Love Letters: “Apocalypse Now”

Love Letters is my biweekly series of essays about the movies I adore. Sometimes they’re good films, sometimes they’re great films, and sometimes they’re trashy films. But I always love them unabashedly, and want to share with you what I feel makes them special. Less reviews and more glowing examinations of what I obsess over, Love Letters is meant as much for fun as it is to spur discussion.

“Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon.” With those words we open into one of the greatest movies of all time. I say that with only the most limited sense of hyperbole as Apocalypse Now rather handily carves out its place in American cinema.

We open with Willard (Martin Sheen) stuck in a hotel room in Saigon, drifting between assignments and going mad locked in his own head. He’s a man who has already seen ‘the shit,’ a man who we are introduced to mid breakdown. He’s tortured, driven to some unstable place by the war raging around them, looking for any new task that he can throw himself into.

He’s given that assignment: go deep into the Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Kurtz, a decorated American soldier who has apparently gone insane and started fighting his own war with his own makeshift army. When he finds him, he is to kill him, by any means necessary.

Thus begins what can only be described as a nightmarish trek through the theater of the Vietnam war. I say nightmarish not as a descriptor of how horrible everything they come across is (though that is true) but because of how the film plays out. Apocalypse Now has all the lucidity of a long, bad dream, a nightmare in the literal sense that Willard drifts through towards his eventual goal.

One of the men who gives Willard his mission is a startlingly young Harrison Ford.

It’s easy to liken the main bulk of the movie as a pilgrimage of sorts. Willard starts out ready to be a good soldier and do his mission. He commandeers a boat and crew and heads up the river towards Cambodia. He’s immediately thrust into situation after situation where we are presented with various aspects of the war, slices of life that play out like dark absurdist tableaux.

Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is the commander of a squad of helicopters. Needing his help to getting past a Viet Cong position at the delta of the river he needs, Willard convinces Kilgore to attack only when he finds out a member of Willard’s boat crew was a professional surfer back in the states. Col. Kilgore is all about surfing, and the waves off of the position Willard needs taken are great for surfing. As Kilgore says when he makes up his mind to take the area, “Charlie don’t surf.” What other reason does he need?

Colonel Kilgore, ready to surf, evangelizing the smell of napalm.

The attack plays out like a microcosm of American military force in the later 20th Century. A fleet of helicopters, blaring “Ride of the Valkyries,” descends on a sleepy Vietnamese village at dawn. The impressive fleet gives way to a scene of children quietly playing in a courtyard. Then we hear the same music, far distant, swelling rapidly, before we ever hear or see the choppers. The American military does not sneak. It doesn’t need to. It steamrolls and presents, putting on a show for the natives it proceeds to slaughter, Kilgore ordering men to dress in trunks and get in the water while mortar shells are still going off around them.

Willard wonders to himself how, if this is how the war is being fought by those still in the good graces of the military, any man could go far enough to get sentenced to death like Kurtz has. But through the letters and recordings we hear about Kurtz, we’re given an image of a man who seems like he should be a war hero. He doesn’t present as insane in Willard’s file, he presents as capable and driven by some unwritten desire that’s beyond the scope of the army.

Yet as they go further and further up river and see the war play out around them, Willard wonders more than once whether or not getting out of this madhouse to set up shop isn’t the only sane response. They come across a USO show in progress, Playboy Playmates strutting on a stage for howling GIs. It dissolves into a stampede, as the men try to get at the women with such ferocity that they cling to the helicopter the playmates escape in. There is no sanity here.

The voyage up to Kurtz’ domain is a long one, and as they head upriver they’re presented with more and more death. Some of Willard’s crew mates are killed in firefights with natives or with unseen enemies. Bodies are left floating in the river from battles we never see. Planes loom out of the water and the dense jungle fog like monuments to a lost civilization. 

We finally come upon Kurtz’ camp at the very end of the film, Willard and his remaining crew worn down to something more primal by their journey. One of their members squats on the edge of a boat, leaf on his head, looking more savage than the natives. Willard seems reduced to a base state, brought through his insanity to something more curious and thoughtful. When he meets with Kurtz’ men, they already know why he’s here, but all Willard claims to want is to talk to Kurtz.

Which brings us to the man himself. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a man we’re presented to as more mythic than flesh and blood. He looms out of the darkness, towers over every shot he’s in, monolithic and seemingly unknowable. But he does not present himself as an evil man, despite the claims to the contrary. He presents himself as a man struggling with a moral dilemma. He has seen so much war, so many atrocities, that he’s left obsessed with this notion that by being tortured by all the death and suffering he’s somehow not strong enough. That he lacks the moral conviction needed to do what is necessary.

What transpires between Willard and Kurtz is less a traditional climax to a film like this but instead a more personal examination of humanity and morality. It plays out in this nebulous space between surrealism and the base reality of the jungle, set among the ruins of a Cambodian temple. The resolution here isn’t one of action, but of the spirit.

And that’s really the strength of Apocalypse Now. It’s a movie less concerned with telling a story in the Vietnam War and more interested in allowing us to experience the feel of the war through something more impressionistic. Willard is little more than a passive observer for most of the movie, and we are reduced to a similar role, bearing witness to any number of terrible things, of amazing things, as we head deep into the similar dark place Willard finds himself.

In this Martin Sheen is perfect. It’s a very insular role, all visible emotion on the screen and none in the dead voiceover he provides. He’s a man barely contained within himself, but it’s all insular. It is a terrifyingly honest role. Something that feels so immediate and familiar. It is in stark contrast to Brando’s Kurtz, who seems part magic and all mystery, a man who is never going to be puzzled apart, who we are asked to judge but never given enough to judge on. He is the rock upon which all this rests, and Brando bears that weight well.

There is another cut of Apocalypse Now, of course, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Apocalypse Now Redux, released years after the original, is 40 minutes longer and wildly different in tone. The movie plays out less like a spiritual journey and more like an intellectual one. Willard’s river trek becomes an extended history lesson in Vietnam, as the military rolls back to the French who had occupied the country in the past, and then further back into the indigenous history.

It’s a different enough movie that it should be considered on its own merits. The answers one gets, the emotions one feels, are entirely different in this movie. I enjoyed it far less, found its mysteries a little less compelling and many of its additions a bit too labored, but I have no doubt a person’s mileage will vary on this one. It’s certainly the more lucid film, showing its hand a lot more and losing much of its fevered tone. It is clearly obvious, whether its good or bad, that this new cut was put together by Coppola long after he had forgotten the gut emotion of being in the jungle.

Support from the Philippine military makes the scope of the production incredible to look at.

Which brings me to my one other suggestion. There is an extensive documentary on the incredible, troubled production of Apocalypse Now titled Hearts of Darkness that is as much a part of this story as the movies themselves. Coppola really took a whole crew into the jungle and went through an experience that left all of them scarred by it. It’s not only interesting from a film production standpoint, but by a human one, to see the director slowly unravel in interviews and recordings made on set as the pressures mounted and time took its toll. Nobody seemingly comes out of it untouched, and most of the cast are interviewed and recall it much like soldiers would recall their own experiences in war.  It only drives home the reality of the film that much more to see it play out on a meta level.

It’s easy to look at a movie like Apocalypse Now and discount it as an obvious choice to like. It’s a movie that’s since its release become one of the cornerstones of American filmmaking. And I have to admit, I looked upon viewing this as something that would likely be more of a chore than an enjoyable experience, something I did to know rather than to love. But what all the legacy and hype doesn’t tell you is how front to back awe-inspiring the movie is. I’ve never seen anything close to it in terms of scope and ambition. And I’ll never forget it now. Nobody escapes from Apocalypse Now untouched in some way. There’s no going back from the jungle.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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