Maybe it’s the fact I grew up during the Vietnam War but I’m a fan of many of the movies about it. Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the setting of that war, is a classic. I’m not alone in that opinion.
Rotten Tomatoes’ critics give American Beauty 98 percent on its “Tomatometer,” while other critics give it a 90 percent. It won the Golden Palm at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. In the U.S., it was nominated for best picture at both the 1980 Oscars and the 1980 Golden Globes (losing in both instances to Kramer vs. Kramer). With the advantage of more perspective, it currently ranks 36th on IMDB’s Top 250. It was 28th in the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of America’s 100 Greatest Movies and dropped only to 30th when that list was updated 10 years later.
Apocalypse Now scores with me for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that it is as real — and surreal — as our nation’s experience in the war. Briefly stated, Martin Sheen plays an American captain who travels upriver on a patrol boat into Cambodia to “terminate with extreme prejudice,” i.e., assassinate, a rogue American colonel. As for reality, we see how the characters, particularly Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, slide from normality to madness. We see how the havoc of war can produce a devolution into barbarity and can make the abnormal normal.
The surreal aspects illustrate the rupture in the American psyche of the times, a rupture to which the war significantly contributed. We have the U.S. military out to kill one of its own. We have Air Calvary helicopter squads launching an attack so the commander can surf at a marvelous beach with a world-class surfer who is on the patrol boat (a sequence the includes the unforgettable line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). We have chaos erupting as a Playboy bunnies are brought in to entertain the troops. We have a near psychedelic portrayal of a continuing battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese trying to destroy and rebuild the same bridge. There is a common theme — the mission — but it and all around it seem fractured.
And just as the Vietnam War was a catastrophe for the American psyche, the making of Apocalypse Now was the same for the filmmaker and crew. Storms, lack of money and even a nervous breakdown. How many classic movies themselves spawn an exceptional documentary about the making of the film?
Apocalypse Now is far more than a war movie. It is a visual compendium of an entire era of American history that is as strong today as when first released 30 years ago.
We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!
Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now