Where to begin with Apocalypse Now? Acres of criticism and commentary have been written on this movie; adding to it just feels like pissing in the wind. I suppose I should start with why I've seen this at all - it's been re-mastered and given a new (alieet limited) theatrical release. Also, this is the original(ish) cut, not the three-hour-plus Redux version. For the uninitiated, this is Francis Ford Coppola's transposition of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, itself set in Belgian Congo, to the Vietnam war (from a script co-written with John Milius). The protagonist, Willard (Martin Sheen) is a US army captain tasked with assassinating the rogue colonel Walt Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an man of prodigal talent and intellect who has set himself up as a kind of deity deep in the Cambodian jungle. The film follows Willard on his journey downriver to carry out his mission, facing ever more bizarre and grotesque aspects of the conflict en-route.
It’s a film of extraordinary ambition – hubris, even – and it just doesn’t come together in the end. There are moments of sheer brilliance; no film has ever quite managed to convey the confusion and insanity of warfare quite as well. But there are some serious flaws, largely relating to plot and structure. Episodic by nature, I wonder if today this might have been made as an HBO series. It would be better served by the format for obvious reasons, though we would lose the blissful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.
And for me it’s this visual magnificence that is the key achievement of the film. No other film I’ve seen this year, and few ever, look as good as Apocalypse Now. The broad jungle shots, the dynamic action sequences, napalm along the treeline... this film stands alongside the combat photography of Tim Page, Peter Hodierne and others as being one of the key artistic visual products of the conflict in Vietnam. It is sonically brilliant too –not just The End and Ride of the Valkyries, but also the synth-heavy score, now oddly reminiscent of Scarface and The Terminator.
As every knows, the fundamental flaw of the film is the Winchester-Mystery-House-esque story – it’s messy, overlong and lacks real structure. By the time we arrive at Kurtz’s temple-compound – and lord-knows we’ve taken bloody long enough to get there – the movie really does start to drag, and the mind wanders to grocery shopping and uncompleted errands. The story is episodic almost to the point of being picaresque, and that does not make for a great movie story. I don't want to come across as being overly trad and McKee-ish - I'm fine with movies that break rules and take risks, as long as there is a payoff in the film's artistic worth or entertainment value. And in the case of Apocalypse Now, there isn't.
A less serious, though still significant, misstep is the casting of Marlon Brando as Kurtz. The thirty-plus years of hindsight have not been kind to a performance that now seems almost comical. His mannered and heavy-handed take on a character that has plenty for an actor to work with sadly typifies the pomposity and staginess of later Brando. His mumbled delivery of the (undercooked) monologues undermines his devilishness - Conrad’s original Kurtz is far more compelling and, ultimately more horrifying.
Of course, there are some genuinely superb performances too. Frederic Forrest is excellent and self-contained as the I-can’t-take-this-shit-anymore engineman Chef, Albert Hall's boat chief goes from assured to skewered with aplomb, and of course we have Robert Duvall's iconic bravura turn as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Martin Sheen does well too, occupying the Marlow role with a kind of hangdog detachment that seems like the only sane response to the world that is collapsing around him.
A quick note on the re-mastering: having never seen this on the big screen before, it may be that I’m not well-placed to comment - but I didn't really see any difference. It looked great and sounded great, but then hasn't it always? Of course, it was a welcome opportunity to see a cinematic touchstone in the theatre, so I'm not complaining.
So, a film that grazes celestial highs in its production and imagery, but ultimately is consumed by its own scale, scope and ambition. Nevertheless, it is the noble failures’ noble failure, a cinematic event of a movie that is hard to truly love but cannot be dismissed.