By Bradley Lane
The year is 1976: principal photography on Apocalypse Now has just started in the Philippines under the direction of critically acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola. Just weeks after shooting had started Typhoon Olga destroyed all the sets they had been building since nearly the beginning of the year. In order to raise the money to rebuild the sets and fund the rest of production that was already over budget, Coppola leveraged his winery, house, car and the profits from the Godfather films to secure the funding for the rest of production. Overworked and overcome with stress, Coppola suffered a seizure while filming, in addition to the film’s star, Martin Sheen, suffering a heart attack midway through filming. Marlon Brando flew in late for filming and was completely unprepared and overweight for the role Coppola and Brando had discussed previously.
When all was said and done Coppola had shot over 1.5 million feet of film, roughly 270 hours of total material. It took a team of four editors nearly two years to complete the film for its premiere at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where it took the top prize. Ask anyone who has seen the film, and I find it hard to believe they would tell you it wasn’t worth all the work and hardship endured, given the final product. Apocalypse Now is a film of epic proportions despite telling a relatively straightforward story of a special forces’ member tasked with executing a rouge commander amid the Vietnam War.
Coppola uses this framework to explore the complete madness of war. While the mission is straightforward and handed down a clear chain of command, the presentation by Coppola lends itself more to an episodic drug trip than a military excursion. Willard, the man tasked with killing the insane commander, Kurtz, is our guide through the jungle, despite it being made explicitly clear that he is already mentally scarred by prolonged experience in the Vietnam jungle. This becomes emblematic of not only the explicit dehumanization of the North Vietnamese, but also the dehumanization of American troops by its own military. Willard loses his mind on a mission to kill another American solider, implicitly underpinning the futility and complete pointlessness of war.
Of course, I do not what to interpret Apocalypse Now for you. It is a sprawling and multifaceted work that refuses a singular interpretation of its themes. It is supremely cinematic and is an example of a work that can only exist in the medium of film, which is why it should be experienced for yourself. Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is showing at AMC 17 Aug. 15 and 18 in a new remastered IMAX format. – 5/5 stars