‘Apocalypse Now’: THR’s 1979 Review

On August 15, 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now arrived in theaters. The film went on to earn eight nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards, including a nod in the best picture category, and claimed wins for cinematography and sound. After multiple rereleases over the years, the film ultimately grossed more than $100 million globally. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:

Francis Coppola’s long-awaited Apocalypse Now has finally arrived after production delays that included hurricanes, heart attacks and script problems that sent the costs soaring to $31 million. Although some critics, presumably based on a version screened earlier in the year (which I didn’t see), have already expressed some reservations about the film, particularly in its final confrontation with a shadowy Marlon Brando, I can only report that I was held by every minute of its more than two and a half hour playing time, and came away with the firm conviction that this United Artists release is one of the major films of our era.

Not only for what it says about the madness of war, which not everyone will agree with or even understand, but for Coppola’s sheer mastery of the art of providing a deep emotional and intellectual experience on celluloid. From the opening passages, in which the whirr of helicopter blades sound like weird jungle insects until we can identify them for what they are, the film is a virtuoso blending of visuals of nightmare intensity with sounds that produce an almost hallucinatory effect, while deep in the background, people are working, praying or dying, reminding us that these nightmares, these hallucinations are all too real. Coppola also has developed a penchant for long, lingering optical overlaps three or more layers of images simultaneously on the screen that lend a curious aesthetic grace to the horrors of modern, mechanized warfare.

Not that anyone could possibly accuse Coppola — who wrote the script of Apocalypse Now with John Milius — of being a war lover. Based very loosely on Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-century novella, The Heart of Darkness, the film is set in the final years of the Vietnam war, with Marlin Sheen as an American officer, who, like Conrad’s main character, Marlow, goes up-river to seek an in sane killer only this time, the river is in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the madman is renegade Army officer, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Sheen’s instructions are to “terminate his command.”

The journey itself, however, under taken on a small, heavily armed river boat is less an exploration of the heart of darkness than of the roots of madness. In a series of brilliantly staged set pieces, Coppola reveals war as the great dehumanizer. A strategic village dominated by the Viet Cong is ruthlessly destroyed by a gung-ho colonel (Robert Duvall), whose two concerns are the welfare of his men and the body count of the enemy — and, he makes clear, he considers all the “slopes” as enemies. (It’s typical of Coppola, and the film, that he doesn’t caricature this man. He’s the kind of fearless, mindless leader that most GI’s would like to feel was in charge.)

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The patrol boat arrives at another village housing an enormous American supply dump, just as a plane load of “Playboy Playmates” is being helicoptered in to put on a show for the men. Like the animals in a zoo, the performers are separated from their audience by a kind of moat. But when the Playmates’ dancing becomes too provocative, the GIs start breaching the barricade, and the performance is abruptly halted. With the zoo image as metaphor, Coppola suggests that war turns men into beasts — only they’re on the wrong side of the cages.

Farther up the river, there’s a bridge, festooned with lights, that the Army builds by day — “so the generals can claim that the road is open” — and the Viet Cong destroys at night. Sheen goes off in search of the commanding officer: “Who’s the commanding officer here?” he demands of a spaced-out rifleman. “Aren’t you?” the man replies. Nothing could sum up more succinctly the dispirited, disintegrated morale of our Vietnamese combat forces. In contrast, the perceptive narration written by Michael Herr (and delivered by Sheen) includes the observation, “The Vietnamese people have only two alternatives — death or victory.”

As they proceed onto the Cambodian border, the riverbank is littered — always casually — with crashed or burning planes and dead bodies, some American, some Vietnamese. In death, it doesn’t matter. And as a visual confirmation of this grow ing insanity, one member of the small crew (Sam Bottoms), a champion surfer from California, takes to painting his face and becoming increasingly spaced-out. (When we finally meet Brando, at one point his face is similarly painted. War is a madness that knows no rank, the shot implies.)

Sheen’s ultimate confrontation with Brando, a West Pointer who, by Army standards, has gone berserk, is also a set piece; but because it involves Brando’s own conception of himself, it is at once the most complex and verbal of them all, including an extended (and apt) quotation from T. S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men.” The gloomy temple that serves as Col. Kurtz’s headquarters is quite literally “the heart of darkness” — a charnel house whose armed guards murder at the whim of their leader. Rotting corpses and severed heads seem everywhere. One imagines that Jonestown was not dissimilar, with its people surrendering their will to a god of their own choosing.

In its dark recesses, heavy with the stench of disease and death, Kurtz attempts to explain himself to the man assigned to assassinate him. His philosophy has been shaped by his own experiences as a brilliant combat commander, a man dedicated to the art of war. This serves as a summation of episodes witnessed by Willard in his journey up the river — the soldiers’ blind faith in a leader, the sexual debasement of men without women, the mindless destruction of life and property on command and, above all, the cheapness of human life and the random casualness of dying. Kurtz has no special objection either to killing or to being killed; his only question is: who has the right to judge? And when he is subsequently murdered — hacked to bits by Willard in a sequence horrifyingly inter cut with a ritual slaughter of a caribou — his dying words, echoing Conrad, are: “The horror, the horror…”

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It is the final sequence that gives unity and meaning to a film that, in lesser hands, could easily have been simply a catalogue of the horrors of war. Coppola’s apocalyptic vision extends much farther. What he is investigating is the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (particularly those in the upper military echelons), and its sources in fear, cowardice, self-righteousness and naked lust for power. The Army doesn’t send Willard, a war-crazed murder-machine, to kill Kurtz because the man has gone over to the enemy, but simply because he is now a renegade living by his own rules. (Small wonder, under the circumstances, that the Army “declined to cooperate” in this production.)

I’m sure that much will be written in the weeks ahead about the incredible logistical and physical hard ships behind the making of Apocalypse Now, the details of which were concealed from the press as far as possible during the actual filming, as the budget soared from an original $12 million to $31 million. Perhaps Coppola felt that he didn’t want to reveal them until he was absolutely certain that his film would justify this tremendous expenditure of time, effort and money. The answer, to my mind, is a resounding affirmative. The print screened over this past weekend, lacking either opening titles or credits, ran two hours and 33 minutes, and not for a moment was its vision less than epic. (Incidentally, judging from the printed credit sheet distributed after the preview, the credits alone could easily add an other five minutes to the playing time.)

Top credit, of course, belongs to Coppola — producer, director, co-author and co-composer (with Carmine Coppola, his father). In each of these capacities, he seems to be test ing not only his own capabilities, but those of his chosen medium. If his talent is prodigious, his prodigality with it is even more impressive. It’s immediately evident in the many panoramic scenes of combat, filmed in wide-screen Technovision, in which each frame fairly explodes with action; and also in his use of Dolby-enhanced sound that puts one in the thick of the fighting at one moment and deep in the jungle fastness at the next.

But as the film progresses to the GI show, the attack on the bridge and ultimately the arrival at Kurtz’s Cambodian compound, we become increasingly aware that we are seeing a very special kind of imagery — where lights, settings and people are all meticulously choreographed, almost as an opera, for their fullest visual impact; while at other times, in the film’s more intimate moments, that same enormous screen may be filled by a single head — Sheen’s, Brando’s — peering at us directly through the lens of the camera. Vittorio Storaro’s delicately shaded photography, I hasten to add, is more than equal to every demand that Coppola makes upon it.

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I have always maintained that the mark of a great director is not the excellence of one or two performances, but the quality of the ensemble playing, and I offer Apocalypse Now as my ultimate justification. The cast is enormous, made up of both professionals and non-pros. But I would defy anyone to say which was which simply on the basis of performance. Brando, of course, bald and Buddha like, totally dominates the last half-hour of the film with his brooding intensity — a failing lion bereft of his pride and his strength, but still quite dangerous. It’s another addition to his vast gallery of memorable screen portraits. Perhaps even more astonishing, though, is Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the driven, cynical Willard, a man who has been at war too long to have a taste for any other kind of life, but who under takes his assignment at least in part to discover what it is about war that can turn a superior man like Kurtz (or himself, for that matter) into a monster. Sheen works with a total lack of self-consciousness, remaining always inside the character, staring out of it in disbelief and horror at the carnage and slaughter that surrounds him. It’s a performance that’s bound to be re membered at Oscar time.

But then, in all probability, so will such supporting roles as Robert Duvall’s all-stops-out portrait of a Texas colonel, wearing his cavalry hat into combat and issuing incomprehensible commands with a cigar perpetually clenched in his teeth; Albert Hall as the doughty commander of the river boat with all the presence required to hold together the members of his crew; Frederic Forrest as the most rational and reliable crewman aboard; and above all, Dennis Hopper in the curiously peripheral role of a demented follower of Brando’s a role that achieves substantiality solely through Hopper’s performance of it.

I regard Apocalypse Now as a masterful achievement, one that more than warrants the waiting. The only thing I fear, since it comes so late in the cycle, is that audiences may turn away from it as being just another movie about the war in Vietnam. It isn’t, any more than Conrad was writing about the cruelties of colonial exploitation. For both, the specific settings merely provided the staging area for their deeper concerns — an exploration of the motivating forces that might explain man’s inhumanity to man. Each has succeeded in his own way, and brilliantly. — Arthur Knight, originally published on August 13, 1979.