A new print of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now was released May 27. Always worth revisiting, the original cut’s immaculate re-appearance on the big screen, ten years after the Redux version was released, is particularly pertinent: this couldn’t be any more timely an indictment of American imperialism.
The film was made on the cusp between the New Hollywood, which had begun with the likes of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde in the 1960s, and the blockbuster age of Spielberg and Lucas. John Milius began writing the script as early as 1969; principle photography began in 1976. Much has been made of the film’s lengthy production, which is documented in the 1991 film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Apocalypse Now was directed by Francis Ford Coppola on the back of his first two Godfather films and The Conversation. With an estimated $31.5 million budget, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979; it won two of the Oscars for which it was nominated – Best Cinematography and Best Sound.
Roughly based on Joseph Conrad’s late-19th Century novella Heart of Darkness, the film lifts that story’s Congo setting and concerns itself with a river journey in 1968-69 from Vietnam to Cambodia. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned a classified mission to infiltrate the “camp” of a rogue Colonel, Kurtz (Marlon Brando), presumed insane. Accepting the mission, Willard journeys up river via boat; the narrative unfolds through his viewpoint.
Milius’s script affords itself a likeably disillusioned protagonist in Willard, to whom we can relate. The opening sequence juxtaposes the sound of a helicopter to the image of a ceiling fan: the specific with the everyday: horror with banal. We see flashes of imagery lain over one another in an hallucinatory series of images – from the outset, Coppola directs Willard’s world like some nightmare of long-ago memories.
Early scenes – those in which Willard is assigned his mission – have a deliberate, conspiratorial seediness to them. G.D. Spradlin and Harrison Ford play the General and Colonel respectively who brief Willard; Ford went on to be George Lucas’s (and Hollywood’s) recurring good guy, but here he recalls his own instrumentally menacing turn in Coppola’s The Conversation. The particular and final order given Willard by Spradlin’s General, is to “exterminate” Kurtz “with extreme prejudice”.
This scene gets to the heart of the film’s key theme: the hypocrisy on which the USA’s political conduct is based. As the film develops and Willard journeys further upstream, reading the dossier on Kurtz he’s been given, he grows more sympathetic towards him, towards his apparent insubordinacy, his decision to reject the “stench of lies” by which his own government exists.
As it becomes less noticeably a war film and more unique and otherworldly, Apocalypse Now‘s early absurdities – such as that almost satirical sequence in which a flight of helicopters led by Robert Duvall‘s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore attack an enemy village to the tune of Wagner – give way to a more generally scathing and disgusted attack on US foreign policy.
Today, the film couldn’t be any more clear an indictment of illegal foreign occupation, of conscription of the young, of the ongoing universal absurdies, travesties and tragedies of imperialist wars. It’s timely indeed.
The BFI‘s extended run of the new print ends Thursday June 9.
For more info and tickets, please visit the BFI website – here.