APOCALYPSE NOW: As Influential as it is Enigmatic

“We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane…  It’s not about Viet Nam, it is Viet Nam,” was a comment that director and co- writer, Francis Ford Coppola had on his 1979 masterpiece, APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), during its premiere (and win- Palmes d’Or) at Cannes.  It was a shocking statement the time, but also possibly an apt one in that while viewing the film, viewers can’t help but notice not only the obvious massive effort and budget put into the film, but also the distinct feeling that they are going insane alongside the main character/narrator.

APOCALYPSE NOW, is a loose adaption of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  It follows the covert mission of Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) up the Nung River to “exterminate with extreme prejudice,” Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), whose “methods have become unsound,” according to U.S. Army officials.  The dark and ironic reasoning behind Kurtz’s death sentence remains on the forefront of the audience’s mind as they are taken on a violent and gruesome tour through the war, which is just as dark and ironic itself in reasoning. 

Martin Sheen gives a gritty and visceral performance, proving himself after multiple casting changes, including Steve McQueen and Harvey Keitel as real possibilities.  His sombre detachment as Willard serves as a channel for the audience to not only enter his fragmented headspace, but also serves as a conduit to funnel their own experience and reactions through- in turn, the viewer becomes just as helpless as Willard is to stop the brutality.  Marlon Brando stunned audiences with his largely improvised and poetic take on Kurtz (named after the original Conrad character), while Robert Duvall earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Alongside these heavy- hitters, young Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper make strong features in a film that is considered one of the greatest ever made, according to Roger Ebert in 2012. 

Along with an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor, the film garnered seven other Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Sound and Best Cinematography.  It is not hard to see why it won these two categories; both are imaginatively done and showed new possibilities to future filmmakers.  Coppola teamed up again with film and sound editor, Walter Murch (GODFATHER, GODFATHER II, GODFATHER III) to create a whole new sound system, while Vittario Storaro was the eye behind the panoramic and inventive cinematography.

Coppola and Murch wanted to stress the induction of helicopters into warfare during the Vietnam war, and likened them to the use of the cavalry.  They decided to do this subliminally by producing helicopter propeller and engine sounds throughout the film.  In fact, this is the viewer’s introduction to the film- a distinct whirring and propellers over a black screen, opening to shots of destruction and fire on a beautiful and lush jungle landscape.  Because helicopter warfare was pivotal to the film, the sound had to be just right, and an added challenge was the fact they are a moving source of sound.  With this in mind, Murch created a ‘quintaphonic’ sound system, meaning there are five sound channels altogether (three in the front, two in the rear, plus subwoofers), as he explains in a 2014 interview with Scott Macaulay for Filmmaker Magazine.  He would also explain that this technology is what would later become standard for DVD and Dolby Stereo.  Murch’s intriguing sound editing is only enhanced when coupled with Vittario Storaro’s cinematic eye.

While sound is used as an element to convey deeper, symbolic meanings in the film, Storaro used light in much the same way.  In a 2017 interview with Stephen Pizzello for American Cinematographer, he stated that when he was “planning the visual strategy for the film, [he] began thinking that [he] could convey the conflict of cultures by creating a visual conflict between artificial light and natural light.”  The scene at Do Lung Bridge takes this idea but is also unique for its inventive solutions to lighting malfunctions.  Due to humidity, planned flares were unable to set off.  This caused the crew to rely solely on arc lights and Photofloods, making black an effective element for other colours to play off of.  Due to the limited lighting and sharp contrast, the scene even became a prime example of the film’s photogenic concept, according to Storaro in the same interview.  The Do Lung Bridge scene is one among many visually striking instances throughout the film.  The Ride of The Valkyrie scene is another that combines innovative sound, challenging filmmaking methods, and symbolic visuals, making it another well-noted scene in film history.  As well, the tiger attack scene has its own distinct and colourful imagery, further lending to the film’s motif of conflict.

Coppola’s film is an enigmatic piece, purely on content alone, but what is possibly just as interesting is its evolution throughout history.  It was the first film to ever be submitted to Cannes as a work-in-progress, not only creating an opening for future contestants, but also confusing audiences when it officially opened to theatres with a different ending.  The film took four years to make, with 238 days of filming, two years of editing, and a $31 million dollar budget ($18 million of which Copolla personally took on).  In August of 2001, Coppola re-released the film, with an additional 49 minutes of footage, and titling it, APOCALYPSE NOW: REDUX (2001).  This additional footage creates a significant difference in viewing experience and builds on symbolic meaning present in the original.  It also creates a significant divide in many fans’ opinions on which is the better counterpart.  Just as that debate has never subsided, Coppola has decided to make the debate murkier with a newer re- cut version released in April 2019, entitled APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT (2019).  The newest addition to the collection has a 3-hour run time, placing it between the original (2h 27mins) and REDUX (3hr 16mins) in terms of length, but an added bonus is the restored, 4k resolution.  It seems as though APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) will forever be a work-in-progress, but it is forever a breathtaking, and relevant one.

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