Whats left to say about Apocalypse Now!? It more than holds up to more contemporary films. It surpasses them. This film in itself is an incredible work of genius and a testament to what happens when true artists are given the resources to make a mainstream film that can effect the world for decades to come. Because the radical sensibilities and circumstances that spawned this classic are no longer in vogue and may not return for some time. The 1970s was the dawn of "The Film School Generation" of Hollywood directors who changed the industry and the world and Apocalypse Now! may be the pinnacle of the vision and the last hurrah against the punch clock commercial directors, producer, actors and writers who would dominate the 1980s.
Apocalypse Now! is directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who changed the film world and started a revolution with his two-part opus "The Godfather" by bringing shockingly realistic, romantically poetic and technically daring American-made films to the box office. And with the money he earned, he invested in launching his friends' careers: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius and everyone that they opened doors for. Being the leader and most experimental of the bunch, Coppola had to outdo expectations when he returned in the wake of his friends' success with Jaws and Star Wars. He had to make his own multi-million dollar spectacle. Since the gangster film, the monster movie and the fantasy movie had just been reinvented, Coppola was left with the War Movie, the most serious and daunting epic film that a director can undertake. Believe it or not, Lucas was set to direct and its apparent when you notice how many themes and ideas are later taken over to "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" following Apocalypse's release. But Willard and Kurtz are the complex characters that Luke Skywalker & Darth Vader only hope to be.
Based loosely on the classic novella "Heart of Darkness", the plot follows a crew heading down a Vietnam river into the primitive and hostile world of Cambodia to assassinate a war hero who has gone insane and leads a rogue army who worship him as a God. Coppola and his screenwriter Milius take the basic framework of the 1889 original and place it in a modern context. The hero Willard is a Vietnam soldier with severe PTSD who is given a mission (by a convincingly disturbed Harrison Ford) to kill a man just like him, another hero, a father figure and an American role model. As he and his crew journey closer to the demented but powerful Colonel Kurtz, Willard starts to find the darkness in his own soul conquering his heart and mind, as he grows to understand his target's hatred for the war and conflicted pride in being a warrior. He doesn't know if he will kill Kurtz or join him.
The narrative is full of violence, chaos, darkness, insanity and horror, but highlighted by moments of insightful wisdom, poetic beauty and sharp satiric wit. Milius makes sure that every scene has a powerful message and that each character has some symbolism for the Vietnam war and mankind's eternal struggle. Willard is an insane man given an insane task and aided by increasingly insane people. He is right to question their judgment when they kill women and children for no good reason and do it with a smile, preaching altruism, Christianity and patriotism. But as corrupt and evil as his own army is, Willard finds an even worse discovery when he finds his jungle destination.
Marlon Brando plays Kurtz, the villain who is always mentioned but barely seen or heard throughout the movie, until he takes over the story like a God. He's been in Willard's shoes but he made the wrong choice, breaking from himself, reality and all that was good. Willard is simply finding a mirror image of what war has done to himself and all good men it encounters. When they meet, Kurtz tries to warm up to Willard and break him down psychologically, exposing him to every horrible truth he has discovered in his descent into the dark side. Willard finds that he has grown to understand Kurtz so much from his own horrible adventures that he must kill Kurtz, not out of a lying moral mission but as a mercy killing with respect from one true soldier to another. Willard doesn't choose sides politically. He only wants to do what is right in his heart and what man's animal instincts allowed him to do. He's seen both sides and knows that the good isn't as good as it pretends to be and that the bad makes more sense than the good. But he must end the war.
Dennis Hopper gets special attention as The Photojournalist, a man who worships Kurtz and believes all of his madness is Holy and justified. He represents the brainwashed mind state that Willard almost falls into on his way up river. As a member of the American media, Hopper's role symbolizes the way Americas honor and respect the dressed-up savagery that generals fill the world with. He demands chaos and immorality to fuel his career and give his own life meaning. He is like the worst soldier or most patriotic idiot American who delights in the destruction of these underdeveloped nations that America falsely claim to liberate.
Apocalypse Now! took years to film, went severely over budget and caused a near psychotic breakdown of Coppola. Its all detailed and captured in his wife Eleanor Coppola's documentary "Hearts of Darkness", including lead actor Martin Sheen having a heart attack while filming. The film was haunted by problems and the media had a field day speculating that it would be a disaster film to ruin Coppola's young career. It premiered to critical acclaim and influenced every major film that has followed it, but it did take a toll on Coppola. It would be his premature swansong and become impossible to surpass. He cared so much of his movie that he became an extension of it, a warrior who wanted nothing else to do with the movie business but survive the worst challenges it could throw at him. He later directed some successful and memorable films and many minor and obscure ones, the most infamous being the unnecessary but undervalued "The Godfather Part 3". Apocalypse Now! is the true 3rd act to his original Godfather masterpiece.
This is the biggest and best "art film" to ever have a wide release. We will probably never see anything like it again. It cemented its legendary status even before it was released and the legacy continues. 2001 saw the release of "Apocalypse Now! Redux" with restored sound, cinematography and deleted scenes. It adds even more layers and highlights to an already fulfilling movie and works as an even more experimental and grand alternate version. With this and The Godfather, Coppola's career proves quality always wins over quantity.