I watched this years ago. I was probably 12 or 13 and probably too early to be able to make any sense of it really, i remember the imagery, the insanity, Brando mumbling something about “the horror”, and how that guy loved the smell of napalm in the morning. That’s this movie’s greatest strength really, how some part of it will linger with anyone who watches it.
Its had to have been almost 10 years since i last saw it fully, and i was curious to see how i would take it now. So in it went and here we are.
Adapting the story of Heart of Darkness, we follow Captain Ben Willard as he takes a boat up a river that leads all the way up through the insanity of Vietnam War to kill Colonel Kurtz. A man who has indeed seen the heart of darkness, and has never looked back.
Segments like the opening of the film showing how Willard spends his nights and Kurtz’s assassination are testaments to how much power there can be to a well done montage. The images of Martin Sheen slowing slipping off the map have been seared into my mind since the first time i watched Apocalypse Now. Indeed the entire film is a triumph of atmosphere, as it is so relentlessly oppressive that its no wonder that almost everyone in the film can be considered crazy.
Memorable performances abound as well, with the aforementioned Sheen giving certainly one of his most memorable performances. Supporting players Robert Duvall and Albert Hall are also solid in their respective roles with the former lending a sense of overwhelming detachment to the surrounding violence, and the latter being the only real sane person in the entire rotten situation.
The film’s atmosphere is so incredibly well done it manages to almost mask how plodding and disjointed the actual story of the film is. I find that after the helicopter attack, the film’s structure devolves into a series of increasingly depraved episodes emphasising how the act of war brings out the absolute worse in people, that are only connected to one another by the river that runs through it all. While the narrative structure itself lends to the creation and maintaining of the tone of the film, it does make it almost a chore to sit through.
Only when the crew reaches their destination does the plot seem to pick up again, but this only leads into my pick for the film’s biggest failure; the anticlimactic reveal of Colonel Kurtz. Throughout the entire film Kurtz hangs over the production like a shadow, and he’s built up to indeed be the heart of darkness himself. Sheen’s voice overs examining the life of this man manage to tell us everything about Kurtz and yet reveal nothing. The growing horrors of the river only intensify the desire to know what indeed led Kurtz to throw his life away and live in the jungle.
After hours of waiting and hours of magnificent atmosphere, we are treated to an incredible disappointment. Kurtz is revealed to be a grossly overweight Marlon Brando babbling inconsequential nonsense and hiding in the shadows trying to act the boogie man. I can’t even put my thumb on what went wrong or how to fix things. Kurtz is swathed in the shadows but for some reason all sense of mystery is gone the moment he talks. His most interesting scene where he describes the mutilation of village children comes far too late to stop the disappointment of how underwhelming he is. I find no grand sense universal hopelessness or ambiguity from Kurtz, to me he’s just a guy who saw too much crazy and went crazy himself.
In fact that can be said about the entire production itself, there’s no ambiguity in its message. Almost everyone in the film can be considered crazy or detached, Lance one of the gunners on the boat goes crazy for no reason (other than that he is a surfer from California), explosive violence is always on verge of breaking out, and the insanity of war is hammered home with all the subtlety and impact of a rail gun.
This single minded and bull dogged approach leaves no room for me to contemplate any other moral from the film. There’s nothing here in the film other than screaming that war is awful, and particularly that the Vietnam War was bat shit crazy. I suppose to people who lived through the Vietnam War this is perhaps precisely why the film is heralded as a masterpiece. To someone like me however, who is completely and totally removed from that war it just makes me bored.
I’m honestly torn as to what my final thoughts are about Apocalypse Now. Taken as an example of how the language of cinema can be used to thoroughly unsettle and impact a viewer there is almost no better example. Indeed the film is a masterpiece of horror and insanity. But its failures are so large in my mind that i simply can’t give it the rating that its tone alone would deserve.
So i won’t.