Monday Movie: Apocalypse Now
Captain Willard lies in a drunken, post-traumatic stupor in his room in Saigon. He wants nothing more than another mission. And, for his sins, they give him one. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has, the general says, gone rogue. He's operating out of Cambodia with an army of Montagnard natives who worship him like a god. Willard is to travel up the Nung River, infiltrate Kurtz's group, and terminate the Colonel “with extreme prejudice”. But as Willard travels through Vietnam, observing the absurdity and brutality of the American war, he begins to wonder just what his superiors can have against Kurtz.
A film that could only have been made in seventies Hollywood, Apocalypse Now sees all the excess and bravura of a multi-million dollar budget directed at a story that is, in literal terms, small and personal - even if thematically it aims to represent the Vietnam War in totality, and even to get to the root of war itself.
Although the shoot was a notorious nightmare that overran both its budget and its deadlines (and gave star Martin Sheen a heart attack), Francis Ford Coppola flexed his directorial muscles to choerograph epic scenes involving A-list actors, hundreds of extras, military hardware on loan from a real war, tonnes of pyrotechnics and huge sets. Even if modern CGI ever allows us to duplicate these spectacles, no-one will deserve as much credit for it.
And then, once again, there is the fact that all this light and sound was not intended to dazzle and hypnotise the audience, but supports a predominantly low-key film that emphasises atmosphere and character, and tackles human nature head on. The modern tendency to dress up war in comforting lies is a dangerous hypocrisy, Apocalypse Now argues, and our only hope to move past violent conflict is to truly grasp what it entails.