Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now comes with no shortage of legends surrounding its creation. It would be easy for the film to be dwarfed by the lore it spawned, another Ishtar more renowned for its over-budget failures than its successes. Yet where Coppola was unable to rein in the physical process of the filmmaking, he nevertheless rooted out the pulse of the movie in the editing. Consequently, in a movie famous for bombastic sequences such as the helicopter attack set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, the chilling senselessness with which the act is carried out remains clear.
There are a number of objections one might raise, not least of which is the relative banality of the received message (Roger Ebert, in his excellent review of the film, writes that it “essentially contains only one idea or message, the not-especially-enlightening observation that war is hell”). Some are able to forgive the unoriginality of this observation by relying on the masterful staging. It’s a simple thing, but the closely cropped image of protagonist Willard (Martin Sheen), huddled over in the dark, in a small boat cruising down a river in the jungles of Vietnam, sweat coating his face while he reads a dossier about Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando)–the man he’s been ordered to kill–contemplating the mission in whispered voice-over… it’s marvelous. Even in otherwise superfluous scenes, like the moment where a tiger attacks Willard amidst the choking foliage of the evening jungle, the mood set by the blue moonlight, the soft sound of twigs crunching underfoot, the tension apparent in the air–it’s not difficult to understand why one would have difficulty excising scenes with such effect, even if they are virtually useless to the narrative, overall.
Personally, I wasn’t bothered by the well-worn sentiments to which the movie’s metaphors apparently relate, but for an entirely different reason. To my mind, the movie as a whole was filtered through the experience of Willard – hence the repeated use of voice-over narration. The interpretation came to mind after an early scene where Coppola himself appears, filming the action! Of course, the movie doesn’t specifically state that he’s the director of the film we’re watching, suggesting instead that he and his crew are journalists there for the scoop. “Don’t look at the camera!” Coppola orders. “Act like you’re fighting!” In this day and age, the idea of making a movie-within-a-movie has become a trope (Tropic Thunder, in fact, mines an Apocalypse Now-type movie for this exact effect), so it’s an easy mental connection to make. While I don’t think there was an intent to suggest that the action of Apocalypse Now isn’t really happening…
Well, actually, yes. That’s exactly what I think.
What I mean is that I viewed this jarring occurrence as a manifestation of Willard’s perception about the war, i.e. that there’s a level of artifice to the whole enterprise. This reading becomes further apparent, to my mind, during the vignette wherein Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) has his men attack a village for the sole purpose of securing the beach for surfing. The image of U.S. soldiers attempting to surf the waves while bombs and bullets continue to fly around them is too absurd to take seriously. I see that as by design, as in this exact situation isn’t necessarily actually playing out; rather, some version of it is–some version where lives on both sides are sacrificed for a meaningless advantage, which Willard merely imagines in this particularly preposterous way. Of course, there’s no real need to think of these scenes as being the product of the character’s imagination in order to admit the metaphors inherent in them. Nevertheless, I think this reading helps to ground the metaphors to some degree. On its own, naming a sadistic character “Kilgore” is pretty uninspired (according to IMDb Trivia, the character originally went by the far more insipid “Colonel Carnage”); but if we suppose that Kilgore may not be the character’s actual name, but rather a descriptive way that Willard, as our window into this world, has chosen to identify him, it helps some of the tediousness to abate.
This reading becomes particularly concrete when Willard has to go around a final bridge before getting to his destination. The scene is transformative: aside from the garishly lit bridge, the rest of the area is pitch-black. Slouched down in a trench, we can see the faces of men only in brief flashes of gunfire. Discordant carnival music caps the chaos of the scene, making it it seem a literal representation of the point where madness comes closest to taking control of our protagonist’s mind. It’s an unflattering dance on the very thresholds of Hell, where the enemy isn’t just hidden, but totally invisible and unreal. The scene, like many that adhere to this interpretation of the events of the film, flirts with an abstraction that could tumble into meaninglessness without a firm hand controlling. This is exactly the trap that Terrence Malick fell into with his war-philosophy project The Thin Red Line, which leans to heavily on symbolism that it ends without any idea of what it’s trying to symbolize in the first place.
This is also the trap that ultimately ensnares Apocalypse Now. To be fair, legend has it that Marlon Brando arrived not knowing his lines, refusing to abide by the script, and nearly 100 pounds overweight – some concessions had to be made to make his appearance work. But, despite some differing accounts, my understanding is that the puzzling conclusion to the film (involving bewildering references to T.S. Eliot) was intended from the start. Not only is it unsatisfactory on a philosophical plane, in a purely narrative sense it’s an unbelievable let-down. The movie builds its way to Colonel Kurtz, building him up as something larger than life. When he does appear, it is brief and unengaging. Perhaps the idea was that Kurtz wasn’t particularly extraordinary; that the deadening effect the conditions of war had on Willard made Kurtz into something unexciting, despite his barbarism. But then, I sincerely doubt this rationalization was ever considered. It seems far more likely that the ending fell flat of its own accord.
In all, it might be safer to say that Apocalypse Now works better in part than as a whole, but that may be too limiting. Much of the film is great. Even in the face of potentially lackluster themes, the actors and the set-up of the scenes themselves make for remarkable viewing. The length of the film is troublesome (2 1/2 hours), and it likely could have been cut down. But overall, I think the only serious misstep is the finale. It undercuts the rest of the movie on both a narrative and conceptual level by being entirely underwhelming, and it is only by virtue of the strength of what came before that the ending doesn’t retroactively draw the whole enterprise into question.