Spellbinding, haunting, unsettling, harrowing, visionary, hypnotic, artistic, hallucinatory & completely bizarre, Apocalypse Now is a unique cinema which, in its pursuit of portraying the dark nature of human psyche, ventured so deep into the abyss that it itself transformed into possibly the most insane piece of cinematic art there ever has been in motion picture history. Notable for its well-documented troubled production; the traumatic experience of which evidently seeped into the final product, while also succeeding as the most potent & powerful inspection of the horrors of war captured on-screen, each & every frame of Apocalypse Now has madness written all over it and yet there is no denying that it is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest films to ever grace the film canvas.
Adapting Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War era, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, who is sent to Cambodia on a classified mission to locate & “terminate with extreme prejudice” a dangerous former Green Beret named Colonel Kurtz who, according to his higher officers, has gone completely insane, has murdered many innocent people & commands an army of local tribe who worship him as their God. While journeying on the mission along with his small crew on a Navy patrol boat, Willard meets the enigmatic Lt. Col. Kilgore, discovers the insanity most men have descended into and the more he reads about Col. Kurtz, the more unsure he becomes of himself & his mission until he comes face to face with Kurtz himself. There are no opening or closing credits in this film. And whatever exists in between is one exceptional blend of art, vision, beauty, horror & madness.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, whose previous works include masterpieces like The Godfather & The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now remains Coppola’s final masterpiece, taking into account the fact that he never made anything even half as good as his films of the 1970s after this one. The stressful experience of shooting this manic feature eventually burned every single creative cell in Coppola’s brain and yet, in spite of all the calamities, Apocalypse Now will always be considered as the finest achievement of Francis Ford Coppola’s filmmaking career, not because it’s better than The Godfather (it surely isn’t) but because Coppola sacrificed everything, including his own sanity, to make it work & he still hasn’t recovered from it nor he probably will. The screenplay underwent a lot of changes throughout its production but still in the end managed to deliver some of the most memorable film quotes & iconic sequences ever filmed, one highlight being the Ride of the Valkyries sequence.
Amidst all the chaos that surrounds this film, its technical aspects are executed well beyond excellence. Cinematography provides a hallucinatory feeling throughout its runtime, each frame is meticulously detailed and the camerawork is at its absolute best when it comes to the use of lighting & shadows, most notable during Col. Kurtz first appearance. Editing trims millions of feet of footage into 152 minutes of tightly structured story which never deviates from the film’s main theme for even once. Sound mixing & sound editing are used to near-perfection, be it the combat scenes or the ambient noises of the jungle and last but not the least, the eerie score by Carmine Coppola seamlessly integrates into the film’s narrative. The film also makes very impressive use of existing music to drive its plot and all in all, be it the cinematography, art direction, editing, sound or music etc, every single aspect of Apocalypse Now is unsettling & intriguing at the same time but in the end, it all works.
Featuring an ensemble cast of Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando & others, the performances in Apocalypse Now is one of the film’s biggest strengths. Martin Sheen stars as Captain Benjamin Willard, who himself looked deranged upon introduction & for the most part of the film is busy observing the events silently and still, in that range, Sheen does a commendable job. Robert Duvall gives the most energetic performance of the film & is simply show-stealing in his short role as Lt. Col. Kilgore; a surfing fanatic & enigmatic leader. Other characters included are Willard’s boat crew consisting of Chief, Lance, Chef & Mr. Clean, ably played by Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest & Laurence Fishburne, respectively. But the most impressive & dominating performance comes from cinema’s most influential actor, Marlon Brando, who moulded himself expertly to get into the psyche of Col. Walter Kurtz & even though he is present on screen only during the final phase of the film, he still manages to leave the most everlasting impression amongst all with his haunting & breathtaking performance.
Looking back, it’s impossible to imagine a cinema like this to have existed if everything that did go wrong during its entire production hadn’t gone wrong. Incomplete script, expensive sets getting destroyed due to bad weather, Sheen suffering a heart attack, Brando turning up overweight, Coppola contemplating suicide & many more events like that, the making of this insane masterpiece pushed its entire cast & crew right into the abyss but what came out from that different paradigm, is a picture that remains unchallenged & is still in a league of its own. On an overall scale, with its immensely dark & unhinged plot, outstanding direction, bold screenplay, perfect use of lighting & camera angles, tight editing, tense score & remarkable performances from its strong cast, Apocalypse Now depicts war as a descent into primal madness and pushes cinema to new depths previously thought to be non-existent. Significant for its artistic contribution to cinema, influential for its visionary take on war, and truly unforgettable for its maddening experience, Apocalypse Now is cinema at its most perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline & pure. The Horror… The Horror…!