By the time of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, through his first two Godfather films, had become the American director most able to garner both critical acclaim and box office success. I would be loath to accuse Coppola of hubris, but the heights of his achievement led to an understandable ambition. Apocalypse Now took five years to make, but despite “its moments of cinematic grandeur,” as Douglas Gomery calls them, there is something disjointed and disturbing in the film. In Coppola’s defense, I have recently been immersed in films about World War I, for our current exhibition The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy, and I’m not at all sure that one can make a fully coherent film on a topic so akin to madness. In that sense, Coppola’s first film, Dementia 13, provided some unanticipated preparation for Apocalypse Now, and one can easily imagine the crazed Robert Duvall (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) and Marlon Brando characters from Apocalypse Now popping up in the earlier film.
There is clearly something admirable about a major Hollywood director lavishing a wad of money (much of it his own) to expose the venality and corruption of a recent government-sanctioned misadventure like the Vietnam War. The films expressing misgivings about the Great War generally had not been made until after an interval and, with some exceptions, they depicted pacifism in Germans and Frenchmen rather than patriotic Americans. John Ford could make a downbeat WWII film on early American defeat in the Pacific in They Were Expendable, but it still resonated with patriotism and didn’t come out until Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been flattened by the “good guys.”
Yet, for all its good intentions, there is an over-the-top quality to Apocalypse Now—perhaps too much of a good thing. Several years ago, my erstwhile colleague and now film critic for The Nation, Stuart Klawans, wrote a book called Film Follies: The Cinema out of Order. Stuart looked at various films that could be deemed extravagant and that went too far, using Coppola’s film as a prime example. The classic instance that Klawans cited was D. W. Griffith’s 1916 multi-epic Intolerance. Griffith loosely linked his “film fugue” together by citing its four intercut stories as illustrations of intolerance throughout the ages. As with Coppola’s film, audiences rebelled against being so overwhelmed with spectacle, even if much of the imagery and craftsmanship was more than innovative.
Apocalypse Now is, of course, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Like Conrad, Coppola, in the words of Edward Weeks, tells “the story of the dissolution of a man and of the system he stands for…the system of shameless exploitation.” In the case of the former, Conrad was exposing the rape of the Congo by Belgium. In Coppola’s metaphor, it was the French colonial and, later, American interventionist ventures in Southeast Asia. Both novella and film are centered on a river journey (as Conrad says) “deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness…like travelling back into the beginnings of the world…on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.” (It was pretty evident that Coppola had seen Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which we screened last month.) Coppola is adept at capturing what Conrad calls this “unreal” milieu, but in spite of a solid performance by Martin Sheen (whose character has reality issues of his own), there is little to latch on to. So, in a sense, Coppola falls victim to his own genius in creating such a graphic alternative reality, and perhaps some of his political and social messaging is cast adrift.
The version we’re showing is Apocalypse Now Redux, Coppola and expert editor Walter Murch’s 2001 re-edit of the original 1979 release. This version runs 49 minutes longer, with new scenes shot and added. Griffith had habitually tinkered with his films, and as an auteurist, it would be hard for me to deny the director the privilege of choosing the version he wanted to leave as part of his legacy.