Apocalypse Now 25th Anniversary Review

This is the first in a series of pieces that I submitted to The New York Times Op-Ed page which have never been published. According to an article on their website, they receive well over 1000 submissions every week. In other words, if you’re like me, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting something in that newspaper.

That being said, one of my writing goals this year is to have an Op-Ed in the Times. I’ve submitted several items to them over the years and not one of them has ever been considered. Starting today, I’m going to be presenting these rejected columns. Finally, the public will have a chance to see what I submitted.

First up is this 2004 assessment of one of my favourite films, Apocalypse Now. I had first seen the superb documentary about the making of this movie, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Gene Siskel’s favourite film of 1991), at my local cinema in early 1992. For some reason, it took me 12 years after that to see Apocalypse Now on DVD. My dad bought Apocalypse Now Redux, the 2001 extended version, and I had been putting off screening it until I saw the original version. I finally rented the original Apocalypse in February 2004. I had no idea how powerful the movie was going to be. As I watched it, I was reminded of revelations in the documentary:  the super-long shoot, Martin Sheen having a heart attack during filming and Francis Ford Coppola’s battles with Marlon Brando over his character, his weight and the script. I was completely blown away.

I’ve decided to keep the review as is because I’m really proud of it and it makes little sense to remove the dated portions. I reference the 2004 US elections and Senator Bob Kerrey whose past Vietnam actions caused needless controversy a few years ago.

I highly recommend Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Now Redux and Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 3 of the greatest films ever made.

One more thing. I’ve decided not to make a correction in the review about Martin Sheen’s narration. Apparently, his brother, Joe Estevez, did all of Capt. Willard’s voiceovers which is pretty incredible because they both sound exactly alike. (He also doubled for him in the movie after Sheen’s heart attack. He received no credit for any of his good deeds.) I had no idea about this until I checked out The Internet Movie Database, which is an invaluable resource for movies.  Check it out at imdb.com.
By Dennis Earl

“Are you an assassin?”

“I’m a soldier.”

“You’re neither. You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”

This memorable exchange between the gonzo Col. Kurtz and the psychologically wounded Capt. Willard is just one enduring example of why Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest movies ever produced. This year marks its silver anniversary and the most remarkable thing about the film today is its timelessness and emotional wallop. It’s a film that hits you in the gut early and that gut feeling intensifies through to the end and even days afterward. This is not a film that is so easily forgotten.

Neither a pro nor anti-war film (although some will argue for the latter) and filled with characters who are not strictly good or evil, Apocalypse Now is more about the psychology of violence as seen through its American soldiers. There have been more violent movies about Vietnam and war in general, but director Francis Ford Coppola is more interested in internal violence, the violence lurking within the soul of every man stuck in the war zone.

Vietnam isn’t the only war being waged in this film. There’s also the war of the ethic, what American warriors should or shouldn’t do during the course of battle.

When the film opens, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen in one of his best performances) has spent a week in Saigon off-duty. It’s killing him. He’s dying to go back. We learn he can’t quite adjust so easily to life outside the war zone. His marriage has broken up. There is no job or family waiting for him back home. Perhaps, he has unfinished business in Vietnam. As he says to the audience through his deeply revealing narration, “I wanted a mission….and when it was over, I never wanted another.”

His assignment is to find his way through the winding rivers of Vietnam and end up in Cambodia where he will come into contact with Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando at his finest), a legendary Green Beret who offended his superiors in Washington by waging a more successful campaign against the Viet Cong than they did. Once he arrives at his compound, Willard must assassinate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.”

During the scene where Willard is briefed about his assignment he is played audio tape of Kurtz’ demented rantings. It is but a glimpse into the tortured psyche of the army legend. As Willard will discover through his own personal experience with his target, Kurtz had a revelation about the enemy and it was this precise moment where he “got off the boat.” He discovered that the Viet Cong were willing to go so far as to chop off the arms of little children to win a war. The discovery of this pile of human debris shook Kurtz to his core. He wept. But then he became a believer. He realized that the reason America was losing the war was because it was not willing to be as indecent in battle as the Viet Cong and Cambodians, who were more than willing to do so. From that point on, he waged his own successful campaigns against the enemy. (Disturbed by his sudden change in character, and the unauthorized assassination of 4 Vietnamese intelligence officers, his superiors found his methods “unsound”.)

When Willard and the surviving members of an American patrol boat – who have the thankless task of getting him to his destination safely through enemy territory – finally arrive at his compound, the lingering stench of death is everywhere: Bodies and detached heads litter the environment untouched as permanent reminders of the lessons learned not only by Kurtz but his eager followers.

Willard is not the first man assigned to kill him. Very briefly, we meet Colby (played by a then-unknown Scott Glenn) who became seduced by Kurtz’ intellectualism and probably felt safe under his command like the other hundreds who survive here. (In an earlier scene, Willard looks at a letter Colby tried to write to his family explaining his situation.)

What happens in Apocalypse Now isn’t nearly as important as its emotional impact. We know war is hell. But do we know how the experience of war truly feels?

With a decorated Vietnam vet running for the U.S. Presidency this year this war has come back into the spotlight again. Democratic candidate John Kerry returned to America after serving his country to testify about what he saw. He talked about things Apocalypse Now is more than willing to show; that of civilians being killed, accidentally and sometimes, on purpose. Consider the scene where the patrol boat’s leader (the great Albert Hall) notices a civilian boat and decides to investigate without Capt. Willard’s consent. What happens next is tragic. A misunderstanding leads to trigger-happy consequences as the patrol boat’s youngest crew member, Clean (played by 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne), overreacts with foolish bravado. When you watch this scene you immediately understand how easy it is to get confused, to make split second decisions that aren’t always the right ones. It makes one greatly empathize with people like Bob Kerrey who found themselves in similar circumstances. For those who have never been in the war zone to criticize the actions of those who have is deeply hypocritical. I doubt very highly that anyone would’ve reacted differently than Clean, (or Bob Kerrey, for that matter), given those circumstances and that heightened, tense atmosphere.

By the time Willard and 2 surviving patrol boat crew members arrive at Kurtz’ compound in Cambodia, the movie is literally drenched in intensity and madness. And then Willard meets Kurtz and we experience the best scenes in the movie. Brando’s method of taking his time to speak in a resigned, deathly tone; taking dramatic pauses in the middle of sentences, hiding mostly in shadow, is ingenious. We neither hate nor love Kurtz but are mesmerized by him. When he talks about his war experiences and his startling revelations about the enemy, we completely understand why Willard admires him. But he has a job to do. But will he find the closure he so desperately desires?

For a film that is now a quarter of a century old to be as powerful for me today as it was for the audiences who saw it in 1979 is a remarkable achievement. It is that rare movie that makes you say, “Wow,” out loud more than once. Filled with great performances from top to bottom, stellar Academy Award-winning cinematography, and painfully incisive writing that incinerates the protective “happy” bubble that protects our souls from such reality, Apocalypse Now is Vietnam, just like Francis Ford Coppola proclaimed at his famous press conference. And as Kurtz tells Willard late in the movie, “I never want to forget.” Neither do we.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 20, 2006
12:58 p.m.
Published in: on February 20, 2006 at 1:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

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