After reading Maria Lewis’ recent FIVE STAR FILM interview with Liam Cunningham and thinking, ‘wow, me and Davos are like this’ *crosses fingers*, I decided to revisit my own Five Star Film submission for Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. I was ashamed. I re-read this spartan little stitching together of captions that barely scratched the surface of the psychedelic, existential war epic. It was the PowerPoint presentation of what should have been an in depth exploration into the generation defining work. So, like Coppola himself, I’m revisiting and ‘REDUX-ing’ one of our five star film entries, to ensure that it is paid the dues it deserves. Let’s get to it, with extreme prejudice.
With a famously horrific and documentary inspiring shoot it’s almost unfathomable how Francis Ford Coppola managed to harness the chaotic energy into one of the most potent examinations of war and masculinity to ever grace celluloid. Winner of the 1979 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 (Sheen) is a famously blank-faced protagonist and for the majority of Apocalypse we’re occupying his headspace with Sheen’s mellifluous, hypnotic narration. However, (as documented in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse [HOD: AFA]) Coppola had a dream where a Green Beret officer was telling him all the things that were wrong with his conception of the character of Willard. This dream soldier said that he would be vain and would admire himself in the mirror. Willard’s final evening of R&R in Saigon, the prologue to his entire journey, was constructed to reveal the dark recesses of the assassin. Sheen recalls asking Francis: “Who is this character?” Francis replied; “He’s you…whoever you are right now.” Coppola whips Sheen into a frenzy telling him to admire himself in the mirror and look at his beautiful mouth and hair. When Coppola challenges Sheen to frighten himself something unexpected happened. Sheen explains: “I was so intoxicated that I didn’t realise how close to the mirror I was, so when I struck it I ended up catching my thumb in the mirror and split it open a bit. Francis tried to stop. He called for a doctor, there was a nurse standing by and I said no…let it go I wanted to have this out right here and now. It had to do with facing my worst enemy, myself. I was in a chaotic spiritual state inside. I fought him like a tiger…” In the final construct on screen we see his soul exposed like an open wound as he binge drinks and breaks down. Naked, covered in blood, his eyes resembling exploding stars or black holes it’s a revelatory performance of an unravelling man. The scene explodes like a volcano and simmers like magma beneath Willard for the entire film.
2. The Smell of Napalm in the morning
As Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ pour out of speakers of attack choppers to score their slaughter you find yourself hypnotised by the soldiers’ appetite for destruction. Laying waste to an environment and leaving nothing but desolate, scorched earth became cool in that moment. It’s almost as if the fact that this powerful statement about the war and America is even further embedded into your mind because it’s quotable. Regular collaborator Robert Duvall struts into the film with a bravado and swagger that was instantly iconic.
Kilgore (Duvall): “Smell that? You smell that?”
Lance (Sam Bottoms): “What?”
Kilgore: “Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. [kneels] I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like [sniffing, pondering] victory. Someday this war’s gonna end… “
Duvall’s character, Col. Bill Kilgore, was loosely based on author and syndicated columnist Col. David H. Hackworth’s exploits in Vietnam. Hackworth like Kilgore commanded a helicopter Air Cavalry brigade in which pilots actually wore Civil War campaign hats and painted attack helicopters. It’s both frightening and fascinating in equal measure this exaggerated character actually has grounding in fact.
3. Tigers and Puppies
There are distinct moments that detach you from reality. The first of which is Chef’s run in with the tiger. Frederic Forrest’s Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks gets off the boat with Willard for some exploring when a presence draws them further into the jungle. In the blue grey dusk light they stalk the undergrowth, sweat beading over their faces. A shadow appears and both men freeze, thinking that they must have been drawn into a Viet-Cong ambush. Instead a tiger bursts forth from the brush roaring at some new prey. They tear out of the jungle screaming to the heavens. This is Chef’s last straw. The boat has become their life and this final exchange with the wild is his breaking point. Watching him curse his maker for this predicament is just thrilling. A withdrawal to drugs is the only answer.
The second moment that turns this literal journey up river into a psychological one is the massacre of the civilian trading boat. This scene was meant to be a representation of the shocking 1969 My Lai Massacre, where a U.S. Army division killed approximately five hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians. This genocidal act gave napalm to a flame of anti-war dissent on the home-front. When a gesture lost in translation results on the boat being shredded by gun fire, they investigate and discover that one of the civilians was merely going to protect a Labrador puppy in a wicker basket. Bottoms’ Lance vault into oblivion and in a surreal turn embodies the innocent inquisitive state of the puppy. In fact in HOD: AFA Bottoms states that Lance becomes the puppy…
4. Hearts of Darkness & The Brando Effect
“Are my methods unsound?”
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 Conrad’s imposing ‘Green Beret’. When he turned up dreadfully overweight, totally unfamiliar with the source material and spending hours consulting with Coppola about the character’s motivation – a decision was made. Wholehearted improvisation, with cues and coaxing built the antagonist of the picture from nothing. Shrouded in shadow, the bald headed Brando collaborated with Coppola to deliver one of the most famous film monologues of all time. It’s such a raw, exclusively facial performance and the hypnotic magnetism of one of the greatest actors of all time erupts off of the screen. Only that gargantuan shoot, the trials and tribulations that had caused drastic weight loss, several mortgages on his home and 27 million dollars of budget on the line did Coppola’s mad genius ascend.
5. The poetry of slaughter
Coppola wiled away the nights attempting to craft an ending to this epic at camp when his wife Eleanor encouraged him to watch the local Cambodian tribe’s customary sacrifice to bless their involvement in the film. The epiphany in the wake of this tribal ritual birthed the ambivalent climax to this existential epic. If the film shoot had not have been in a country with non-existent animal cruelty laws, or Eleanor had not have drawn Coppola out of his writing cave he may never have seen this sacrifice. One could wax lyrical on the poetic destiny of what occurs but it simply doesn’t do it justice. It is beautiful, it is grotesque, it is profound, and it is perfect.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola (Michael Herr – narration) based on the novel by Joseph Conrad (“Heart of Darkness”)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper
Marlon Brando … Colonel Walter E. Kurtz
Martin Sheen … Captain Benjamin L. Willard
Robert Duvall … Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore
Frederic Forrest … Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks
Sam Bottoms … Lance B. Johnson
Laurence Fishburne … Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller (as Larry Fishburne)
Albert Hall … Chief Phillips
Harrison Ford … Colonel Lucas
Dennis Hopper … Photojournalist