I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men . . .
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Watching Apocalypse Now is like having a series of doors opened for you, each revealing the phosphorescent imagery of hell. You walk out of it shaken up, all powers of judgment jettisoned. Because it is visually, sonically and emotionally unlike any other movie, it radically changes the perceptions and responses you bring to movies. And because it creates new standards of film-making, new standards of criticism have to be brought to it. Descriptions of “good” or “bad” are pointless: Apocalypse Now is such an awesome, man-made piece of work—a kind of colossus—that it goes far beyond tedious considerations of personal tastes.
The confusion it’s bound to stir comes from being led—no, pushed—into new territory. The movie begins on a highpitched tone and never loses it. The territory it travels goes down, down, down to depths to which you thought the soul could never descend—and some of the audience’s disbelief might manifest itself as anger. Apocalypse Now may be the first great work of movie art that people will hate. There has never been
as bleak and cold, as stygian a view of humanity as this one. It’s Coppola’s Divine Comedy lit with the glint of modern steel-blue horror-hardware, his Rime of the Ancient Mariner without any comforting coda. You don’t watch this movie, you live through it—it’s analogous to wearing an albatross, expiating a sin you haven’t yet committed. Coppola suggests that some hidden part of us is a heart of darkness readily thumped to life by the greed, lust and violence of war. The road to war is paved with good intentions; the way out is often thought to be the way in— keeping sane by choosing complete dis-
sociation from the horror, rejecting all conventional moral choice. The philosophy is so lucidly livable that men enter what T.S. Eliot called “death’s other Kingdom” and hell becomes habitable. There is no way out.
Apocalypse Now begins with a stunning montage of superimpositions: the face of a man mixed with the sight and sound of helicopters and burning napalm in the jungle. Jim Morrison of The Doors is singing: This is the end my friend . . . The images fade in and out, shift position; helicopter blades whirr (seemingly right over your head) into the song. The face, we find, is that of
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a war veteran alone in a Saigon hotel room. The cornhusk voice of a man who has drunk—and seen—too much begins a voice-over narration while the screen shows him smashing a mirror and screeching in silent pain. He’s “waiting for a mission,” feels he’s “getting softer,” and when he does get his mission it is to “terminate with extreme prejudice” a Colonel Kurtz, a soldier with a peerless military record who now governs like a god a band of Montagnard tribesmen in Cambodia. Willard listens to a tape in which Kurtz talks about a recurring nightmare —“a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” Willard accepts the mission and on his journey up the river into Cambodia he encounters every war horror imaginable. The more he learns about Kurtz, the more he discovers about himself.
Willard’s crew soon becomes inured to injury, too. Living on their nerve ends, like caterpillars crawling on the edge of a straight razor and surviving, they shoot the innocent crew of a sampan—all because of a puppy hidden in a wicker basket. Chef (Frederic Forrest) who wanted to be a saucier in New Orleans, Clean (Larry Fishburne) who jiggles to disco from the radio, Chief (Albert Hall) who tries to keep order as the navigator and Lance (Sam Bottoms) who suns himself on the deck and drops acid—they all become like Kurtz: “. . . beyond timid reality, beyond caring.” The jungle noises, the droplets of sweat from the jungle heat and fear, the weight of the war, erode their emotional resources.
Filmed as a relentless ritual of death and decimation, the horrors don’t mount, they merely continue. In one of the most spectacular scenes ever to find its way into film footage, a crotchscratching red-neck commando named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) leads a crippling cortege of helicopters (his is called DEATH FROM ABOVE) into a village while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries on his tape deck (“Wagner scares the hell out of the slopes”). Valkyries scream, helicopters fly in like prehistoric insects, bullets rip through the air, and the eyes and ears are raped as the village is strafed. Below, a film-maker (Coppola himself) shouts at disbelieving soldiers, “Don’t look at the camera!”; a priest conducts a Holy Communion service as the helicopters do their helium dance and Vietnamese fall lifeless; and two soldiers surf at Kilgore’s command, because that’s why they came to this particular village—to surf.
Kilgore loves fighting the way he loves Wagner. He has nerves of steel, never flinches. When jets drop napalm not far away he says, “I love the smell of napalm. It smells like . . . victory.” A
Vietnamese, his stomach hanging out to one side, howls in pain for water and from somewhere there surfaces in Kilgore compassion until, distracted, he lets the water dribble out of the canteen onto the ground and forgets about the man.
Apocalypse Now is one big operatic set piece after another. A USO show up the river featuring three Playboy bunnies gyrating with guns between their legs—photographed by the remarkable
Vittorio Storaro as a Coney Island in the middle of the jungle—turns into a near mass rape. The devil of lust. Soldiers have gone crazier, turning on their own kind; nobody knows who is in command, they just fire their guns; the gunfire and the choir on the sound track bring it razor-close to a Jimi Hendrix song. Madness, madness, madness. Death spits its black juice, keeping the night company.
Coppola was right to film his journey as a surreal onslaught on the senses, as pure phantasmagoria. Vets of any war can only tell, with sad inarticulation, what took place. When Willard reaches the Kurtz compound he sees a psychedelic temple decorated by decapitated heads—the rebel soldiers have sprayed the words APOCALYPSE NOW on a rock. They want apocalypse, they want revelation, they want an answer to all the cruel confusion. A spaced-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) thinks Kurtz a guru with genius and, as embodied in Marlon Brando’s plangent performance, Kurtz towers over everyone else. We don’t get enough of him, and what we do get is obscured in shadow. But we remain as fascinated by him as Willard is and wait on every word of his extended monologue. “Horror has a face,” he tells Willard, “and you must make a friend of horror.” Initiation into possessing a dark heart.
There was a time when Kurtz was in contact with more felicitous feelings. He talks about going up a stretch of the Ohio River past a gardenia plantation and it was “as though heaven had fallen to earth for five miles.” But what drew him into that big, black heart was seeing “a pile of little arms” thrown together like a Holocaust collage. “And I cried,” moans Kurtz and there isn’t an actor alive who can say that line the way Brando does. Kurtz discovers “death’s other Kingdom.” His last words are a choked, ghostly whisper: “The horror! The horror!” Coppola ends his audacious achievement with a whimper, knowing that it is merely human presumption that would make the end of things pyrotechnically exciting. And we’re left with the thought, Mistah Kurtz—he not dead. He is sleeping inside, a light sleep, waiting to be wakened by the sharp alarm of a shot being fired somewhere.
The 70-millimetre version has opened only in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles and will not open across North America until October. These 35-millimetre versions will not have quadraphonic sound. They will have title credits at the end instead of the program handed out with the 70-millimetre version. The credits will roll over infrared apocalyptic footage, which does not make a story point.
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