Apocalypse Now –- Film Analysis
Francis Ford Coppola’s long overdue, substantially over-budgeted, $30 million Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now, was finally released in America in the summer of 1979. For director Coppola, the film threatened to become a personal Waterloo –- both financially and creatively. Originally budgeted at $12 million, Coppola risked his own assets, by borrowing $18 million against his homes, yacht, properties and residuals on prior films, in order to complete the project. He also seemed to lose control over the direction of the film, at one point admitting, “the film was making itself”, and it is easy to draw parallels between difficulties in concluding the movie and those encountered in ending the actual war (Dowling 28). But Coppola survived the risky artistic adventure. Partially due to Coppola’s reputation, and partially due to public expectations that Apocalypse would be the ultimate Vietnam film, the movie did draw enough people to the box office to prevent financial disaster. In fact, the film became a financial success. However, substance is another matter, and it is unlikely that Apocalypse Now will ever be considered as being among Coppola’s better works.
For a relatively long movie, two hours and ten minutes, the plot remained rather thin. The theme Coppola developed was that America’s Vietnam involvement was insane – a journey into madness. At least, that was the intent. Originally, the script was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but it was reworked to such an extent that any recognizable connection evaporated. While Coppola did portray insanity and madness, these qualities sprang from the nature of the characters he chose to create, and were not strongly linked to the purpose or nature of U.S. involvement in Vietnam -– which was not even touched upon in the film.
The theme was developed largely around two characters: Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz, once a Green Beret with a top service record, had apparently gone stark raving mad. He had set himself up as an exalted leader of a primitive band of Cambodian tribesmen, and began following an independent path of murder, for reasons known only to himself. Willard was ordered to venture upriver into Cambodia, track down Kurtz, and assassinate him.
Coppola added thoughts, in Sheen’s voice, to the sound track in order to develop Willard’s character. But Willard never really becomes more than a man with a mission, as the film proceeds through a series of scene changes which convey the violence and contrasts. His character develops in the following scenes: from a room in Siagon, to a helicopter a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village, to a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies, to aimless drugged-up soldiers lacking command, and finally to kurtz’s kingdom in the jungle.
The structure of the film was based on these contrasts. Neither Willard nor Kurtz had any relevance to the scenes, except for the concluding phase of the film, which brought the two together. The helicopter assault on the village was simultaneously the most spectacular and most unbelievable scene in the film. Actor Robert Duvall played an air cavalry officer who ordered the attack. He insisted on blasting stereo-phonic music on the approach, to scare the hell out of the villagers. The technology and weaponry used in the attack was awesome, as villagers were literally pulverized. And then, before the battle had fully ended, Duvall directs some of his men to hit the surf – surfboards and surfing in the midst of a jungle battle in Vietnam? Coppola’s attempt to show insanity everywhere, independently in each character (instead of showing the war as official insanity) went too far from reality. He must have intended the surfing scene as a joke, assumed that his audience would be sufficiently insane enough to believe it, or suffered a bit of madness himself.
Coppola did capture a general insanity of war – graphic death and destruction always seems insane. He also captured one aspect of insanity specifically related to the Vietnam war: the incredible contrast between somewhat primitive peasants and the modern U.S. military, high technology, drugs and rock-and-roll, and Playboy Bunnies. It was insane for spaced-out American boys, so accustomed to luxury and decadence, to be fighting, killing and dying for causes they knew nothing about. Unfortunately, Apocalypse Now sheds no light on those causes, and that was the biggest flaw in the film.
The film does not touch on the official insanity of the war, to differentiate it from other wars. Certainly the Vietnam War inspired acts of independent madness, but overall the U.S. involvement was not a matter of thousands of independent madmen, each carrying out detached acts of insanity. For the most part, officers were directed, and followed orders. Coppola failed to even hint at why we were there, or that the decisions that put us there were insane. If a film about World War II were designed similarly, we would witness death and destruction in the absence of any reference to Hitler or Hirohito, without mention of Pearl Harbor, totally without case or purpose. That is the essence of Apocalypse Now. If anything, Coppola avoided exploring the most important insanity of all – public acceptance of violence as a legitimate policy tool. It is this that allows government officials to instigate a slaughter in an illegitimate cause, and escape criminal sanctions; it is this that inspires young men to report to active military duty, even when national security is not at stake.
Despite flaws in substance, Apocalypse Now does reflect technical innovation and cinematic brilliance. The filmmakers had to struggle against all kinds of extraordinary events: an earthquake, typhoons, and Martin Sheen’s heart attack. These occurrences added to the film’s costs, but Coppola continued to push for realism. During the two years of filming in the Philippines, sets had to be reconstructed after being destroyed by the weather (“A Bet on Apocalypse Starts to Pay Off” 42). Lavish sets were constructed for the helicopter assault scene and for Kurtz’s Cambodian compound. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is credited with brilliantly capturing the impact of the assault and Kurtz’s eventual murder (Rich 57). Of course, he had considerable technical assistance: for one part of the assault scene, when fighter planes were supposedly dropping napalm on snipers, thousands of gallons of gasoline (strategically placed were ignighted. The impact was overwhelming – the screen virtually exploded in red fame and black smoke. An equally powerful effect was captured during the incoming charge, when blasting classical music was blended with chippers as the tension peaked, and the audience could not help but be convinced that something awesome was coming (if not death and destruction, perhaps God).
When Willard finally killed Colonel Kurtz, the footage was interspaced with the ritual slaughter of a carabao, an Asian water buffalo (Rich 57). Although the animal slaughter dominated the action, and somewhat obscured what was happening to Brando, the shift in action, (from buffalo to Brando, to buffalo, to Brando, to buffalo) was effective. It linked real violence and real death to acting death. Also, it was a technique that Coppola had used earlier, in The Godfather during Michael’s revenge, and he considered it a useful creative tool at a point of climax.
The Philippine jungle provides ample reality of setting for much of the shooting, but action was another matter. Actors and stunt men were called upon to undertake many risky ventures, from dangling from helicopters to touching off explosives (Dowling 28). Storaro captured the events on film for Coppola, who managed to add a touch of reality by coming up with things like authentic Vietnamese beer from the 1960s for simulated portrayals of Siagon.
The creative input did not end with cinematography. Coppola originally wanted more of a superstar to play Willard’s part, and felt that Sheen might not have the personal appeal to carry off the part. So, he hired journalist Michael Herr to construct the narration that would be later added to the sound track, in an effort to add depth to Sheen’s portrayal of Willard (Rich 57).
Another innovation of sorts resulted from Coppola’s constant tinkering with the film. He actually ended up with two different versions of the film – at least, two different endings, and more than one version of the score and narration (Dowling 31). Was this creative innovation or a matter of confusion on Coppola’s part? It is difficult to say, and it is not clear whether Coppola himself knew why the film turned out this way. He did say that the film was making itself, and he also admitted that he really “didn’t know how to end it” (Dowling 31). It may be that he is such a film genius that he was seeking perfection; on the other hand, he may be a good filmmaker who truly bogged down, was not happy with his product, and began reaching for some way to salvage his less-than masterpiece.
In any case, Coppola used the different film versions fairly creatively. Against recommendations by his distributors, he entered the unfinished “work in progress” in the Cannes Film Festival. He intentionally kept the film’s content as secret as possible, to increase speculation. But it was a risky venture – after such an enormous personal investment, if the unfinished film were negatively received, it could have doomed the film’s prospects in the American market. However, Apocalypse Now was jointly awarded the “best picture” along with a German movie, The Tin Drum (“A Bet on Apocalypse Starts to Pay Off” 42). Even though those who saw the film were divided over whether they thought it was a masterpiece or a disaster, the Cannes victory was partial success for Coppola.
He then committed the film to another unique exercise: he gave it a test market trial in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C. (at the White House, where President Carter and top officials viewed it), and viewers were given questionnaires designed to help Coppola made decisions about editing the final version. This sort of innovation is common in product markets, but rare in the film industry. It is unusual that the innovation came from Coppola, who has been critical of film marketing, and who has referred to the “horrible cancer of marketing” (Dowling 31). Even after reviewing these results, Coppola planned to release two reversions, with the different endings, in the U.S. in the end, he did manage to preserve his personal fortune and reputation. Apocalypse Now is a film that shows artistic daring, but which has numerous flaws.
Business Week. “A Bet on Apocalypse Starts to Pay Off”. June
Coppola, Francis Ford. Apocalypse Now. United Artists, 1979.
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Rich, Frank. “The Making of a Quagmire”. Time. August