A pox on your lips, now! Blasphemous, I know. "The horror. The horror!" Francis Coppola's visionary epic is more than just another antiwar film. Inspired by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," it is a tortured journey into the deepest recesses of the human heart. It strips away man's veneer of outer respectability, tearing aside the psychoanalytic mediators, the ego and the superego, to penetrate the white-hot burning id of the inner soul. Or something.
After a brilliant opening sequence in which a helicopter is heard circling completely around the listening area, its blades finally merging with those of a rotating ceiling fan, we meet Captain Willard, a burnt-out Special Operations officer and trained government assassin. Played by Martin Sheen, he is a man on the brink, a fellow about to plunge into nonexistence unless he is given something to do, some new challenge to meet. His deliverance comes in the form of a classified mission to the interior of Cambodia to kill a renegade American colonial during the height of the Vietnam War. Or, in military parlance, Willard is to "terminate" the man "with extreme prejudice."
The target of Willard's mission, Colonial Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, has supposedly gone over the edge; he is said to be "unsound." He has taken his company of soldiers into Cambodia where he reigns like a god over his followers and destroys whatever he considers the enemy. Willard is told that Kurtz's "dark side has taken over what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature." Apparently, he has gone insane, and Willard must find and destroy him. The deeper Willard goes into the jungle, the closer he gets to hell.
Memorable scenes abound. A young sailor is water skiing behind a patrol boat in enemy-held territory. A television crew is filming an actual battle, its director (Coppola in a Hitchcock-like cameo) urging the participants to "just go through and don't look at the camera." A flamboyant, half-lunatic Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who seems to think he's General Custer, orders his helicopters to attack an enemy position with loudspeakers blaring Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," loves "the smell of napalm in the morning," and will go anywhere to surf! A USO show plays in the middle of nowhere, with rock impresario Bill Graham offering the troops a trio of Playboy bunnies. A nightmarish final outpost, with no one left in command and lit up like an amusement park, is Willard's last refuge before reaching Kurtz.
At the end of the river he finds his man, his kingdom, and his followers. Kurtz has become a ruler, a deity, cult leader, and, like so many cult leaders before and since, he induces fanatical loyalty in his people. He is at once horrid and repulsive and yet strangely hypnotic and sympathetic. His sycophantic supporters, a wacked-out civilian photographer (Dennis Hopper) among them, do his every bidding, including the most bizarre atrocities. Still, Willard finds it difficult to carry out his prime objective. There is something too familiar about Kurtz, too logical, too close to home. Kurtz is, of course, a part of us all, the inner beast. Willard comes face to face with himself. When the deed is finally done, has Willard rid himself of his demons or become a new Kurtz? While pondering that question, one can reflect on the rest of the cast; look for a young Harrison Ford, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, and Larry (yes, Larry) Fishburne.
"Apocalypse Now" was the first important film about the Vietnam War, the first to be set there, and the first to show the stupidities and insanity of the conflict. But it is not without its flaws. Brando's mumbles and ravings go on too long and are sometimes indecipherable. Nor is there any explanation for his preoccupation with heads. No explanation is given for Willard's having to risk his life to find Kurtz by way of a long, circuitous, and torturous river ride through the jungle, while the Playboy bunnies are dropped in overnight by helicopter.
And no explanation is provided for how a mail bag of recent news, correspondence, and sealed orders is suddenly delivered in the midst of enemy country to Willard's little boat! Best not to ask. Psychological dramas require lengthy journeys of self discovery.
Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, supervised the film's transfer to DVD at Coppola's own facilities. The 1.85:1 ratio widescreen picture is excellent, clean, clear, unblemished by age. It is not as bright as I thought I remembered it from its theatrical showing, but it conveys a proper atmosphere of war and devastation.
The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also excellent, delivering good five-channel surround effects, good dynamic range, and thunderously deep bass.
Among the disc's bonus items is a clarification of the controversy concerning the film's conclusion. For years there have been rumors that the film had two endings. Coppola tries to explain that that was never the case, but he ends up admitting that the film has had actually three endings! As it turns out, the cause for the confusion was never the story's ending at all but, rather, the closing credits. When the film was first released in its 70mm limited run, it had no opening titles or closing credits; the audience were simply handed programs upon entering the theater. When the film went into more extended distribution in 35mm, the program idea became impractical and Coppola had to include the credits on screen. His first thought was to superimpose them over scenes showing the destruction of Kurtz's camp, scenes he had filmed but never used in the movie. But then he worried that these scenes would mislead audiences and detract from the film's final message; so at last he showed the closing credits over a solid-black background. For those viewers who'd like to see the bombing of Kurtz's compound, Coppola obliges with the original footage; or one may watch the closing credits over black as an option. Otherwise, the film is presented as it was first seen in theaters, with no titles and no credits.
"Apocalypse Now" is a combination of Altman's "M.A.S.H.," Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," Dante's "Divine Comedy," and, of course, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." It is part satiric exaggeration, part psychological exploration, and part surrealistic horror story. On any level, it's worth watching.