Apocalypse Now. – Thirty Two Years since it’s release

Written by J Owner
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Everyone has their ‘bit’ in the film don’t they? ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ ‘Who’s in charge?’ and ‘Saigon’

My own personal favourite is the young Larry Fishbourne (he was 14 when filming began; he’d lied about his age) dancing to the Rolling Stones as the River Boat sails along the ‘Mekong Delta’. The Stones were a big Afro American band in the Sixties, Richards himself often remarking how much of the audience would be ‘black kids’ and how it delighted them what with their own hero’s being the old blues men. That changed when the group became a ‘brand’ and Rap became the music of choice of most Afro American kids. Still, it’s there in the film, Larry funkily strutting his stuff to’ Satisfaction’. The most famous riff of them all blasting out into the thick jungle foliage, echoing eerily until it fades, the ultimate symbol of being a ‘cocky western teenager’ yet no competition for a jungle that proves to be the killing fields for the most advanced country in the world’s youth. All through the film the ever shrinking river and the growing jungle make you think of a heavy breathing creature, just hidden but constantly closing in as they travel deeper and deeper into VC territory.

Everything about ‘Apocalypse Now’ is extraordinary. The name itself came from a slogan adopted by Vietnam Soldiers and written on their helmets in response to the Hippy slogan ‘Nirvana Now’ that had become popular back home in the States.  If you don’t agree that it’s probably the greatest film ever made (a big statement I know, but bear me out) it is without doubt the bravest. The ‘making of’ Apocalypse Now is a whole film in itself (there are plans for a script apparently) with typhoons, heart attacks and real enemy soldiers to contend with. This film wouldn’t be made now. For a start it was too expensive for modern tastes. It was shot in the jungles of the Philippines and for this alone many of the acting heavyweights of the time counted themselves out (McQueen Caan and Pacino among them).  

The director Copolla said at Cannes after they premiered it, ‘We had access to too much money and little by little we went insane’. God bless two things for that. One was that America was still stinking rich in the Seventies (which as a result turned out to be the film world’s Sixties, if you get my meaning) and the other is cocaine. This film is literally about ‘Charlie’ made by ‘Charlie’. It’s aggressive, overblown, wracked with jerky energy but ultimately littered with mind altering genius.  I mean, in these days of budget control and (most soul destroying of all) ‘franchises’ can you imagine an overweight yet brilliant Italian American Director walking into a studio and saying ‘I’m gonna make an epic about the deeply unpopular war we’ve just lost, that saw us coming as close to civil war as any time since the 1860’s. There’s no real story, it’s just the journey of a man into the ‘heart of darkness’. No women or love interest, other than some Playboy bunnies, no happy ending and absolutely no hero’s and glorification of war. Instead it’ll be chaotic, paranoid, trigger happy and completely de humanising....just like the war itself’. You see what I’m saying?
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People often think that the main influence was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, in 1969 when John Milius was commissioned to write the first scripts by Copolla, the idea was to make it loosely based on Conrad’s epic about the journey of a river boat travelling into the Belgian Congo, but set it in Vietnam. The parallels are there, the name Kurtz and Brando’s brilliant speech at the film climax (The horror! The horror!), but actually, the film is mainly based on Michael Herr’s incredible book ‘Dispatches’. Indeed, after Copolla had shot the whole film he decided it needed a narration and so went to Herr himself who wrote the voice of Willard. It’s without doubt the greatest book ever written on the Vietnam War and it captures the astonishing feeling that the soldiers fighting were utterly different to any that had fought any in other war. Again there are narcotics to blame for this.

The Second World War saw the first use of amphetamine to keep combat soldiers awake, but it was the sheer scale of drug taking (especially on the American side) in Vietnam that actually changed the physical and mental behaviour of troops. In fact Milius’ first name for the film was ‘Psychedelic Soldier’. Herr, you see, was an official war photographer but he also talks about the human experience of being in Vietnam. He talks to us about specifically ‘American values’ that the soldiers fighting in Vietnam had. And not the values of Apple Pie and Democracy but America’s dark side, her underbelly. He saw them in a long line of men who’d been programmed to think and act a certain way. From the horse riding cavalry that had been so merciless to the Native American Indians through the Civil War to Vietnam. He talks about the American Government realising that, in the Second War particularly, a lot of the combat soldiers never shot to kill. They saw that the army, by recruiting too deeply into society had softened itself. What happened after World War Two and Korea was the training of killers. And Herr tells us that it was these killers (more often than not Marines) that were in the jungles of South East Asia. Now the philosophy behind this was sound, but in practice what of course we now know happened was that soldiers started being unable to differentiate between the enemy and civilian populations.

Add to this an enemy that had a philosophy of seeing themselves as ‘Water’. Impossible to stab or shoot, then you have a recipe for a pretty ugly conflict, and this is what the film Apocalypse Now managed to capture so brutally.  Kurtz for instance is based on a Special Forces commander called Tony Poe who would drop enemy heads from helicopters into VC positions. Marines famously collected ‘ears’ from enemy dead and would wear them around their neck. The saying of the war became ‘Get Some’ as the soldiers fired into whatever or wherever they believed the VC were, regardless of who was actually really there. Pretty horrific to us living in our safe European homes but all the books I’ve mentioned (Heart of Darkness and Dispatches) and of course the film show us how quickly we can all descend into this dark side of nature. Much as Golding tells us in Lord of the Flies, it really doesn’t take that much to tip from our civilised comfortable world and the film (while never judging) is a good lesson in how real, devastating and perfectly natural for many of us this it can be.

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From the start we see Martin Sheens character (Willard) in Saigon. Drinking to dull his senses, the man talks obsessively about ‘Charlie’ (that word again, and now I’ve mentioned it you’ll notice the clever references to it right through the film) getting stronger. While he gets weaker. Sheen himself (an extraordinary actor, criminally underrated in my book) gave himself to the part in a way that would make De Niro blush. It was Harvey Keitel that was cast originally, but Copolla felt he didn’t quite have Sheen’s demeanour of a passive onlooker.  Having a heart attack that nearly killed him during filming he talks quite openly now about never wanting to go to that kind of place again, but I’m so glad that he did, because all the way through Willard is ‘us’ looking at war. His eyes and expression is in a constant expression of..’Is this actually fuckin’ happening?’

From the moment he boards the boat there is a detachment from the events around him. An almost out of body experience that makes me think of the people who talk about watching themselves being given life resuscitation.  The stunning moments like when the jungle tribe shoot darts at them (first world armies fighting in the third world) and of course the Playboy bunnies. What a genius piece of filmmaking that is. All those soldiers psyched to the eyeballs on violence, drugs and death so what do they do? Why of course drop a few Playboy bunnies in for them. And how sexy are those girls? Even watching from your own living room or the cinema. They’re Seventies women with tits and asses, before the days of fake breasts, skinny legs and ribcages. The music too. Susie Q the band play, in that groovy Sixties way, as the Playboy Bunny fires her pistol at the soldiers, egging them on across the moat. And then they’re gone, taken off by the horse of the modern war, the helicopter, the soldiers left to fight and wank themselves stupid, more frustrated and aggressive than ever.

Every time there is some fleeting touch with the ‘real world’ as Vietnam soldiers called anything other than the jungle, it’s quickly broken. Like a dream you’re quickly sucked back awake and on that river boat chugging ever deeper to Kurtz and the heart of darkness. In ‘Dispatches’ Herr talks about the music the Marines played. He says they’d be on the infamous ‘Khe San’ base. A marine encampment completely surrounded by enemy, their only contact with the outside world twice daily helicopter landings (always under attack from the VC) and they’d have to just watch the jungle outside the perimeter fences all night. They quickly learned that it was the silence, not even the shapes they could see that was the most unnerving, so they did what soldiers have always done when scared, they sang. And then they set up sound speakers to play music. And not just any old music but Hendrix, The Doors, The Beatles and Dylan. And so the jungles would echo with songs kids the same age as them back home were listening to in the colleges, clubs and at the beach. And this was another thing that Capolla captured all through the film, the astonishing soundtrack of the era.

Capolla himself was becoming obsessive at that point. There’s a wonderful moment in HBO’s brilliant ‘Entourage’. One of the exec’s in one of the huge studios laments about the people who really cared, the true mavericks not being there anymore, in Hollywood. ‘I wish I cared as much as others’ he tells Vince and Eric as they rave about a script, ‘But I watched Francis almost give his life to Apocalypse, and I could never do that, but I loved him for it so much’.  And the evidence is there. It’s shot like an epic. Capolla famously said after it came out, ‘My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam!’. Just the landings on the beach with the forever famous ‘Smell that son?’ Duvall speech (voted the greatest piece of dialogue ever, just pipping ‘It was you Charlie (oop there it is again, that word!) are like some of Huston’s epic western set pieces. Just so extraordinary in the scale of what he was trying to achieve.

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Thousands of actors, crew and (just to make it a bit more complicated) formation helicopters! He’s obviously been heavily influenced by European Film makers like Fellini but no one can over shoot like Francis and he’s even in there himself! As the Marines land on the beach Willis looks astonished as a news camera crew wave them past shouting to them, ’Don’t look into the camera!’ and there he is, Capolla himself, bearded, heavy, shouting with the voice of someone who is just filming everyday with no idea where it will all end. I mean in the Edit Suite the man must have had footage coming out of his ears, and it shows. In these ‘reality’ days of shooting everything in one take, it’s like a lesson in high art. Many of the so called ‘Superstar’ modern day Director’s works are like comparing Damien Hurst to Da Vinci when you watch to Apocalypse Now. Even now when I see  it, just the way it looks and what is filmed takes my breath away, I mean, the lit up bridge where Willard asks, ’Who’s in charge?’ just watch the way the neon phosphorous light dances around them in that black jungle darkness. (Stone stole this constantly for Platoon). It’s creepy to the point that you can barely look, and you have to ask, what must that have done to the men that actually lived through it?

Well the answer comes with Colonel Kurtz. Brando had turned up horrendously over weight (Kurtz in the story was meant to be lean and sinewy) but it didn’t matter. Denis Hopper (now famously) played the American Photographer based on ‘Sean Flynn’, son of the actor Errol. Flynn became hugely respected by American soldiers in the war as he’d often end up firing at the enemy with them on jungle patrols. He had no ideals one way or the other and was what they call in modern terms an adrenaline junkie. In Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ he mentions a cold detachment coming over Flynn the longer the war went on followed by bubbling manic outbursts. They even used this when Hopper talks dementedly at Willard as he arrives at Kurtz’s base. Flynn also suffered with the psychological  ‘soon as we’re home we wanna go back’ pattern behaviour that many vets also had.  

Flynn finally went missing in Cambodia in the early seventies. He was on a shoot for Life Magazine but was thought to have been taken captive by Kama Rouge. Coppolla was (like many from his generation) obsessed with the photographers like Flynn who became almost suicidal in their quest to get the best ‘shot’. I think Copolla himself became like that with the film only they weren’t quite the real bullets flying over head that Flynn had to put up with. Hopper’s character has the very distinctive look that Flynn had through the war (bandana, jungle style combats) but Hopper’s character has obviously flipped into the Kurtz world or the heart of darkness. As the film climaxes (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it!) we can see that Brando and Capolla are trying to make sense of a Cold War journey that began in Berlin in 1945 and had ended up in this jungle hell. The red lighting and feeling of sweaty cloying heat is a very Christian vision of hell too, but Capolla is a good Italian Catholic at heart and no one can quite capture that image better than him and his countrymen since the Vatican first started sponsoring art! In fact he even tells us that he was influenced by the ‘Divine Comedy’ by Dante for these scenes, I mean can you imagine a modern day Director actually saying that now? In all it’s a dark, unforgiving end to a truly extraordinary film. It had taken 18 months to shoot (most films take six weeks) , they’d gone through several crews, seen their lead actor come close to death yet the result is without doubt the most breathtaking piece of cinema ever.

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Even now, it’s the bench mark for all war films. And while others like Spielberg and more recently Tarrantino have tried the genre, nothing can come close to this for the way it depicts the chaos of war. A mate of mine who’d served recently remarked about World War War One veteran Harry Patches comment that war was ‘organised murder’. ‘He’s kind of right’, he said to me, ‘But it’s actually unorganised murder’. Nothing captures that sentiment better than this film. If you haven’t seen it then please do, just because they had never made a movie like this when it was released in 1979, and haven’t done so since.

© Words – Jonathan Owen

Read 3298 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 16:44
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