AFI Countdown Challenge #28: Apocalypse Now

I’ve never used marijuana.  It’s not for reasons of morality.  I just have never really been all that interested in trying the stuff.  I had plenty of friends in college who indulged, and they all respected my choices in this regard.  But hey, it’s not like I didn’t hear a dang thing about what people did when they toked up.  And yes, I was aware there were people who advocated getting high to watch certain movies.  That said, I couldn’t say I saw the appeal to do that.

Then I caught a good chunk of the middle of Apocalypse Now and thought to myself that were I ever to get high and watch a movie, it would be that one.

Can you blame me?  It’s an unorthodox choice, but there’s a level of surrealism to the entire film.  Much of what comes out of Apocalypse Now has entered the cultural consciousness, such that it was even parodied in an episode of Animaniacs, and it wasn’t like this was the only film that series parodied despite the fact it wasn’t something that the kids in the audience were likely to recognize.  The opening shots would be familiar to anyone who has seen Tropic Thunder, and the making of the film, complete with heart attacks, nervous breakdowns, costly delays due to weather, and the general eccentricness of Marlon Brando would make for a fine column by itself given that director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife was doing a “making of” documentary during the harrowing production of the film and caught all the general insanity on film.  However, I haven’t seen that documentary, and for this project I opted to watch the 1979 version despite having the “Redux”/Director’s Cut on my DVDs as it is.

But what about the film itself?  It’s a film that includes the poetry of the Doors and T.S. Eliot, rock’n’roll side by side with Wagner on the soundtrack, and a cast that includes the aforementioned Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and two men who played the Jack Crawford character in various Hannibal Lecter adaptions in the form of Scott Glenn and a very young Laurence Fishburne (the production was so long the 14 year old Fishburne was 17 when the film premiered, the same age as the character he was playing).

Adapting Jospeh Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Sheen stars as Captain Ben Willard, a man who doesn’t fit in in Vietnam or back home in a way that reminded me of the lead character in The Hurt Locker.  He’s tasked with a classified mission to go up a river into Camobia to find one Colonel Walter Kurtz, a Special Forces officer who seems to have disappeared into the jungle and gone insane.  Willard is himself a damaged man, and the more he learns about both Kurzt and the war itself, the more the audience can see that insanity is not a bad option for anybody.

Sheen, though third-billed, is the main character here, and while Sheen does a fine job with the role, he isn’t in a particularly flashy role.  His job is to witness the weirdness.  He’ll see a surfing-obsessed Air Calvary officer,  a cow being airlifted away from a battle, a Christian service with explosions going off in the distance, downed American aircraft at every junction, a TV director (Cappola himself) filming a battle while telling the soldiers to ignore the camera, a disastrous search of a local family’s junk, a floating USO show consisting of Playboy Playmates, and a nighttime bridge battle where the Americans have absolutely no commanding officer.  And that’s before he even gets to Kurtz.  The mission on the boat costs most of the sailors accompanying Willard their lives, with the lone survivor drinking the Kool-aid Kurtsz is offering.  Heck, Willard learns en route that he isn’t  even the first man the Army sent to kill the obsessive Kurtz.  The first guy joined in with Kurtz.

What, exactly, is Kurtz doing wrong?  Well, arguably, he’s winning the war on his own terms.  He’s getting results.  He’s just doing it without orders from anyone, and he may be more interesting in fighting the war than meeting his potential as a general.  Willard might actually respect Kurtz a bit.  At the least, he find Kurtz curious.  There’s good reason for it.  Brando showed up clearly too heavy to be any sort of commando, and as such Coppola opted to film Brando solely in the shadows.  Brando mumbles as he always does, and Willard, after seeing the last two members of his boat either go native or get killed, concludes everybody wants Kurtz dead, including Kurtz himself.  And considering the poetry-reading colonel doesn’t show up in person until the last 45 minutes of a two and a half hour film, that’s a mighty impressive feat.

But if there is one person who rivals Brando’s Kurtz for memorable moments, it would his Godfather costar Robert Duvall as LTC Bill Killgore.  He rivals Kurtz for memorable lines like how “Charlie doesn’t surf!” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” because it “smells like victory.”

Consider what we see of Kilgore.  Willard sees him as a man who will somehow get through Vietnam unscathed, an idea that seems to come true as Kilgore doesn’t even blink as things explode around him, watching other soldiers dive for cover and even insisting two guys go surfing before the enemy has even been subdued.  And why not?  The only reason he’s taking the beach in question, allowing Willard and his swiftboat crew to proceed up the river, despite the fact there are other places he could just as easily drop their boat, was because that spot had what might have been the only decent surfing spot in the entire country.  Kilgore spouts machismo, half cowboy and half surfer dude, and gets the job done without getting a scratch just as Willard figured.

As it is, Kurtz dies just as his tribe/cult commits the ritual sacrifice of a cow, and Willard can go home (if home is even an option for Willard) while trying to figure out what “the horror” is.  Regardless of whether or not Willard feels good about what he’s done, he’s an assassin, or at least, a man helping a cult leader commit an elaborate and highly symbolic form of suicide.  Considering Kurtz’s last written words seem to suggest that he believed nuking the country was the only real solution, we’re left to wonder at the state of Willard’s soul.  Was it Kurtz that ultimately makes him what he is?  The assignment?  The war itself?

Regardless, what I can say for certain is this may be the weirdest straight war movie I have ever seen, and it’s just fantastic as a result.

NEXT UP:  We’ve got a somewhat lighthearted crime drama from 1967, and one of my all time favorite movies:  Bonnie and Clyde.

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