Apocalypse Now (1979)

I once started watching Apocalypse Now. It was an astounding picture full of fantastic colors, marvelous cinematography and a great dreamscape feel. But as I kept watching, the film became more and more tedious, more and more drawn out, more and more indulgent of moments that didn’t seem to fit the rest of the film. I was so disgusted that I quit watching it. It’s one of the few films I didn’t finish and also among many people’s favorite films list.

What was I missing? Why was it that so many people loved this bloated film? Yes, the opening twenty minutes were fantastic, but after that it all went downhill. My problem could be diagnosed as such: Redux. It seems I had gotten a hold of the remastered version of film that inserted in a lot of scenes, most of those scenes being the ones I hated. Now equipped with this knowledge I plunged once more into Apocalypse Now, this time with the theatrical edition. And this time, I got it.

The opening was still as astounding and awe-inspiring as the first time I saw it. The film masterfully blends these breathtaking images into a dreams sequence that occupies the mind of Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen).  The dissolve of images, play of visual elements and the synthesis of sound craft an unforgettable opening sequence that sets the tone of the entire film. It’s abstract, absurd, illogical and misleading, playing with the audience’s perception.

Take the simple sound of the helicopter in the opening scene. At first it starts in the dream as choppers fly against a flaming jungle. Yet as the images meld into Willard as he stares upward in his bed, the sound takes on a different meaning. He’s staring up at the spinning fan whirring and spinning like the choppers in his dream. It’s conjured up this image of the choppers in his mind. Yet just when the nature of the sound becomes clear, Willard gets up and looks outside the window, suggesting that perhaps there is actually a chopper outside.

It’s a bizarre, surreal experience, one that casts into doubt what we are actually watching. In this way, the film brings a lot into question through the simple use of sound. What we are seeing and being told through the images may not exactly be what they seem. In the same way, Willard is sure he’s not being told everything when he is given a mission to hunt down the AWOL Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set himself up as a deity to the people of Cambodia.

Willard is given a small boat crew and travels up the river towards Kurtz. Along the way he’ll be treated to a strange series of surreal events amid the Vietnam War. Playboy bunnies, a crazy grenadier and a puppy dog are just a few of the oddities that he meets along the way. Probably the most famous character he bumps into is Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a gung-ho Calvary officer who decides to lead Willard and his crew into a battle he decides to wage just to catch some waves.

And hey, that’s just a good reason as any, isn’t it? Through these bizarre and odd situations and characters, the film is getting at the absurdities of war. The situations are often outlandish and strange amid the battle landscape, but they satirize war, bringing into to question the very nature of why wars are waged. Yet these situations never detract from the overall journey the crew is going on or take away tonally from the mood the film has established.

And that was my big problem with the Redux cut of Apocalypse Now. That cut of the film inserted a lot of absurd moments but often stopped the film. Some simply didn’t fit the tone of the picture at all, such as the French Villa—which is actually where I quit watching—because it shifts the emphasis from the journey into this little episode that seems to have no ideological or narrative tie to the overall picture.

Now watching the film without these sequences, the film is one of the most masterfully paced films I’ve ever seen. The way each sequence flows into the next makes for this feeling that everything is running together seamlessly. A lot of this is conveyed through the visuals as there is a liberal use of cross dissolves but it also employs this sense of subjectivity in which entire film could be seen as a blurred recollection of Willard’s memories of this mission.

The opening sequence establishes the idea that the meaning of what we are seeing is through Willard’s mind. Also, Martin Sheen narrates the entire film, giving us his perspective of the events he is experiencing. His running commentary on the events is akin to a storyteller recollecting events and reflecting upon what has past. There’s this sense that these events have already occurred by the way he reflects upon them.

What’s even more impressive is how proficient the film remains in the latter half. Granted, as the film goes on the events, occurrences and happenings grow more and more absurd and outlandish, but the technical skill of the filmmaking still is as amazing. The last few sequences of the film are just as astounding and arresting as the opening moments of the film.

And it’s the fact that as the film progresses it still remains as arresting and enticing as the opening moments that makes Apocalypse Now such an astounding film. The synthesis of story, image and sound in any scene provides a depth and complexity that some entire films cannot even contain. Such an astonishing film demands to be seen. It’s grand, bold and ambitious, perhaps too much so, but that only further enhances the absurdity the film is exploring.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Apocalypse Now [DVD]
Apocalypse Now [Blu-ray]