Friday, May 29, 2009

Apocalypse Now: A Journey Into the Heart of Darkness

"My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the Americans were in Vietnam. 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." (Francis Ford Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival Premiere 1979)

Apocalypse Now is film about a military captain ordered to go up the Numan Ba River to assassinate amn insubordinate Colonel by the name of Kurtz. The plot is fairly simple but the depth of the film is immense. The film's plot plays out as a metaphor for a journey into self. Confonting one's fears and looking into the abyss so to speak. While the main character in the film is depicted as making a journey into self, so was Coppola during the making of it. They both confronters their fears: fear of failure, death, going insanse. There are double meanings everywhere in this film and for me to go in depth on each one, well this review/analysis would be pretty monstrous. Eleanor Coppola said in Hearts of Darkness that you have to die alittle to come out on the other side. In February of 1976, Francis Ford Coppola went to the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now. It was based loosely on "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. The film was set during the Vietnam War. Principal photography lasted 238 days and was documented by his wife through documentary footage which would be later used by Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper to create the greatest documentary about making a film: Hearts of Darkness- A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Coppola's greatest fear was to make a pompous film on an important subject. There are tapes of him saying that the film is going to be a "20 million dollar disaster." It couldn't have been further from the truth. It would be a film recognized as a masterpiece of cinema and possible the quintessential war film. But like all great films, it transcenes the very genre it gets tagged under. It's journey into the heart of darkness. A journey that is shared with the audience and brought to us through the work of Mr. Coppola and crew.

There was a time in the 70's (1972- 1974) when Coppola hit his prime. The Godfather I & I as well as The Conversation all garnered mass acclaim and, in the case of the two Godfathers, became cornerstones of American cinema. It was a decade in which directors like Steven Spielberg & George Lucas were creating ambitious scifi epics like Star Wars & Close Encounters of the Third Kind while directors like John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese were creating intimate portraits of the human condition with films like A Woman Under the Influence and Taxi Driver. Coppola was much like the father to an entire generation with his Zoetrope company: John Milius, George Lucas all worked under his wing. The production of this film is probably the most infamous out there. It would be a film that director Francis Ford Coppola would poor everything into. After it, he would never attempt to make another film in its scope or ambition and became relegated into making small indie films throughout the 80's until he felt comfortable moving back into the studio system in the 90's with films like Bram Stroker's Dracula and Jack.

In 1939, Orson Welles planned to make Heart of Darkness into his first motion picture. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is based on the physical and psychological shock the author himself experience in the Belgian congo in 1890. The narrator describes a journey he took on an African river. Much like the journey up the river our protagonist takes on the Nang River in the film. He witnesses the brutalization of natives by white traders. Throughout the book he hears of stories of Mr. Kurtz, the most succesful representative of the company that sent him up river. He succumbs to the primal temptations of the jungle and goes insane. In 1939, Orson Welles planned to make Heart of Darkness into his first motion picture. Screen tests were done with Welles playing the part of Kurtz. The studio however, backed away from the project in fear of it going over-budget. Welles would scrap the project and go onto make Citizen Kane, a film considered to be greater of all time.

1969 saw Francis Coppola found Zoetrope Studios, a studio dedicated to making films outside the Hollywood system. Their first project was Apocalypse Now. They would take the premise of Conrad's book and translate it though the Vietnam War. Vietnam was a pefect backing to the madness that is presented in the book. It could not be more fitting.This time Col. Kurtz was conducting the war on his own terms deep in Cambodia. George Lucas was set to direct a screenplay written by John Milius. They planned on doing it in Vietnam in 16mm. Young and rebellious filmmakers like Lucas and Millius were ready to go into that terrain. But without a studio, Apocalypse Now was shelved and Coppola went on to direct The Godfather I & II. The films both won Best Picture from the Oscars and put him on the map as one of the leading directors in film during that decade.

When he was finished with The Godfather, he went back to tackle Apocalypse Now. Harvey Keitel was originally cast as the lead. Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest and Laurence Fishburne also joined the cast. Coppola was ready to shoot the film in the Phillipines because of its similarity with the terrain in Vietnam. Since the US Army refused to cooperate, he struck a deal with the Phillipinnes President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos allowed him to use his entire fleet of helicopters as long as he paid them well. Keitel would end up getting fired and replaced by Martin Sheen. Already the press got ahold of the stories from the set. Headlines like "Apocalypse veiled in a shroud of secrecy" and rumors of delayed production.The press painted a portrait of Coppola as a crazed obssessed director. It was a project which the director had been working on for more years that even he could remember....and this was just the beginning of the problems.

There seems to be an almost mythical aura behind the production of this film. Mythical as in it being cursed. In the first weeks of shooting, a typhoon hit the set. The film would also become $3 million overbudget. Marlon Brando threatened to drop out. But probably the most striking scene of the documentary Hearts of Darkness is when Martin Sheen is shown having a nervous breakdown as Coppola commands him to go on with his work. Sheen would end up suffering a heart attack but recover shortly afterward and finish the film. The one crucial piece of the puzzle was the ending Coppola still had complications with. Brando and Francis worked out their differences and complications with the ending.

Apocalypse Now opens with The Doors 'The End'. A song that has always been one of my favorites. It is used to great effect in the opening scene, in which a jungle explodes with napalm after a helicopter flies by. It then transitions into an overhead shot of Captain Willard's eyes. The helicopter blades mimicking the sound of the fan above the Captain's head. "Saigon. Still in Saigon." the captain says with. The war itself was a "rock and roll" war. That's not a statement of putting off the war lightly. It's to say that it was one of teenage youth, innocence becoming the real casualy of war. One such scene that so exemplifies this is when Willard's boat intercepts a villager boat and ends in a complete slaughter of the villagers over a dog knocking over a barrel. It's an eerie mirror to the Mai Lai Massacre that took place in Vietnam. It's also a major theme of the film- the hyprocrys of Western Imperialism. In fact, Capt. Willard's entire mission is characterized as hypocrisy- the army wasting their time and money in ordering a Captain to kill on of their highest-ranking officials.

The most famous scene in the film is when a helicopter unit led by brash Colonel Kilgore, leads an attack on a local village in order to escort Willard's boat on the river that leads to Kurtz. It is a scene of both exhilaration and horror. Few scenes in films are able to capture both of those emotions simultaneously. It is also most known for its use of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. There are similarities between Kilgore and Kurtz. Kilgore is no worse than Kurtz in the methods he uses to achieve his goal. After the attack, Colonel Kilgore delivers the famous line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." A line that has been parodied countless times. My favorite thing about this film besides the philosophical allegories, is the dialogue given by Willard. "Never get out of the boat." He narrates after him and a character named Chef are nearly mauled by a tiger when looking for mangos in the jungle. That type of dialogue has two sides to it. One being used as literal, the other being used to talk about how Kurtz "got off the boat and went all the way".

More than just a journey into madness, Apocalypse Now has several themes and motifs going on. The loss of American values is one. The morality at play here throughout the various stops just seems to lower with each stop. From a bunch of troops gathered around seeing Playboy dancers to Col. Kilgore ordering some of his troops to surf the beach.

The film's primary metaphor is how a person darkens beyond recognition in the face of war. Each member of the boat experiences a breakdown. The cinematography brilliantly captures this madness by cloaking river in darkness and fog. The journey down the river in both the film and the book exists as both a philosophical and allegorical level. In the book, the narrator stumbles upon Kurtz's compound in a remote outpost lined with a row of human heads. It is an image that always stayed with me when first reading that book. The scene in the film towards the end is easily the most haunting and cathartic that I have seen in a film. What Kurtz found at the end of the river was that the Viet Cong were willing to go to greater lengths to win. "Then I realized they were stronger than we. They have the strength to do that. If I had 10 divisions of those men, the our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion , without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us." This is the horror that Kurtz found and it it this horror, the loss of morality, that flew in the face of us in Vietnam. P.O.W. camps like the Hanoi Hilton are examples of this. This type of philosophy is not just grounded in Viet Cong tactics, it exists in all of us. There are always limits that we have, judgments that hold us back. Kurtz was one who abandonded this concept. Willard was one who discovered just how far Kurtz had gone.

"The river- sleepless, crowded with memories of men on ships. Hunters for gold and pursuers of fame. What greatness has not flowed on the ebb of that river. Into the mystery of an unknown earth. The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires. The river is black tonight, my friends. Look, it seems to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

At the end of the documentary Hearts of Darkness, Francis Coppola ends with saying: "To me the great hope is now that these little 8mm video recorded and stuff now- just people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, make a beautiful film with her father's cam-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form." This statment would become true particularly in the 90's when filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino became part of an independent filmmaking movement. It's still going on today. Somewhere in some garage is a screenplay written by an unknown that is probably the next Apocalypse Now. Or the next Godfather. But in today's age it is so hard to get through to Hollywood. It has become an era of branding and we as an audience don't really care. The time when Coppola could go out and make a film as daring as Apocalypse Now have been over for quite a while as is the decade in which that creative spark occured. Apocalypse Now was, to me, a culmination of the creative spark started in 1967 with films like Bonnie and Clyde & The Graduate. It is the equivalent to Pink Floyd's the Wall- it closed out a decade of creative influence and took an ambitous concept and ran with it.

Apocalypse Now opened on August 19, 1979. It has since grossed more than 150 million worldwide. The film went on to win three Golden Globe Awards, two Academy Awards and the Palm d'Or from the Cannes Film Festival. TCoppola would never make a film as amitious as it again. The philosopher Frederick Wilhelm Nietzsche said "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." That quote rings true about both the ideas of the film as well as the making of it. Francis Coppola nearly went mad making this film. He, along with the protagonist Willard took their own personal journeys. Willard, to assassinate a colonel, only to find out what drove the colonel to the brink. In Coppola's case it was to shoot a film that he deemed a failure from day 1 of shooting, only for it to be embraced as the greatest war film ever made. The film pushes beyond others into dark places of the soul and reveals truths that we do not want to discover that lies at the end of the river.

NOTE: My top 2 favorite films, this one and 2001: A Space Odyssey do have similar structures. Both are quests. They have very loose dream-like structures and are more of a series of broken episodes than continuing arcs. Both also present very deep questions and mythic images. Also, as many film fans know, there are two version of the film in existence. In 2001, the film was re-released with almost an hour of footage added to it. It was titled Apocalypse Now Redux. It included a French plantation scene in which Willard acquaints himself with a French woman. While this version is interesting, the initial theatrical cut is much tighter and concise.

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