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Something Different.

I had to write this review for ‘Apocalypse Now’ for class.  I hope you like my observations.

Apocalypse Now

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Francis Ford Coppola’s controversial 1979 psychedelic reverie Apocalypse Now set amidst the horrific jungle of madness – the Vietnam War successfully presents the ‘conflict in every human heart… showing that good does not always triumph.Critics fail to realise that Coppola’s intention was to use the Vietnam War as a backdrop to explore identity and moral corruption. He intended to make ‘a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma… I wanted to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars’ (Hagen 1993, p230) and he has. Apocalypse Now is a surreal nightmare, delving into the hearts of morally conflicted men, a psychotic overload to the senses with a provocative anti-establishmentarian undertone.

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Apocalypse Now begins with an extraordinary juxtaposition, a cinematographically rich montage of explosives and iconic imagery representing the war in Vietnam. A stunning visual cataclysm superimposed over Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) conveying a man at war within himself. Kauffman argues that ‘the film falls short of what it might have been’ (Kauffmann, 2001) because of casting choices. Coppola’s first Willard was to be played by Harvey Keitel but after a few weeks of shooting, Coppola was ‘disappointed by Keitel’s characterisation of Willard, because ‘he found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker.’ (Kauffmann, 2001)’ Even after firing Keitel and hiring Sheen to play Willard, critics still argue that Coppola’s lead character (Sheen) had a performance that was ‘pallid and flat’. (Kauffmann, 2001) This is a statement hardly credible after witnessing the convincing opening sequence of the film where Willard (Sheen) is a man lost, consumed by darkness and severely intoxicated.

Coppola uses soundtrack brilliantly thought-out the film and here ‘The End’ by The Doors provides and ethereal dark poetic soundscape as Willard drowns himself with alcohol, establishing him as a heavily conflicted character and hinting at the films impending descent into the surreal. ‘Kinder analyses the scene to show its importance in defining important structural elements for the whole film: the subjective point of view, a surrealistic or dream-like war, a dispassionate voice-over narration, a mad ritual of violence, and simultaneous layers of experience that tend to dissolve into obsessive images of heads, helicopters, fire and smoke.’ (Hagen, 1997, p. 233)

After this chaotic scene Willard is visited by two soldiers who escort him to a meeting with General Corman. Willard is played a voice recording of Walter E Kurtz (Marlon Brandon) an officer with a brilliant career who was to be arrested for murder. Willard is assigned a top secret mission to travel up the Do Lung River to Cambodia to assassinate Kurtz. Willard is mesmerised by the voice of Kurtz on the tape, ‘I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving.’ Willard’s voice over reveals an increasing fascination with Kurtz and this builds tension as it becomes obvious that he is starting to understand and admire him and will be reluctant to complete his mission.

Willard now finds himself aboard The Chief’s (Albert Hall) boat a Navy PBR with a crew of several vital characters who greatly enrich the story of life on the boat, each vividly representing a different stereotype. ‘The crew was mostly just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves’, Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks (Frederic Forrest) a man wrapped to tight for Vietnam, Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) a famous surfer from the beaches of southern LA and Tyrone ‘Clean, Mr Clean’ Miller (Lawrence Fishburne) a seventeen year old from some ‘South Bronx shithole’. These characters contribute greatly to the success of the film as most of the film is seen through the eyes of Willard and is mostly internal monologue developed though the voice-over.

Hagen Suggests ‘Satirical elements often sit uneasily with the realistic ones due to Coppola’s anti-documentary intent’ ( Hagen, 1993) and this is evident in the Kilgore sequence, as the crew arrives on a beach, with the sound of B-52 strikes in the distance, the sky an orange hazy blur and from the beach the distinct sound of chaos. Willard and the crew disembark and find themselves faced by a legion of fanatical film journalists one of whom is played by Coppola himself, urging them not to look at the cameras and to continue as normal.

Amidst the chaotic scene the infamous Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) descends from a roiling black mess of clouds in a helicopter with ‘Death From Above’ emblazoned in red on its nose. Kilgore a man in his element then prances about the carnage with a deck of cards almost gleefully dealing them to corpses, acting gallantly toward a Viet Cong holding his guts in with a ‘pot lid’ until he notices Lance Johnson and anything remotely warlike is forgotten as the conversation turns to surfing. A cow is airlifted from the scene and a priest is giving a holy communion are images that convey the surreal nature of the experience.

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After discussing the mission, Kilgore is to escort the crew to Do Lung Delta. Coppola and crew have quite possibly orchestrated one of the most magnificent cinematographic moments in film history. Helicopters in perfect formation resembling a lethal swarm, descend upon what seems to be an innocent village – school children dressed in white, farmers and peasants going about their lives, all to the sounds of Wagner’s ‘Ride Of The Valkyries’ as their village is annihilated by the Americans. This is followed shortly after with Kilgore crouched on the beach and the memorable exclamation “You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning… Smelled like – victory.’ He then laments ‘Someday this war is gonna end’ Coppola has given us insight in to the mentality of the warmonger.

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Apart from the stunning cinematography and an intensely deep screenplay, the film as Kauffman suggests ‘falls short of what it might have been’ (Kauffman, 2001, p.23). Kauffman thought this largely due to the casting of Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando both of whom he felt were disappointing, but in retrospect it may have been the restraints and pressures put upon Coppola to finish the movie. His film was an incredible fifteen million dollars over budget and he had even mortgaged his own personal property as a guarantee to the films distribution company United Artists, so he could complete the film.

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Despite what some critics say about Apocalypse Now, if Coppola had the available time to fully realise his film it would have been undoubtedly a masterpiece. The film presented is visually stunning and extremely thought provoking, perhaps had it been released in a society where people could see beyond the Vietnam facade, they would see the underlying story of moral corruption in humanity.

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