keep the player working, I will have to, or try and find a new player. If my laserdisc give out, at least we had one last harrah with a brilliant mess of a movie.