Writer Recommends #6: Apocalypse Now Redux

Apocalypse Now: Redux is showing at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham on Sunday 19th September at 19:00, as part of a Dennis Hopper tribute season.

Little wonder that, following the unprecedented box office and critical success of The Godfather parts 1 & 2, Francis Ford Coppola was able to find himself in the Philippines with a huge amount of funding to begin his most ambitious movie project to date…Apocalypse Now.

This movie must feature on many a “movies you just have to watch” list; such is its universal acclaim.  The movie itself and the making of it have been dissected and documented to the nth degree: Heart of Darkness, a documentary filmed during the making of the movie (Heart of Darkness) is often reported to be superb and the Peter Biskind book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (a book and author I champion enthusiastically) are two sources to seek out for further detail.  But, if you haven’t seen the movie (don’t be so surprised; some people still have yet to see Star Wars or Jaws) or you haven’t seen the Redux version, what can you expect?  

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now follows Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on his assignment during the Vietnam War to track down and kill the AWOL and out of control Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

Capt. Willard’s mission is an epic odyssey that will take him deep into the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia as he searches for the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz; a man who has elevated himself to a god-like status with a devout and bloodthirsty following since abandoning his last mission.  Willard has demons of his own to battle; the horrors of war have taken their toll on him.  As he experiences differing aspects of war, right and wrong; he finds himself questioning what is good and evil in the world and what is good and evil from within the soul.

The movie is largely episodic; as Willard makes his way up river he encounters outlandish characters and situations along the way.  Each episode has an effect on Willard and helps him descend, or ascend, depending how you view it, to the same wavelength as Kurtz; a man who Willard feels he is getting to know and understand as his journey progresses.

Although set during the Vietnam War, I don’t feel it fits suitably in a war film category.  The subject matter goes far beyond the actions and consequences of a time of conflict and the vision becomes almost dreamlike or, rather nightmarish.  Despite the wanton destruction and carnage there is a view from a higher plane, as though the individual actions or merely part of a wider aspect of the human condition.  From the opening sequence where seldom has destruction become so beautiful the film continues to seemingly drift in and out of consciousness and delves into a meditation of life and death.

For all of this cerebral symbolism and contemplation the film does unravel a narrative that holds together a story that is easy to enjoy at its basic level.  I personally found that I enjoyed the film many times before I even began think beyond the plot.

Famously, the film contains an early appearance from Harrison Ford, but at barely 16 Laurence Fishburne (billed here as Larry) makes an assured start to his movie career and garners much more screen time.  They are more than ably supported by Frederic Forrest, Scott Glenn, Sam Bottoms and, of course, Robert Duvall in a scene (almost movie) stealing iconic performances that will bring “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” into your vocabulary and make you never listen to Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries in quite the same way again.  Dennis Hopper, in case you were wondering where he might feature enough to have this movie as part of a tribute to him, is utterly convincing as a burnt out war photographer who commits himself to Kurtz’s tribe, but always seems to be on the periphery.  Although relatively short on screen time, this is almost as good as it gets as far as Hopper goes as an actor: perhaps Blue Velvet and Easy Rider (more so as a director) only come close. 

The Redux version of the movie was released in 2001 and contains a whopping extra 49 minutes.  The most notable extra pieces are all of the scenes involving the French plantation and some extra scenes involving a further encounter with the Playboy bunnies.  I actually prefer the Redux version, for the main because it makes the overall experience last longer, but it also does help to add depth to some of the characters. 

This movie is a crucial piece of cinematic history from a time when the studios backed the director to the absolute limit and was rewarded.  Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate famously burnt the studio backing it so badly that this sheer arrogance, bravery and commitment to filmmaking has never since been emulated. 

Capt Willard: “Everyone gets everything he wants.  I wanted a mission and, for my sins, they gave me one.  Brought it up to me like room service.  It was a real choice mission and, when it was over, I never wanted another”

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