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USA 1979
Directed by
Francis Ford Coppola
175 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Apocalypse Now

Although there are some who carp at Apocalypse Now arguing that the film is overblown, romanticizing and entirely Americentric in its portrayal of the Vietnam War it is difficult to argue with Coppola's achievement as a director or that of his creative team including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, sound designer Walter Murch and production designer, Dean Tavoularis.

Based on Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness", Coppola and principal writer John Milius, tell the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is sent on a mission to "terminate with extreme prejudice" Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a one-time West Point golden boy who has gone feral in the jungles of Cambodia.

Coppola brings home the madness of the Vietnam war as no other director has managed to do (Michael Cimino did a fine job with The Deer Hunter in 1978, Oliver Stone had two solid goes at it with Platoon in 1986 and Born On The Fourth of July in 1989 and Stanley Kubrick misfired with Full Metal Jacket in 1987) as he takes us on Willard's surreal journey up the Mekong river to Kurtz's compound. 

It is a journey that morphs through a number of brilliantly conceived and realized set pieces (only the USO concert is a tad disappointing in this respect) from the attack by Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall in an iconic role) on a Vietcong village, solely because it has good waves for surfing, to the film's culmination in the ghoulish backwater of Kurtz's decaying refuge. Martin Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel who was cast after Steve McQueen turned down the role) is outstanding as Willard, his raspy narration, unusually for the device, involving us in his trenchantly self-contained point-of-view. Like us, Willard remains separate from what he witnesses and he thus becomes a kind of pod by which Coppola takes us on this remarkable journey into the heart of darkness.

FYI: Originally shown at Cannes in a three hour cut Coppola, who had put his last dime into the film, fearful of alienating audiences cut it to 147m for its theatrical release initially as a 70mm version which did not have the end credits over Kurtz's compound exploding which were included in the 35mm version. In 2001 Coppola released a new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, a 196 minute version which removed the exploding compound credits but introduced some entirely new segments as well as lengthening the final confrontation with Kurtz. As with much of Coppola's later work, self-indulgence got the better of him but in 2019 he released a "Final Cut" which removed 21 minutes.

Referring to its turbulent production history Coppola famously said that his film was not "about Vietnam" but "is Vietnam". Anyone wanting to know more about the film in this respect should check out Hearts Of Darkness a 1991 documentary by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper about the making of Apocalypse Now with footage and journal entries from Coppola's wife, Eleanor.




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