Apocalypse Now is a modernist novel made film in more ways than one. The opening montage is a palimpsest of a Dante-esque, napalm fuelled hell, with Martin Sheen’s blank Hindu stare inverted and staring back; all to the sound of The Doors basically announcing ‘in the end is my beginning’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. It won’t be the last quotation.
From the mission-inciting Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) quoting Lincoln to Dennis Hopper’s veritable golden treasury of verse (Kipling and Eliot again), Francis Ford Coppola litters his film with literary associations like an anxious host leaving books scattered artfully around an apartment before a dinner party. In fact, the camera drifts over Kurtz’s bedside reading – From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Both books were vital to the writing of ‘The Wasteland’, almost as if Kurtz is Eliot and ‘The Wasteland’ the poem he is writing around himself, shoring up his fragments. He reads a stanza of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, tactfully neglecting the Conrad quotation at the front of the poem which reads ‘Mistuh Kurtz, he dead’. In searching him out, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) will basically read himself up the river, as he pours over the files and narrates with the jaded literary tone of Michael Herr’s tersely perfect Marlovian (though Chandler, more than Conrad) wit.
The film is based on the key modernist text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola reiterates in every audio commentary and documentary (see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991) that he took the book to the shoot instead of the script; that he read Brando the book from cover to cover as a way of getting him into the role; that he increasingly saw the book as his inspiration rather than the more straightforward war movie screenwriter John Milius had envisioned. (Ironically, Conrad also began writing basic adventure yarns, before making a move for something altogether more ambitious with this enigmatic novella.) Coppola was also aligning himself with Orson Welles, who had famously failed to adapt Conrad’s book for his debut film, the first of what was to become a string of tantalisingly failed projects. What’s more, his self-aggrandising myth valorises the confusion and chaos of the production as part of his process: every film Coppola makes somehow takes on the modus operandi of its subject and so Apocalypse Now becomes Heart of Darkness, becomes Vietnam.
Putting the rumbling of the gigantic production to one side, the film is actually a remarkably tight and accomplished piece of work – especially when compared to the flabby, dissipated and unnecessary Redux released in 2001. After the hallucinatory, drunken visions of the opening, the film takes a brisk cold shower, lays on some riveting exposition and gets on the boat – and of course the boat, called the Erebus (not Marlow’s more prosaic Nelly), like the Orca in Jaws and the Pequod in Moby Dick is a symbol/cross-section of male America. On board, we have the relaxed, spaced out and utterly untrustworthy Lance (Sam Bottoms), the jumpy New Orlean Chef (Frederick Forrest), the black youngster Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chief Philips (Albert Hall), the father figure and conscience. Sheen’s Willard, on the other hand, is basically ‘American involvement in Vietnam’ embodied. He’s the reason they’re all where they are: he’s the one who refuses to turn back and he remains ambivalent to the purpose of his mission, unsure of whether he will fulfil it or not but morbidly, cynically fascinated by the journey. In this, he resembles Kinski’s Aguirre on Xanax, viciously unconcerned about the damage he is causing, casually murdering a wounded unarmed woman merely to speed up his mission. His wistful unperturbed gaze at the horrors and the self-satisfied rightness of his narration – ‘charging someone with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ – makes him the cool appraising judgement that Brando’s Kurtz is so neurotically afraid of. Willard has found the total freedom that comes with obeying orders (especially orders that don’t officially exist) and he has come to murder the more agonised freedom of Kurtz’s, making it up as he goes along. ‘You disapprove of my methods?’ Kurtz asks when they meet. ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ Willard waspishly responds.
Despite ‘the horror, the horror’ of Kurtz’s mad excess, Apocalypse Now is an unrelentingly beautiful film. Following David Lean’s lead in the famous poppy field scene in Doctor Zhivago, Coppola realises that war can be both brutal and gorgeous. The Ride of the Valkyries is justifiably regarded as one of the best sequences American cinema has produced, but Chef’s search for mangos and Lance’s LSD inspired wandering with Willard in search of a commanding officer are just as dazzlingly filmed. When Lance disposes of the chief’s body, the corpse almost dissolves in the molten and golden light of the river. The darkness is aesthetically luxuriated in as Brando’s wonderful pate dips in and out of it like warm water. And Kurtz himself is a knowingly theatrical presence, whose set decoration is too avant-garde for the authorities, but who at least has the opportunity to script and direct his own leaving of the scene.