‘Apocalypse Now’ At 40: How Does The Greatest War Film Ever Hold Up in 2019?

United Artists

On Aug. 15, 1979 — exactly 40 years ago today — Apocalypse Now arrived in theaters.

It was more than three years after Coppola commenced filming in the Philippines. The production had been plagued famously by numerous problems: tropical storms, massive budget over-runs, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, Marlon Brando’s unwillingness to learn his lines, Dennis Hopper’s unwillingness to not be whacked-out on drugs, hit-or-miss access to helicopters due to an actual war being waged by the local government against revolutionaries, and other calamities. Before American audiences even saw the film, the behind-the-scenes drama had already been woven into the mythology of Apocalypse Now. At the time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic was dubbed “Apocalypse Never?” by the entertainment press. But that’s all forgotten now. While onlookers in 1979 expected to experience once-in-a-lifetime levels of schadenfreude upon finally seeing the film, Apocalypse Now actually pulled off the unthinkable — it was a masterpiece that (almost) justified all of the trouble it took to make.

Of course, all of this is already well known by anyone with even a casual knowledge of Apocalypse Now, as are the film’s most iconic moments. Even people who haven’t seen Apocalypse Now are probably aware of the “Ride Of The Valkyries” helicopter-attack sequence, or Robert Duvall barking, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” This is a movie so deeply embedded in pop culture that it’s been parodied by movies that are deeply embedded in other generations’ pop culture, like Rushmore and Tropic Thunder.

In terms of legacy, Coppola’s film is commonly regarded as the best Vietnam movie, as well one of the best war films of any kind ever made. It’s also heralded as one of the greatest films of the ’70s, arguably the greatest decade in cinema history. But more than the actual movie, Apocalypse Now is also celebrated for its incredible backstory, about how Coppola risked his personal fortune, his career, and even his very sanity in order to make his masterpiece in the jungle. Along with James Cameron’s Titanic, it’s the go-to example of a film overcoming toxic buzz due to a difficult production and proving all of the haters wrong.

This mythology, coupled with Coppola’s impulse to constantly tinker with his films, has created an idea that the ultimate version of Apocalypse Now might still be out there, lurking in the ether like a tiger creeping in the jungle foliage. Today, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut will play in select theaters — this new 183-minute version splits the difference between the 153-minute theatrical cut from 1979 and 2001’s 202-minute Apocalypse Now Redux.

I haven’t seen Final Cut yet, but I have watched the theatrical cut (pretty much perfect) many times and Redux (way too long) exactly once. I can’t imagine that Final Cut will be anything more than a curio, but I will still pay to see it in a theater, because I’ve never seen any version of Apocalypse Now in a theater. And Apocalypse Now is one of those “you MUST see this in a theater” movies.

I do wonder, however, how Apocalypse Now might look to someone who hasn’t seen it before. I still love it, but undoubtedly there are elements that might seem laughably bombastic or even offensive to contemporary audiences. This is a movie, after all, that opens with a ridiculous (and also mesmerizing) Doors song playing over footage of a jungle being set ablaze. These images set the tone for a film that rides a dangerous line between exposing the ugliness of war and, at times, making it look totally awesome.

Along with Coppola, the most important creative force behind Apocalypse Now was co-screenwriter John Milius, the infamous Hollywood maverick and proudly pro-war conservative who supposedly inspired the character Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. (Here’s just one Sobchak-like story from the making of Apocalypse Now: When Sheen was recording his voiceover narration, Milius handed him a loaded gun, to help put him in character. You could say he wanted Sheen to be … out of his element.)

Milius was an asthmatic who, as a film student at USC, had fantasized about dying in a war but was instead granted a deferment. In 1969, he took his first stab at adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, a book that Orson Welles had tried to turn into his debut film three decades earlier. (He made Citizen Kane instead.) Milius’ intention was to take the book and “increase its horsepower tremendously” by setting it in Vietnam, as he explains in the 2014 documentary Milius.

It was Milius who provided the most memorable, and hyperbolic, moments in Apocalypse Now. This is best personified in the character of Lt. Col. Kilgore, the guy who says “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” On one hand, Kilgore is a grotesque and satirical exaggeration of military bravado, in the vein of nearly character from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove, one of the key influences on Apocalypse Now. On the other hand, Kilgore is an idealized, superhuman manifestation of Milius’ id. (Like Milius, Kilgore loves surfing almost as much as he loves guns.)

Kilgore is the one who leads the helicopter raid, which remains the most incredible action sequence I’ve ever seen in a movie. Its power derives from the visceral excitement of seeing real helicopters set off real explosions in an incredibly complicated sequence, and the concurrent horror of what those helicopters do to a Vietnamese village filled with women and children.

My view on Apocalypse Now is that Coppola wants the thrilling filmmaking to implicate the audience by making us complicit in the destruction we’re witnessing. He’s sending up American solipsism regarding our own sense of valor and self-righteousness … though he’s also at the same times catering to those vice in the audience. If you like Apocalypse Now, you might call that approach “nuanced” or “complicated.” But if you’re less charitable, it may just seem downright confused or muddled. Which is why, for some, the helicopter sequence comes across as straight-up gung-ho nationalism.

As an exploration of humankind’s lover/killer duality, Apocalypse Now rests on the push-pull of Coppola and Milius’s opposing ideologies. I find that aspect of the movie fascinating — even after four decades, Apocalypse Now is impossible to pin down, like those mists that mysteriously emanate from the Núng River. But I can understand why someone else might just find it problematic.

Apocalypse Now appears less of a war film than an entry in the cowboys-and-Indians tradition whereby the white protagonist must cling to the goodness of civilization in the face of pure barbaric evil,” asserts Film Comment‘s Phuong Le, who lamented the film’s utter lack of Vietnamese representation in an incisive essay last month. “Much of Apocalypse Now, both the original cut and the Redux version … portray[s] Vietnam as a spectacular but soulless backdrop for moral ruminations.”

The most controversial aspect of Apocalypse Now might in fact have to do the behind-the-scenes mythology. It’s one of the great examples of a film director being treated as an untouchable auteur. When I first started learning about movies as a teenager in the early ’90s, my love of Apocalypse Now was fueled by the 1991 documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which incorporated footage and secret recordings compiled by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, during the film’s torturous production. Eleanor ultimately documented just how unhinged her husband became as Apocalypse Now teetered on the brink of chaos.

Watching Hearts Of Darkness, it’s impossible not to feel for Coppola. The conditions in the Philippines were a logistical nightmare. Many of his actors were either in poor health or drugging themselves into oblivion. The Hollywood rumor mill was almost gleeful over the prospect that he might fail.

Over time, he starts to take on the characteristics of Kurtz, the maniacal colonel played by Marlon Brando, particularly his paranoia and megalomania. (He even wears Kurtz’s black pajamas on set.) When Sheen has his heart attack, Coppola is incensed over the possibility that the studio might find out and shut him down. “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything is okay, until I say Marty is dead,” he fumes.

As much as I love Apocalypse Now, I think I might love Hearts Of Darkness slightly more. I’ve certainly seen it more times. It shaped my ideas of what a “real” artist was at an impressionable time in my life. And it remains a source of unlikely inspiration. To this day, whenever I’m mired in a project that I’m convinced is going sideways without any hope of turning around, I think about Francis Coppola flailing away in Hearts Of Darkness, ranting at his wife about how his “greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject.” If the guy who made Apocalypse Now thought his work was garbage, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us who are insecure about our work.

Some will look at Apocalypse Now and lament over how it was once possible for an ambitious epic about a very divisive (and recent) war to come out during summer blockbuster season. Apocalypse Now went on to gross $83 million domestically, which equals $290 million when adjusted for the 2019 box office. That’s how I, admittedly, am inclined to view it — as a vindication for a great artist who stuck his neck out. However, “auteur theory” has come under fire lately. In a Hollywood Reporter op-ed from May, Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland suggested that “the auteur myth is misogynistic,” because it downplays the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and often erases the contributions of women.

In the case of Apocalypse Now, there’s a behind-the-scenes story that’s been overshadowed by Hearts of Darkness. While Eleanor Coppola is a central figure in the documentary, she’s not quite as frank in the film as she is in her 1979 book Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now, which is composed of journal entries she wrote during the film’s production from the spring of 1976 to the fall of 1978.

Notes is an essential companion to Apocalypse Now and Hearts Of Darkness, because it details the toll that making an epic film can take on a filmmaker’s family. As the book opens, it reads as a fairly straight-forward (and somewhat dull) accounting of the family’s life with Francis as he mounted Apocalypse Now and almost instantly encountered serious complications, including the self-inflicted setback of firing original leading man Harvey Keitel and hiring Sheen.

As the book progresses, however, it becomes apparent that what Eleanor is actually writing about is the slow implosion of her marriage. For a while, she has a habit of slipping in sentences portending doom and then not elaborating. In one entry, she writes, “I had a long, tearful conversation with Francis,” and then she describes at length the challenge of eating a chopped liver sandwich while driving.

But in time, we learn that Coppola is having an affair in the midst of trying to piece together Apocalypse Now in the editing room. He’s not sure if he wants to stay with Eleanor. He tells her during one argument that he would rather pay $1 million for a woman to cook, clean and have his babies. “Until he completes the film, he is in personal chaos,” she writes.

Notes at times reminded me of the John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night, where the actors become unsure of where reality ends and fiction begins. Where the play they’re in the middle of staging becomes the only reality. Eleanor likens herself to Kay, Michael Corleone’s wife from The Godfather movies, who is always kept at arm’s length by her husband. Meanwhile Francis, in Eleanor’s view, is a combination of Kurtz and Willard, the Martin Sheen character from Apocalypse Now, the lost soul who dreads leaving the chaos of Vietnam for the home in America he left behind. Eventually, the Coppolas’ marriage and the film became inseparable.

He said, “Can’t you see how scared I am, Ellie? You are saying, ‘Hurry up and define our marriage, I’m not waiting much more.’ United Artists is saying, ‘Hurry up and finish the film, we can’t hold off the banks and exhibitors much longer,’ and part of me is saying, ‘Just tough it out, don’t make some quick resolution in order to get off the hook.’”

All of this gets rolled into the movie for me now. (Francis and Eleanor eventually reconciled, by the way.) When Apocalypse Now debuted at Cannes, Francis Coppola famously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, my film is Vietnam.” But Apocalypse Now is also about the end of the “New Hollywood” era of cinema, and the greatness and badness of auteurs, and the Coppolas’ marriage, and Francis’ courage, and Eleanor’s courage, too. Francis Coppola has his new version of Apocalypse Now, and I have mine.

‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’ opens today in select theaters nationwide.

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