Friday, September 4, 2020

Movies VI - Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is the best of the Vietnam movies. It works on several levels and has survived the test of the decades in ways that many of the other movies have not. It's an episodic story, tied together by the boat and the river. Based in part on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, it is a series of events, each one more mad than the previous, as the boat moves through Vietnam and then over the border into Cambodia.

This is the opening, overlaid by the Doors. It is one of the most powerful opening scenes in any movie.

I watched it, as I mentioned, for the first time at the base theater in Iwakuni, Japan in 1983. I was young. The intervening years have given me a greater appreciation of what Coppola created. Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, seems like the protagonist. You meet him first, raging drunk in a Saigon hotel, and will seemingly follow him throughout the movie.

But Willard cannot be the protagonist because he is unchanged by the journey. His journey into darkness is already complete. He is the observer, we see the events through his eyes, but he is almost disengaged, unemotional, just passively going along to the end. I think it is Lance, the surfer, that is the protagonist, although it could be the entire crew, with Lance standing in for all of them as the survivor at the end. Each of of the crew is changed far more than Willard and each one dies in their turn by increasingly primitive means. At the beginning, Lance is the untouched young man, a surfer out of California, just a member of a small boat crew, looking to get high and unconcerned with the events of the war around him. He is transformed by his journey, his former life washed away.

The river serves as the river of time, they move upriver, away from the veneer of civilization. Each stop taking them further away. What are they moving toward? The lies of the generals and the politicians are also something they start with and they move away from that as well.

Each stop is more primitive, more violent, and in some ways more honest at the same time it is more insane.

Kurtz is honest and mad. He's even right about a number of key things and Willard recognizes both that honesty and the madness. The question of why Willard carries out the orders and kills Kurtz and also why Kurtz permitted him to do so remains ambiguous. The assumption must be that Kurtz saw something in Willard that he did not see in the others. But I am still not sure.

In the Redux version, there is only one scene I wish they had left in the original. That is the French rubber plantation scene. Willard gets off the boat and has an evening with the family at the plantation. I think it fits with the journey upriver and the unraveling of things. It is a window into a way of life whose time had passed. They should have left long ago and here they were, still pretending, as the war consumed the country. It connects and reinforces the scene with the USO show and the Playboy bunnies and how quickly the veneer comes off.

There is no reasoning with the darkness. There is only the journey into it. And it doesn't matter where you start from, just how far there is to go.

This movie plays in a series of loosely connected short chapters, almost like Pulp Fiction and I have thought that you could remix it the same way, cut it into scenes and splice it back together and make it only come together when you get to the last scene and you realize where you are. The opening scene of Willard punching the mirror as he dances ties directly to Lance dancing on the bow of the boat while tripping. The "never get out of the boat" scene with the tiger bookends with them getting out of the boat at Kurtz's compound.

I don't have any conclusions. Just the observation of the impact of the film.

This one goes on my personal top 10 war movies.


drjim said...

I haven't watched it in many years. I thought it was very dark, and depressing, and at the end I went "So?".

I should probably watch it again. I'm sure I'll see it with different eyes now....

Adam P said...

Just a correction: it's Martin Sheen not Charlie Sheen.

HMS Defiant said...

I also watched when it first came out. A number of us were getting commissioned and heading out that year. I probably watched it 10 times with friends and alone, big screen and tv. It's in my top ten as well. It was an awesome tale.

If you like to read, try Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. He captures some of the same thing over and over as the story moves on.

The other movie I ranked with this one was, We Were Soldiers Once. And young.

ASM826 said...

Thanks Adam P., I corrected it. That's what 40 years will do to you. Charlie Sheen was 12 when the movie was being filmed.

libertyman said...

A comment on the film from a friend who was in combat in Viet Nam about the film. He said it was crazier than that.

A very dark and powerful film as you say.

Ted said...

The first time I saw the movie it was in a small Art theater - as we waited for the start they had a lighting effect going on. The shadow of slowly rotating helicopter blades with the accompanying whoooshe sound effects.

I'm still convinced that if i had received a low number in the lottery I would not have survived. --- and with that attitude, i wouldn't have.

Tim said...

The Doors song is a good song for 2020 and where we are today.

This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
The end of our elaborate plans
The end of ev'rything that stands
The end
No safety or surprise
The end
I'll never look into your eyes again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of
some strangers hand
In a desperate land
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain
There's danger on the edge of town
Ride the king's highway
Weird scenes inside the goldmine
Ride the highway West baby
Ride the snake
Ride the snake
To the lake
To the lake
The ancient lake baby
The snake is long
Seven miles
Ride the snake
He's old
And his skin is cold
The west is the best
The west is the best
Get here and we'll do the…

Survivormann99 said...

The attack on the village was extraordinarily well done. Live sometimes imitates art. During the Grenada elevation a helicopter flew in with the "The Ride of the Valkyries" played on loudspeakers.

My humble view is that the movie deteriorated when Robert Duvall's scenes ended. Weird is one word that would apply to many scenes.

While I realize that "Heart of Darkness" provided some framework for the movie, the movie did not seem to provide an obvious explanation for why Martin Sheen would spend days getting to his objective on a boat when he could have gotten there in an hour on a helicopter.

libertyman said...

Jeeez, Harrison Ford was a youngster then!

WDS said...

The current reports from certain Democrat run shit-holes reminds me of
the scene in A-N when the boat puts in at the Dolong Bridge.

Complete chaos.

Old NFO said...

Agree with HMS Defiant. Those two movies are excellent bookends on the military!

Kurt said...

An excellent movie indeed.

Might I suggest, as a more subtle companion, Go Tell The Spartans?

A quieter, more thoughtful, and to my mind, even more disturbing take on the Vietnam War.


LSP said...

What a good review and what a great movie.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

I finally watched this after years of hearing about it. It was good - and it was hard. I may try to revisit it.

The French Plantation scene should have remained. The picture of people living what effectively a dead way life was made more poignant by the fact that we know the ending.