Perhaps Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest directorial achievement, Apocalypse Now is a visually stunning war film that has no equal, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro capturing the films Philippine location to great effect.
Unlike other films on the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now does not contain any social or political agenda, but is a story about the descent into madness with the war the perfect backdrop. Platoon had its semi-autobiographical take; The Deer Hunter portrayed the effect the Vietnam War had at home; Apocalypse Now is a journey into darkness.
The crust of this journey: When the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Brando) goes nuts in a remote jungle compound in Cambodia, the U.S. Army sends Captain Willard (Sheen) on a mission up river during the Vietnam War to terminate the Colonel with “extreme prejudice”.
Francis Ford Coppola had gone to hell and back to make Apocalypse Now, with a major part of the films problems stemming from his equally talented yet problematic cast.
Martin Sheen gives a tremendous performance. The fifth in line to play Captain Willard (Steve McQueen, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson turned down the role, Harvey Keitel was fired after two weeks of filming), Sheen bares all on screen as the Secret Service assassin who craves action. Watching him loose it in a drunken stupor (with Sheen actually being drunk in the process) is confronting viewing. Sheen’s destructive behavior finally caught up to him on set suffering a heart attack mid-shoot.
The casting of Marlon Brando as Col. Kutrz was perfect. Playing a character who has ‘gone totally insane, and whose “methods are un-sound’ is not far off from the man himself, whose oddball behavior and monstrous weight gain only added to Coppola’s suffering. It is not Brando’s best performance, but it is definitely one of his most memorable.
Robert Duvall does deliver his best performance in the form of the sadistic Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, whose eccentric behavior and enthusiastic approach to war leads to a breath taking scene where Kilgore orders his men to destroy a village. Blasting Wagner through speakers lodged to the side of helicopters, bombs are dropped from up high. After a napalm strike ends the battle in dramatic effect, Duvall delivers the infamous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” monologue. It s one of the best scenes Coppola has directed.
Dennis Hopper has a uniquely bizarre minor role as a photographic journalist who is apart of Kurtz’ compound, spewing out rambling, incoherent philosophy mixed with hipster jive, Hopper’s behavior just as bizarre off set.
Coppola also had to battle against mother nature when a typhoon nearly destroyed all of his sets; was facing financial ruin due to the films long shoot (16 months to be precise with 3 years spent editing the film); and his marriage was falling apart.
Yet by overcoming those obstacles Coppola has created a near masterpiece, perhaps the greatest war film ever made, a perfect example of how an artist’s vision cannot be compromised no matter the consequences. Apocalypse Now is Coppola at breaking point, his decent into madness, going beyond the limits to make his vision come to life.