The horror. The horror.
I’m back with another shameful admission of a film, that as a self-confessed movie fan, I should have seen but haven’t. This time it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now. As the film returned cinemas restored in 4K for its 40th anniversary, I felt it was as good a time as any to finally witness a war classic. Up on the big screen should be the perfect first watch, right?
With a run-time of just over 3 hours, this 2019 version is the Final Cut, with the director slicing off extra material and seeing his film restored from film negative to 4K. The sights and sounds of this mammoth movie are staggering in IMAX and I can safely say I was truly sold on this as being an all-time great.
The plot of the film sees Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness shifted to the Vietnam war to follow Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard down a river, on a mission to kill a rogue Special Forces officer and the horror of war attacks at almost every turn. In a way this is a film split into two halves; the first absolutely screeches out of the speakers with chopper blades rotating, guns firing and explosions aplenty whilst the latter half is dreamy in its nightmarish quality. The soft fades, long and lulling tracking shots and the Cambodian jungle habitat with exotic calm draws you into a mystical world positively tainted with terror, thanks to the presence of method man Marlon Brando as the out-of-line Kurtz.
Even without ever seeing more than the helicopter formation shot, I knew of the many troubles that were had during the production of this film and you can understand why it took so long to get the feature wrapped up. The scale of Coppola’s picture is gigantic, the huge number of extras, plentiful explosives and weapon shooting, the sets of which some were ruined or destroyed by unpredictable weather, all roll together to equal a behemoth of a film. I wanted to sit disturbed at the visuals of war but there’s something about the craft of it all that I couldn’t help but marvel at what was achieved in the late 70s.
Fire, death and frenzy soaked into my eyes in such a way, that it felt like Coppola and director of photography Vittorio Storaro were heaving me into the Vietnam debacle. The sensations of violence are all around and this movie practically has you breathing in the rage show of battle. This is no more felt than within the Ride of the Valkyries sequence—a helicopter assault above a Vietnamese village. The moment is pure brilliance in terms of the way it’s shot and emphatically enhanced by the sounds of Wagner. On the big screen seeing this carnage is like nothing else, plus the knowledge that no green-screen or CGI trickery were used makes it more impressive.
It isn’t only in this epic scene, fantastically capped off by the talent of Robert Duvall that has you comprehending the drastic bloodshed. There comes a time on Willard’s river mission where a goods boat is routinely checked causing a shocking escalation of tragedy. Generally, the whole river atmosphere is one that had me on edge, the forever dread of who may be hiding behind the trees got me rooted with an interpolation like no other.
There does come a point when Apocalypse Now feels slightly too long, a meal at a French house feeling like a scene neither here nor there plus the thematic values of taking sides and the pointlessness of the Vietnam war aren’t as well realized as I’d expected. Yet even if the themes don’t hold strong for the entire length, the cinematography, the performances, the music, the style and sheer effort bled into this feature more than had me sold by its brutal splendor.
The Godfather director has indeed mastered a cinematic gem and though by this point in my life, I could have witnessed the film by other means, I knew it wouldn’t be the same so I just hadn’t watched it, so thankfully a cinema re-release gave me the better-late-than-never chance to take in a concert of violence.