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Apocalypse Now (1979)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

An immense Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now fully realises the chaos and absurdity of this jungle conflict before slipping into the same trap. Opening with the hypnotic beat of helicopter blades, the scene merges with Captain Willard's (Martin Sheen) view of a lazily spinning ceiling fan. In his Saigon hotel room Willard inhabits a private purgatory, unable to function at home in the States yet reluctant to return to the front line. Used to working alone on top secret missions Willard is briefed on his final task, an operation which doesn't exist and never took place. Deep in the jungle, over the Cambodian border, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has broken away from higher command and formed his own military cult. Citing his obvious plunge into insanity and unsound methods, the military have accused Kurtz of murder and want Willard to assassinate him. Hitching a lift on a Navy gunboat, crewed by youngsters typical of Vietnam, Willard proceeds up the Mekong River. This gives him lots of time to muse over his target, an outstanding colonel who came top of his class at West Point and was groomed for high office. What went wrong and why are the Army so desperate to have him killed?

It can't be the murder charge since that sort of lunacy is rife in Vietnam. A prime example is Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), gung-ho commander of a helicopter unit and their escort. Standing in the middle of a raging battle, ignoring the shells falling around him, Kilgore is like a throw-back to the US Civil War. However he just loves to surf and when Kilgore discovers that one of the gunboat crew, Lance (Sam Bottoms), is a top wave-rider he suggests a bit of R+R. Since the gunboat is heading towards a great beach, Kilgore is more than happy to mount a full scale assault on the Vietcong outpost guarding the area. Thus the next morning a squadron of helicopters comes buzzing over the treetops, like angry hornets, with Wagner blasting out of side-mounted speakers. This leader just "loves the smell of napalm in the morning" and his troops are happy to follow such a charismatic leader, even if he is a little loopy.

Continuing up the river, where for the most part the shore is unbroken vegetation, the bizarre interludes continue. At a re-fueling site the resident GIs are in a frenzy over the visiting Playboy Playmates. Starved of feminity, the rowdy crowd soon storms the stage and forces a premature departure for the centre-folds. A little later the gunboat crew search an innocent junk and, in one of those inexplicable accidents, massacre the occupants. Typical of the entire war, this tragedy is nobody's responsibility but everyones fault. Eventually the signs of Kurtz's realm start to become obvious, mostly through the corpse littered shore and the severed heads impaled on poles. Willard is still unclear on how to deal with Kurtz, perhaps hoping that simply meeting him will force a decision. Surrounded by natives, who worship Kurtz as a god, Willard soon gets his opportunity.

A staggering achievement just to film, Apocalypse Now is a vivid and immediate reminder of how cock-eyed the Vietnam War really was. Shooting over-budget and over-length in much the same way as the conflict, it's a testament to his determination that Coppola managed to produce anything at all (considering that Sheen had a heart-attack and that Coppola had to invest his own money). The Philippine locations are used to stunning effect, evoking the heat and humidity of the jungle with its latent menace and danger. The photography really is excellent, capturing a broad spectrum of colours, tones and contrasts as the gunboat slides through water which varies from the sleepily oily to the tumultuous. The acting is very good, particularly from Sheen, but it's almost impossible to classify Brando. His mumbling, meandering monologues certainly seem to have the seal of madness but is this great performing or laziness? The pace is critically slowed in the final hour by Brando's presence, a time when a significant level of explanation would be appreciated (this isn't forthcoming). However, despite this, Apocalypse Now is a true film classic which demands to be seen on the big screen.

This film was nominated for review by David Whitten.


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