Apocalypse Now (1979)

 This is indisputably one of the absolute finest war films in the history of cinema.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
1979 | USA | Drama/War | 147 mins | 2.39:1 | English, French & Vietnamese
M18 (passed clean) for disturbing violent images, language, sexual content and some drug use

Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Plot: A U.S. Army officer serving in Vietnam is tasked with assassinating a renegade Special Forces Colonel who sees himself as a god.
Awards: Won Palme d’Or & FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes); Won 2 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Sound; Nom. for 6 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Distributor: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Mature/Disturbing
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 12 Apr 2009
Spoilers: No


This film is massive and controversial, a one-of-its-kind which would have defeated almost any other director.  And judging by the insurmountable problems plaguing on-set shootings and post-production, it is a miracle that it even got made.  

Directed by multiple Oscar-winning filmmaker of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), this Cannes Palme d’Or winner marks the last high point of Francis Ford Coppola’s career whose movies in the 1980s and 1990s are uncharacteristically poor. 

Filmed in Philippines, shooting was to be wrapped up within sixteen weeks.  But it took almost a year, overrunning tight budgets, and sucking the morale of everyone involved.  Lead actor Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack and Marlon Brando turned up overweight and unprepared.  

A typhoon also hit the filming site, destroying most of the sets.  The chaotic production of the film is as legendary as the film itself and is documented in the acclaimed documentary – Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker Apocalypse (1991). 

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”, Coppola shares the screenwriting task with John Milius, and is nominated for an Oscar here.  

They capture the horrors and futility of war through the weary eyes of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is assigned the precarious mission to find renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and “terminate (him) with extreme prejudice”. 

Disguised as an adventure set during the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is a haunting trip into hell.  Both hypnotic and at times repulsive, the film has its fair share of flaws, but it remains to be perhaps the most powerful war picture ever made. 

“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘f—‘ on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

Besides an excellent display by Sheen, and the underappreciated performance by Brando, the other star performer is Robert Duvall who plays Colonel Kilgore whose line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is a classic.  Slightly charismatic but mostly mental, Kilgore represents the ideal that ‘to be loony in a world of madness is to be sane.’  

His order of a raid on a Viet Cong controlled coastal village in the second quarter of the film is a tour de force, an unforgettable set piece in war cinema which combining with Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, stunning cinematography and immaculate editing of visuals and sound gives viewers an overwhelming sense of awe, that they are witnessing something great. 

Apocalypse Now is made up of three major acts – the pre-mission, the journey, and the confrontation with Kurtz.  It is the last act that sums up the whole meaning of Coppola’s vision; a surrealistic, almost nightmarish encounter with a monster in his lair.  

Yet this very beast cajoles Willard and us into his labyrinth of philosophical thoughts, urging us to understand the reasons he has become the way he is, yet at the same time deflecting the absolute truth away. 

The best film to ever capture the reality of ‘Nam, Apocalypse Now is in my opinion a more potent picture than the three films that are always compared with – Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). 

Coppola has built such a staggering piece of cinema that its status as the top draw of its genre is rarely threatened…that is until Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick crashed the party in 1998 with the visceral Saving Private Ryan and philosophical The Thin Red Line respectively.

Grade: A+


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