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FIVE STAR FILMS #21: Apocalypse Now (1979)

With a famously horrific and documentary inspiring shoot it’s almost unfathomable how Francis Ford Coppolla managed to harness the chaotic energy into one of the most potent examinations of war and masculinity to ever grace celluloid. Winner of the Palme D’Or (the top prize at Cannes Film Festival) and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, let me take you up river to Kurtz and discuss the five reasons why Apocalypse Now enters the FIVE STAR FILMS pantheon.

1. Martin Sheen’s hotel room scene

Capt. Willard is a famously blank-faced protagonist; and for the majority of Apocalypse we’re occupying his headspace with that hypnotic narration. However, a dream Coppolla had on set that inspired him to capture Willard’s final evening of R&R in Saigon, as a prologue to his entire journey. In fleeting glimpses we see his soul exposed like an open wound as he binge drinks and breaks down. It’s even more powerful when you see how the scene was constructed in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. It was Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday, and in a totally intoxicated state, Coppolla unravelled Sheen on screen. It’s a demonstration of the different plain of existence Coppolla’s art was on at that time.

2. The Smell of Napalm in the morning

As Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ poured out of speakers of attack choppers to score their slaughter you find yourself hypnotised by the soldiers’ appetite for destruction (and production). It’s a powerful statement about the war and America, while the war was occurring. Oh and Robert Duvall’s a BOSS.

3. Tigers and Puppies

The literal journey up river turns psychological for all aboard in a confrontation with an escaped tiger and a massacre of an innocent farming boat, that sees all aboard steadily breakdown. None more fascinating than Sam Bottoms’ Lance who loses a grip on reality…and what happened to the puppy? did Lance BECOME the puppy?

4. Hearts of Darkness & The Brando Effect

Marlin Brando was due on set for the final three weeks for filming familiar with the Joseph Campbell’s Heart of Darkness and the preliminary drafts of the script cutting a svelte slender figure of a ‘Green Beret’. When he turned up dreadfully overweight, totally unfamiliar with the source material and spending hours consulting with Coppolla about the character’s motivation – a decision was made. Wholehearted improvisation, with cues and coaxing to build the antagonist of of the picture from the nothing that had been presented. What’s left is Coppolla’s mad genius and the hypnotic magnetism of one of the greatest actors of all time.

5. The poetry of slaughter

Coppolla wiled away the nights attempting to craft an ending to this epic at camp Kurtz when an epiphany in the form of a tribal ritual birthed the affective and ambivalent climax to this existential epic. It’s  beautiful, it’s grotesque, it’s profound, it’s perfect.

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here.

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