I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ for the first time at 15 and it was one of the very first and one of very few movies that give me a strange feeling of well-being and comfort. There are several different reasons the film succeeds in doing this; first is the musical score. Traditionally, the music in American cinema is overstated: it attempts to carry or convey the emotion of the scene but often exaggerates the feeling – (‘Platoon’ is an obvious culprit that comes to mind.) However, the music in ‘Apocalypse Now‘ fits with each scene in total synchronisation with the photography, and the feeling that each scene wants to convey is not spoon-fed to you or over-explained by the music, instead it blends with it perfectly. Even some of the dialogue is in tune to the music, giving much greater weight to Martin Sheen’s voice – each time he says “jungle”.
Another reason the film is so effective is the acting. Despite having a wealth of heavy-weights on show such as Robert Duval, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen and even a young Laurence Fishburne, none of them overact. Martin Sheen plays the broken vet to perfection; his real-life alcoholism and depression may have been a factor in just how realistic his portrayal was (and indeed we should take note of the stroke he suffered during the shooting.) As for Duval, he is such a talented and a versatile actor that he lights up the screen at every appearance, his performance exemplified by his order- “Charlie don’t surf!” The real deal is Brando though. The man plays himself, or better yet what he will become in later life, with vicious intensity – a madman wrestling with an irrepressible psychological contradiction. The sheer magnetism he was able to draw from this internal conflict, unbeknown to himself, is surreal and borders on insanity. In each movement he is unpredictable and terrifying, his voice is sad, yet commanding, vulnerable yet purely hypnotic. However, his introduction is cast in mystery, through the shadowy stone walls he inhabits he is impossible to grasp. The constant shift between light and dark in his scenes are an obvious method used to establish his character with subtlety. The story behind this use of light is that Brando didn’t know his lines, so his texts were hung on the walls and hidden in the shadows – also explaining the constant movement of his eyes. The suspense throughout the film as we know that the two most magnetic performers on screen (Sheen and Brando) are destined to collide is another charm in a film which boasts many.
With regard to the film’s thematic prowess – it is masterful. It could be argued that the themes dealt with in ‘Apocalypse Now’ are overused in American war movies as the idea of war-as-hell has been seen is several films (notably ‘Full Metal Jacket’). Despite this, ‘Apocalypse Now’ transcends those themes to become a standalone work of art that pushes these ideas to their limits. The helicopter attack and the scenes at Kurtz’s hideout are particularly crucial to highlighting this push through the normal as they showcase the ability to take the film from a state of calm and release it into an alluring and heightened sense of lunacy. Yet, somehow the film feels highly realistic – hell is not depicted as the setting; hell is the infernal struggle through madness – the madness of the U.S. sending troops to Vietnam, the madness of the army’s self-destruction, the madness of Willard and Kurtz. What becomes abundantly clear as the film progresses is that this façade is beginning to fall away; each character is beginning to understand that this contagious madness is oozing out of every corner, and they will have to either embrace it or be demolished by it.
The technical perfection of the film is possibly the most important factor in how successful it is. Although it doesn’t strive to be calculated and meticulous in the vein of a film like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ it still creates a firm and distinct sense of place. It purposefully opts out of a cold style of filmmaking full of static and anxious framing, and instead offers a variety of tracking shots inside a setting of deep oranges that create a feeling of warmth and belonging. The viewpoint used in most of the scenes offer a place for the viewer inside the movie, aided by the cautious movement of the camera and the deliberate placement of the actors around the camera; each shot can display an entire landscape. The openness of the photography widens each frame, presenting a vivid reflection that captures the horizon within the shot. It performs a balancing act between its natural and human components, the exaggerated psychological drama and over the top action sequences.
In addition, it is interesting to note that the people at Kurtz’s hideout were real indigenous people that agreed to share their ceremony with the crew; and what may be even more unsettling is that the bodies in those scenes are real too. ‘Apocalypse Now: Redux’ is the must-see version, the shorter take lacks in substance as it cuts the devastating Baudelaire recitation from a young French kid, which is a true high-point of the film. While the redux version is far longer it truly encapsulates Coppola’s vision, it displays a level of technicality and bravery that is truly unique in cinema. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a film that drifts up-river in a mesmerising and seamless state, from one illusion to the next, one hell to another…