“The Horror…The Horror…” – Col. Walter Kurtz
Apocalypse Now is one of the most polarizing films ever made. While some may deride it as a mediocre war film from an egomaniacal director at the height of his power others laud it for it’s intense examination of the catastrophe’s committed by the United States in Vietnam in the style of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I believe that the legend of how the film was made should not be seen as a punchline but instead seen, sadly, as art imitating life.
Francis Ford Coppola’s legend as a director was already cemented when he obtained the rights to Apocalypse Now in 1974. The original screenplay was written by Coppola’s friend, John Milius in 1969. Milius wrote it after he was told at USC that no one had ever made a good adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Milius who had tried and failed to serve in Vietnam due to his asthma set about tackling what would become as stark a comparison to The Vietnam War and the disastrous European colonization of Africa that has ever been made. When Coppola took over the film he tried to make the adaptation to the book as literal as possible, even saying years later that he did not use a script on set instead just a copy of the book in his pocket. Coming off multiple Oscars for The Godfather, and The Godfather Part 2, Coppola was probably more powerful than any filmmaker on the planet and this is clearly what drove him to pull out all of the stops for his next project.
Most often when the film is discussed its achievements get lost under the legend of the director’s Heart of Darkness. There was even a documentary made about the film with the same title, pieced together with behind the scenes footage. It is easy in 2020 to look back and see that Coppola was the most powerful writer/director during a renaissance for writer/directors. Of all of the success that Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese would accomplish, it was Coppola who paved the way. This is not an excuse for the limits he pushed and literal dangers he may have thrust upon his cast and crew but to be sympathetic, he had no restraints. This is where sadly the art imitating life factor comes in. Coppola himself said it best at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” While the ego and audacity behind this statement angered many, and rightfully so, it is a devestatingly honest comment by Coppola and may or may not be a veiled shot at the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Certainly the film was but unfortunately, in this case more attention was paid to an egotistic director than a film whose message trashes the horrific actions of the most powerful nation on the planet.
The word ‘masterpiece’ gets used in movies way too often, no more than the current era. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and there’s no denying it. Sure Coppola bit off more than he could chew but what he was able to capture in some scenes was truly breathtaking in scale. The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ helicopter invasion. The PBR boat floating down the river into a burning sun, toward the ‘heart of darkness.’ Marlon Brando shot in shadow with his voice bellowing from the darkness. Even that is a cinematic feather in Coppola’s cap. Brando had famously arrived at production severely overweight for his character so the director decided to shoot him in shadow and half light to cover his size. The result was an even more haunting vision of Col. Walter Kurtz who appears as a wraith dressed in black and covered in shadow.
While this film may be remembered as a journey into the director’s Heart of Darkness it may also be the best film made by one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the art form. Most directors can never even dream of the type of power and freedom wielded by Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now and that is probably a good thing. Tyrannical behavior has no place anywhere including film sets. But strictly speaking, as a work of art, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.