Apocalypse Now has always been preceded by the legendary stories of its troubled production, one of those cursed film enterprises (The Exorcist is another) whose backstories are almost as entertaining as the final product itself : in this case, weathering a typhoon that wrecked the sets; earning condemnation from the American Humane Association for filming the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo; Francis Ford Coppola attempting to direct Marlon Brando at this stage in his career; various haphazard budget overruns and casting adventures (e.g., Harvey Keitel dumped at the last minute for Martin Sheen, who subsequently suffered a heart attack during the shoot); and continuing delays in its release that ultimately earned it the nickname Apocalypse Later. All of this and more are detailed in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which makes a worthy companion piece for a night of Apocalypse Now.
The final result is hardly a flawless picture. Attempting to transpose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to America’s Vietnam adventure, the whole thing is very nearly torpedoed by Brando’s arguably unbearable performance as Col. Kurtz in the final hour, and it’s often marked by an almost narcissistic tendency to amp up the drama of scenes beyond what they can support. Yet for all that it contains numerous unforgettable sequences, such as the mission led by Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore to take the point of a river and drop Capt. Willard’s (Sheen) boat past a point of danger on his mission upriver. Watch for the Coppola cameo as a TV news producer in this sequence, attempting to direct the visuals of the military action, and look for how much is going on in any one of these scenes, with their tracking shots and explosions and helicopters diving into the action and amphibious vehicles leaving the water, and Duvall calmly striding through all of it. In those moments, it is riveting as spectacle.
One element that drew me to Apocalypse Now in the first place continues to draw me back, and redeems it still: the participation of Michael Herr, who gets a writing credit for “narration.” Herr is the author of the book Dispatches, a collection of journalism from Vietnam in the ’60s and early ’70s. Herr’s book is largely responsible for establishing the strange, hallucinatory, and death-fetishizing understanding most of us have now of that military enterprise: details as simple as the ubiquity and omnipresence of helicopters, or as profound as the alienation of Americans who refuse to give up the pleasures they know such as surfing and acid-rock, even under fire, can be traced to his work.
Herr’s sensibility haunts everything most central here: the breakdown of chains of command, order giving way to chaos, a loss en masse of moral compass. “Do you know who the commanding officer is here?,” Capt. Willard demands of the soldiers he encounters in a nighttime scene, dug in and attempting to return fire on the jungle from a single assailant unknown by anything but his taunting voice. One soldier slowly takes Willard’s measure. “Yeah,” he finally says, and then deliberately turns to walk away.
There’s nothing small about Apocalypse Now. It’s done on the grand scale, and for that reason as much as any other I find that I now prefer the so-called Redux version, released some 10 years ago, which adds nearly an hour to an already long movie. It remains for me still the one great Vietnam picture by which all others are measured.
JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.