The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Apocalypse Now

As a fan of movies, there are just certain films you have to see. When you haven't seen those movies, you typically get a reaction something like 'HOW HAVE YOU NOT SEEN THAT? IT'S A CLASSIC!' The reaction can be angrier or happier depending on the individual. I've gotten that reaction concerning 1979's Apocalypse Now. Well, check that one off the list.

Having already served at least one tour in Vietnam, special forces Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is wasting away in Saigon as he battles through some personal demons. He waits and waits for a mission, and finally gets one, but it's nothing like he expected. Across the Cambodian border, an American officer and Special Forces vet, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), has gone rogue, and Intelligence things he's gone insane with his adoring command still intact. Willard's mission sounds simple but is anything but. Boarding a small patrol boat with its close-knit crew, Willard travels all the way up a river into Cambodia with one objective; terminate Kurtz with extreme discretion.

While director Francis Ford Coppola's highly controversial and much debated movie is typically grouped as a war movie, it is really anything but. It is based off Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, albeit based in a Vietnam setting. Not to sound pretentious -- the movie does enough of that -- but this movie isn't about war. It's more about the affects of war, how it hits people, how it impacts them. I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, the longer version Coppola released in 2001, and I feel safe saying it is unlike any movie I've ever seen before. Emotional, moving, existential, other-worldly, upsetting. It defies descriptions in so many ways.

The best I can do though is surreal. The Vietnam setting is a jumping off point for the weirdness. At 202 minutes (the Redux), it is a leisurely, slow moving story. It is one of the most incredibly visual movies I've ever seen, haunting in its beauty at times and upsetting at others. Working with his father, a composer himself, Coppola creates a musical score that is both classical and innovative. It uses an electronic synthesizer and lots of percussion, setting an eerie, unsettling mood to this trippy, even psychedelic trip up the river to Kurtz's compound. The feeling and aura of the movie is unreal and hard to put into words. Coppola creates a vision of a war -- Vietnam -- that I can only imagine was more terrifying than the actual war itself.

This is a movie about a journey though, both physically moving up the river and in one's mind, specifically Sheen's Capt. Willard. In a movie that runs three-plus hours, we get to see a lot of these bizarre, surreal moments in the journey. It starts with an opening set to The Doors' The End, and then we're off to the Intelligence community where the mission is explained, and then Willard is to to the Air Cav, a helicopter unit commanded by Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), more interested in surf conditions than objectives. That's just the start though. We see a disintegrating force of soldiers the further north the boat travels, officers in "command" long since gone. The patrol boat also runs into a USO show with Playboy playmates, the crew later running into them at an isolated Medevac station, and is also captured of sorts by French plantation owners (including Christian Marquand) still in Vietnam from the French occupation years before. The longer the journey, the stranger things get.

Through the good and the bad -- and there's a fair share of both -- are some moments of perfection. Kilgore's Air Cav command assaulting a Viet Cong coastline post is a brilliant sequence, one of the most realistic, intense, adrenaline-pumping action scenes ever. It's set to Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries, the music the attacking helicopters listen to as they fly into battle. Has to be seen to be believed and appreciated. Watch part of it HERE. Another highpoint is the patrol boat reaching the last American post on the river, a bridge under constant construction and under constant attack. Arriving in the dead of night during an attack with lights strung across the river, Willard and the crew find the semblance of what used to be a command in a dream-like, eerily beautiful sequence.

Onto the cast, and there's plenty to talk about there. Sheen nails his part as the tortured Capt. Willard. His narration fills in much of the movie's quieter gaps, treading the line between obnoxious and pretentious with genuinely heartfelt messages. His own descent into madness, his obsession to finish the mission is startling in its own right. Brando doesn't even appear until 150 minutes in, and his performance is almost a caricature of himself. It's all right, but a little much (more on that later). Duvall very much earns his Best Supporting Nod (but didn't win) as Col. Kilgore, infamously stating "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The patrol boat's crew include Chief (Albert Hall), the no-nonsense commander, Clean (very young Laurence Fishburne), Chef (Frederic Forrest) and zen-like surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms). G.D. Spradlin and Harrison Ford have small parts as Intelligence officers giving Willard his mission. 

As good as parts of the movie can be, it also struggles to hold its momentum until the end. The story drifts along far too much, and by the time Brando's Kurtz actually reveals himself it's almost a disappointment. There is little energy in the build-up to the finale, an incredible ending that has stirred up controversy over the years in all its different variations. Dennis Hopper as a stoned-out photojournalist (Scott Glenn has a small part here as one of Willard's predecessors) and Brando spout off with lots of philosophical musings that mean nothing but sound good. Kurtz delivers one moving monologue about the horrors of war, but it's lost in a sea of drifting, pointless "messages." That's the problem with much of the movie. It wants to say something about war and man, but what exactly? 

Through everything though, this is an incredible movie. Even if you hate it, Apocalypse Now will almost certainly make an impact on you either negative or positive. I watched it two days ago and am still wrapping my head around it. It is unlike any other movie I can think of, and truly needs to be experienced.

Apocalypse Now <---trailer (1979): ***/****


  1. I hated this movie, which started out great but got increasingly pointless and onanistic as it went along. I suspect the scenes added to the Redux were the culprit as they really killed the pace just when it should have been picking up. Brando's scenes are a dud after all the build-up. Maybe I'd like the shorter version better? It has its fans.

  2. There were parts I hated too, basically anything that got too existential or preachy about the horror of war. I was disappointed in Brando's appearance too, especially because as a 1st-time viewer you know it's coming and it's Brando! But then the movie just ends.