Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola || Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr || Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Music by: Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola || Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro || Editing by: Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, Lisa Fruchtman || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 147-210 minutes
The real Godfather behind 1972’s gangster masterpiece, The Godfather and one of the prominent leaders of the New Hollywood Era, Francis Ford Coppola, was also the mastermind behind the most famous adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s fabled novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), released as Apocalypse Now in 1979. Widely considered one of the best, if not the best of the Vietnam War dramatizations, Coppolla formulates an enticing cocktail of a movie by transitioning the story, characters, and mood of Conrad’s famous book from the jungles of the Congo to the tropical forests of southeast Asia. During the narrative’s haunting travel down a river in Vietnam, and later Cambodia, the viewer descends into the metaphorical heart of darkness that dwells within every person, and the connotations that foreboding presence entails.
Martin Sheen stars as the lead of this dark tale, making it rather fitting that his son, Charlie Sheen, would later star in another iconic Vietnam flick, Platoon (1986), seven years later. The film’s flawless build up to his confrontation with Marlon Brando as the renegade US Army Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz, culminates in Kurtz’s dramatic assassination, making this war epic a near-perfect experience from start to finish, and a career-defining role for Martin Sheen.
The creepy setting and foreboding tone of Apocalypse Now are its greatest strengths. The paranoid tension that is built through great cinematography, intense set pieces, a star-studded cast full of great performances (Robert Duvall, a very young Lawrence Fishburne, among others), and impeccable pacing bring the full potential of this haunting story to the forefront. The location shooting conducted in the Philippines works well for the mood of the movie. The ominous landscapes emphasize how Sheen is in the least forgiving place in the world, and things are only going to get more malevolent and unforgiving by the end.
Aside from the amazing mood, atmosphere, setting, and pacing of the film, Brando’s performance as Kurtz is also great, and is arguably the most famous part of the movie. His disturbing mannerisms and creepy retelling of his war experiences from Vietnam recall the quiet power, ruthless determination, and conflicting emotions of the Don from The Godfather. The lighting in every scene with Kurtz, particularly his lectures on humanity and civilization, is perfect, emphasizing the dark, cynical emotions of Brando’s character. The parallel editing of his makeshift tribe’s celebration with his assassination by Sheen ends the film on a powerful climax.
Apocalypse Now stands out as the best of the Vietnam War dramatizations, even though it has arguably the least to do with the conflict itself. The heart of this apocalypse is ultimately Conrad’s famous novel, despite whatever deviations Coppola and company took from the source material. Their artistic freedom helped to elaborate upon this classic piece of canon from Western literature, and further reinvigorated it for the coming generations. Who doesn’t love the smell of napalm in the morning?
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Apocalypse Now has atmosphere, mood, and dark visuals for days as the definitive film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and Laurence Fishburne fill out a terrific cast.
? Why was Brando still stuffing tissues into his mouth? Wasn’t it hard for him to breathe? Did he ever choke on them? These are serious questions that need answering.