Been sharing some quality adult movie time with my ever-growing son (who is of course named after a movie character himself!) and decided to highlight one of our recently viewed selections here for the uninitiated…and those who need a firm film reminder – welcome to Forgotten Friday Flick! Today we delve right into “the horror” of war for a journey into movie madness. An iconic flick about an empty man trying to fill his inner void with his job – and gets more than he bargained for. Long boat trips, high-ranking gurus, hidden tigers, playboy playmates and napalm in the morning…it’s Apocalypse Now!
Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard is a soldier hanging onto life and sanity by a thread. Having seen and done horrendous things during his time in the Vietnam War, Willard has become a shell of man and finds himself lost with no home. He can’t cope being back in the US and recoils within when on foreign soil. But the one area he finds temporary solace is when on assignment and he is soon given a big one. Seems a high-ranking and decorated Army Special Forces Colonel named Walter E. Kurtz has gone rogue, presumed insane and is commanding troops inside Cambodia who see him as a demigod of sorts. His assignment – head deep into unchartered foreign territory and terminate the Colonel…with extreme prejudice.
The above sounds like a simple premise of dark themes and self-exploration, but it’s the mesmerizing tone of Apocalypse Now that makes it a truly memorable masterpiece. Right from frame one where we see smoke and helicopters slightly askew and hear the haunting sounds of The Door’s song The End there’s a promise of a journey into the unknown with harrowing results. Writer/Director Francis Ford Coppola isn’t afraid to linger long on symbolic images or the plight of people as they witness such graphic atrocities and it’s the cinematic strength of Apocalypse Now. We witness the horror through their eyes first hand and as such go from passive film viewer to a soldier thrust into the thick of the danger and despair – a feat for any film for sure. Coppola’s muse on his audacious odyssey is the stunning Martin Sheen, who plays the lost Captain Willard with a blank and emotion free hollowness that mirrors the happenings around him. His blank demeanor, quiet observations and hypnotizing narration makes him the perfect cold character to guide the viewer through the films’ unchartered waters and it marks the best work of Sheen’s career. There are of course memorable men he meets along the way including his fellow boat travel companions (one of which is a very young Laurence Fishburne!), surf obsessed and napalm loving Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore (a scene stealing Robert Duvall!) and even a wacky Zen American photojournalist Dennis Hopper (not exactly playing against type!), but this show is first and foremost an exploration and dissemination into the unhinged mind of Sheen’s Willard – a truly dark place to be. (Even the sight of three frolicking female playboy playmates brought in to boost military morale doesn’t faze him!)
In fact the only time the film dares to grow darker and Sheen gets temporarily cast aside is with the arrival of the film’s foe Colonel Kurtz. As portrayed by a portly and sullen Marlon Brando, Kurtz is an educated and seasoned vet who has completely gone off the deep end and his disturbing rants would shake any sane person to their core. It’s quite a performance and like all great actors Brando does so much with so little. It’s a testament not only to Brando’s keen chops, but to Coppola’s cinematic savvy that the character so often spoken of and the lead up to the films’ end game perfectly pays off – Brando’s Kurtz is well worth the wait.
Years later Coppola revisited his masterwork adding new footage and the like for an outing known as Apocalypse Now Redux, but with a wider canvas the film definitely looses some of its hypnotic holding power and as such feels less than effective. It’s the thick, rich and immersive quality of the first film that lingers long and makes the original Apocalypse Now one of the greatest war movies – if not one of the greatest movies – ever made. The only horror here is for those who never witness it’s wayward wares – see it. (Or see it again!)