There are some serious gaps in my film education, I’m sorry to admit, but one of those gaps was recently filled when I saw Apocalypse Now for the first time. Actually, I saw Apocalypse Now Redux, Francis Ford Coppola’s expanded version of the film that the American Film Institute named one of its one hundred greatest films in the universe for all time now and forever. But I feel totally comfortable placing this review in my AFI 100 section because, frankly, ANR was one of the most profoundly amazing film experiences of my life, and even if the AFI wouldn’t put this new cut among their top 100, I’d put it in my personal top 100. Probably my personal top 10. And I say this even though Coppola’s company rejected a screenplay of mine last year, so you know I’m not kidding here.
Have you heard? War is hell. And this is the war-is-hell movie. And this is also the war-is-insanely-funny, funny-weird-not-funny-haha movie. I mean, look: You’ve got your CIA operative, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen: Monument Avenue, Gandhi), an assassin on the gubmint payroll. Do you put that on your 1040? Occupation: Government assassin? You’ve got your irony: Willard is sent on a mission to kill not the enemy but a fellow American. Okay, Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando: Superman: The Movie, On the Waterfront, whom I’m not all that impressed with generally, so nuff said), a Special Forces guy who’s gone to the Dark Side, has set himself up as a little tinpot god-dictator of his own private hell on Earth, way the hell up in remotest Cambodia. But still. Section Eight him or something — he’s not the first guy to lose his mind in ’Nam, right? Not the military’s finest hour. Then you’ve got your sheer, what-the-fuckness lunacy of war: Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall: Gone in 60 Seconds, The Apostle), charged with getting Willard part of the way to Kurtz, who’d rather surf and famously loves the smell of Napalm in the morning. Damn. When Kilgore says that “someday this war’s gonna end,” he’s lamenting the fact.
Smart move on Sheen’s part, taking this role. He clearly foresaw that he would be running for TV-president one day and knew that Nielsen voters prefer some military service in their candidates. And he deserves some sort of Purple Heart or something for this performance. As the absurdly unprotected navy boat he’s hitching a ride on takes him up that creepily calm river toward Kurtz’s demesne and away from civilization, it’s like he’s clinging to his own sanity — Willard is constantly on the edge of turning to the Dark Side himself. And who can blame him, or Kurtz, or Kilgore, or any of the slightly looney soldiers ANR introduces us to? The whole situation is senseless — would it be sane to retain your sanity in such a place? Or is the sound and sober thing to do just let go, say what the hell, and hope coherence and rationality meet you on the other side?
Not having seen the shorter, older version of Apocalypse Now, I can’t say what the film would be like without the extra 49 minutes of footage. But I can imagine. How could we do without the sequence at the French plantation in Cambodia? It’s almost a fantasy of normality on Willard’s part, these elegant people arguing politics over brandy and cigars, and maybe it’s his one last chance to retain his own sanity. How could he not have that option? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I’m glad I got to see ANR on a big screen, with real sound — the reverb from the constant thwat thwat thwat of helicopters and from explosions is a part of the experience that would be lost on television. Or my neighbors would hope so, anyway. We’ll see how many complaints I get when I slip the DVD in for an evening of Sheen’s brooding narration, intoned at decibels elephants would appreciate, punctuated by stuff blowing up real ironically good.
AFI 100 (1998 list): #30
unforgettable movie moment:
Lt. Col. Kilgore explains his rationale for taking a V.C. village on a beach with some chillin’ waves: “Charlie don’t surf.”
previous AFI 100 film:
29: Double Indemnity
next AFI 100 film:
31: The Maltese Falcon