Apocalypse Now

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they imagine a world where all of the massive disasters that took place during the filming and post-production of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now never happened. Would smooth sailing had delivered a bland war film? A forgettable trip into the jungle with a by-the-book villain at the end of a mad road? And why is it the highest-ranked war movie in the first place?

In the #14 movie on the list, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) hunts down a rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War and learns all about napalm and surfing.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Scott: So here we are at a really bizarre entry on the list of best movies — the first war film, the youngest movie in the top 20 and probably the most generation-spanningly famous movie on the whole list. It’s clearly not in the top ten yet, but it could be the next time around.

I guess the question is…where do we even start?

Landon: I think we start with a drunken breakdown in a hotel room before we can fully grasp the madness of this movie.

Scott: I did that yesterday. I assume you did too. It was a dark, dark place.

Landon: I went the Dennis Hopper route. It was much more fun… but your question is telling. Clearly, madness is the subject at hand, but it permeates this movie so fully that it’s hard to know where to begin: the madness of the film’s production, the madness of war, the madness of what became of Marlon Brando.

The story of this film’s making is notorious in a way that rivals Citizen Kane.

Scott: It makes me want to imagine what would have happened if everything had gone according to the original plan.

I mean, not if George Lucas had made it as he planned to (which would be another conversation entirely), but, like, what would have happened if Brando had shown up on set looking lean and Green Beret-like.

Landon: Then we wouldn’t have these brilliant images of him in the shadows. It’s strange that this movie was made as the apotheosis of a time that valued the control of the director more than any other time in Hollywood. Yet the movie went out of Coppola’s control not necessarily because of studio heads, but because of nature.

It’s a vision of Hollywood gone Herzog.

Scott: Right. It’s hard to battle a 115mph typhoon or the eating habits of a Golden Era star.

But the end is a good place to start. If things had gone according to plan, the ending of Apocalypse Now would have included a straightforward look at Kurtz and a big fight scene between him and Martin Sheen’s Willard.

Martin Sheen relaxes on another calm day of filming.

Martin Sheen relaxes on another calm day of filming.

Landon: Crazy Brando always makes the right decision, just like in the The Island of Dr—er, yeah, I guess that could have gone either way.

I’m wondering how much the story around the film plays into our experience of it: knowing Martin Sheen had a heart attack while filming the bedroom scenes, Coppola’s cameo, or having a great documentary like Hearts of Darkness available. Even if the shoot went well and we somehow ended up with the same film, would we see it the same way if we didn’t know the madness of production?

But maybe that’s a false question. There’s possibly no way this film could have come from a stable filmmaking process.

Scott: There’s a chance we’re romanticizing, but it’s not hard to imagine that the movie we get when everything goes according to plan is on time, slightly under budget, never stopped production, never had to rebuild sets, features a performance from Martin Sheen that channels insanity instead of using the real thing (and the fear of being on the edge of death itself) as pure motivation, and showcases a generic climax with a fairly forgettable villain that couldn’t have lived up to the first 2 hours no matter who played him.

And if it had played anywhere near the usual rules, there’s no way a water buffalo gets slaughtered on camera.

Do you think we put this film on a pedestal partially because it seems impossible that it actually got finished and hit theaters? Even Coppola himself didn’t think it would happen.

Landon: Initially, yes. Everything seemed to be working against it press-wise leading up to 1979, and it seemed to many like evidence of a Hollywood that’s given too much power to the vision of the eccentric director (that would come about a year later with Heaven’s Gate), but I think its current place on S&S has to do with two factors:

  1. Take note that we haven’t talked about The Godfather yet. S&S used to include the Godfather films as one, which guaranteed a regular place in the top 10. Now they’re voted on as separate films, so the vote is split between them despite the fact that these are still the more celebrated Coppola films.
  2. Apocalypse Now: Redux

That second factor was actually my introduction to the film. Redux provided the film even greater praise when it was released in 2001 and depicted an even more circuitous and epic journey for Willard and his crew. The scene with the French aristocrats nearly changes the tone of the entire film. I think it has a lot to do with the film’s reputation as possibly the greatest (or, at least, most successfully ambitious) Hollywood war film ever made.

Scott: Isn’t that odd? That war is such a profound element of any history, that it’s a major filmmaking genre, and that Apocalypse is the first war film on the top list?

When we live in a world where stuff like Went the Day Well?, Das Boot, The Audie Murphy Story, and others exist?

Landon: It’s safe to say that Vietnam and WWII are the most-depicted wars in American cinema. But to pick any film that depicts one of these wars is to decidedly privilege a certain repeated vision of war. Vietnam movies are about war as hell/madness/injustice (which is interesting given that Apocalypse started as a jingoistic, John Wayne’s Green Berets-style film before Coppola came in)…

Scott: Which the studio would have eventually called Charlie Can’t Surf! for posters.

Landon: Makes you wonder why there was never a Robert Duvall spinoff. By contrast, WWII troop films are about war as sacrifice, as in The Best Years of Our Lives. And Holocaust films are, perhaps paradoxically, about war as near-impossible stories of survival.

So even though it’s a pretty beloved film, that Apocalypse is the top war film on the list is still quite a statement about movies in relation to war.

Scott: But also about how it might have impacted culture. This is a movie beyond its own runtime. If it had been made according to the plan, I wonder if it would have landed as hard.

Or maybe even harder. It would have come out in the Winter of 1978, only 3 years after the 20-year war ended.

Landon: And would have competed with The Deer Hunter.

Scott: And it would have happened the same month that Vietnam went in to fight the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

All these wounds so fresh.

But maybe that’s what needed to happen after fighting that war. There were massive negative consequences from WWII, but the Allied Forces had defeated a mass-murdering Hitler, pushed back the Japanese assault and won decisively. But maybe you need art like this after losing (or after experiencing a win that doesn’t look like much of one).

Landon: Great points. Apocalypse is a movie that looks back on a war that was not yet over in so many ways. The film attempts to make sense of Vietnam through decisively portraying non-sense. It’s also important that we never see what happens to Willard after the mission because it doesn’t matter. It’s about never leaving Vietnam, which is a pretty fitting statement for the role of war in terms of what it does to the individual as well as to entire nations and the trajectory history.

It makes you wonder when we will, or why we haven’t, had a film like this for Iraq or Afghanistan.

Scott: The closest candidate would be The Hurt Locker — it even has that never-ending aspect by sending William James back to the fight at the end, a man now more comfortable with bombs than he is the cereal aisle.

Landon: True. He’s Willard plus charisma.

Scott: And yet if Apocalypse Now had gone according to the original plan (with a skinny Brando), the final moments would have seen Willard meeting with Kurtz’s wife to tell her that everyone respected him, that he’d died valiantly and that his last words were of her.

Which is either ironic lying or he insultingly assumed Kurtz’s nickname for his wife was “The Horror.”

Landon: Wow, that changes everything. I’m going to listen to The Doors and scream at my walls while I think about that.

Scott: I’m going to wrestle with some demons and have a heart attack.

And think about the incredibly black humor talking about this movie has driven us to.

Landon: How about this then… Between Apocalypse Now and Platoon, there are two generations of Sheens who went to Vietnam in the movies. Up until now, Emilio Estevez was left out. But with Charlie Can’t Surf!, I think we can finally complete the Sheen/Vietnam circle

I’ll get my agent on the phone. You continue the demon-wrestling.

Scott: So we’ll basically be doing the same thing.


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