Charlie don't surf!

Exposing the horror, confronting the truth

Published: Apr 07 2014, 01:01:am

APOCALYPSE NOW. Co-written by John Milius. Music by  Carmine and Francis Coppola. Co-written and directed by Francis Coppola. Running time: 148 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: violence throughout. In 70mm and stereophonic sound.

Sunday, August 12, 1979
    NEW YORK — Five years ago, Francis Ford Coppola set out on a journey. With the Oscar-winning Godfather films behind him, Coppola announced he would next direct Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam war movie loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness.
    He promised it would be something special. He promised "to create a film experience." He promised his movie would be unlike anything we had ever seen before.
    Friday night [August 10, 1979], Coppola delivered on all his promises. Screened for the first time in its final form, Apocalypse Now is very, very special.
    A stunning, shattering film experience, it is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. There really has never been a movie like it.
    Reduced to plotline, Apocalypse Now is the story of a man with a mission. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is a military assassin.
    Willard's orders are to find Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade Special Forces officer, and to "terminate his command with extreme prejudice."
    Kurtz, once an able, intelligent officer with a brilliant record, has apparently gone insane. Together with an army of Montagnard tribesmen and American deserters, Kurtz is off waging his own war in neutral Cambodia. He must be stopped.
    Conrad's 1899 novel, the literary inspiration for the film, was set in colonial Africa. The story's narrator journeys up a river to encounter an extraordinary white trader named Kurtz, a man whom the natives worship as a god. Before it's over, Conrad's hero confronts forces within himself and his fellow man that can only be described as "the horror."
    In his film, Coppola shows us the horror. He sets Willard on board the Erebus, a naval PBR (Patrol Boat - River). His companions are a pair of black sailors (Albert Hall and Larry Fishburne) and a pair of whites (Fred Forrest and Sam Bottoms).
    Together they enter a nightmare world that is tense, violent and all the more frightening because it really did exist.
    A moody, atmospheric, but tightly controlled film, Apocalypse Now is an overwhelming achievement. Coppola set out to capture "the madness, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma" of the Vietnam war.
    He succeeds to a remarkable degree. His is a picture that provokes deep irresistible feelings without insulting the intelligence of the audience.
    A vivid, rich and textural work, Apocalypse Now blends sound and image in new and striking ways. One example (and one of the most remarkable scenes ever filmed) shows an air cavalry attack on an enemy-held village.
    Because Lt.-Col. William Kilgore (Robert Duvall) believes that Wagnerian opera "scares the hell out of the slopes," he plays it over his loud-hailer. As his helicopters sweep in for the kill, "The Ride of the Valkyries" fills the sky. Such familiar operatic music has never been used to more devastating effect in a motion picture.
    For Coppola, Apocalypse Now was a make-or-break film. He gambled both his reputation and his personal fortune to make the film the way he wanted it. The spectacular results were well worth his extravagant risk.
*   *   *
    It was a long journey. John Milius wrote the original screenplay in 1967. Although Coppola owned the property (through his American Zoetrope Studios), his friend George Lucas was to be the director. The project was shelved.
    It was revived in 1974. Coppola took personal charge and, when the U.S. military refused to co-operate with the filmmaker, he decided to go on location in the Philippines. By March, 1976, the film was ready to go before the cameras.
    Budgeted at $12 million, Apocalpyse Now had a four-month shooting schedule (March to July) and was supposed to premiere on April 7, 1977 (Coppola's 38th birthday).
    Cast problems, cost problems, health problems and weather problems (Typhoon Olga destroyed an estimated $1.3-million worth of sets, and cost Coppola six weeks of production time) interfered. Principal photography was not completed until May, 1977, and the final cost of the film stands at approximately $30.5 million.
    For the last two years, the film has been "a work in progress." In May, Coppola entered his still-unfinished film in the Cannes Film Festival. Incomplete though it was, Apocalypse Now still walked off with the Festival's top prize, the Palm d'Or.
    The public gets its first look at the film Wednesday, but only at theatres in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Apocalypse Now is scheduled to open in Vancouver October 10, a 70-mm, stereophonic sound production at the Stanley Theatre.

Friday, October 5, 1979.
THERE'S NO POINT COMPARING Apocalypse Now to other films about the Vietnam war. With the exception of director Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans (1978), there hasn't been another one worth the time that it takes to view it.
    Forget last year's Academy Awards. For some reason, the U.S. film industry felt the need of political purgation.
    In less confused times, the triteness of 1978's Coming Home (a self-indulgent remake of 1950's The Men, all tarted up with chic political relevance and an over-loud rock score), and the tediousness of The Deer Hunter (more than three hours of offensive nonsense) would have been considered beneath contempt.
    Forget all of them. Apocalypse Now is unique.
    Eight weeks ago, the picture was previewed in New York. A few  minutes after the screening, standing on the street outside the Ziegfeld Theatre, I scribbled the following in my notebook:  ''There has never been a movie like Apocalypse Now. The arsenal of critical adjectives is ill-equipped to deal with a film that promises an experience and succeeds."
    It was a first impression. Perhaps a bit too extravagant, I thought. I'll have to take some time and think about it some more.
    Since then, dozens of reporters have written about how we all filed out of the theatre, silent, grim-faced, introspective. At the end, there had been no applause, no wisecracks, no conversation. We all had to think about it some more.
    Was it possible that, after years of looking at movies for a living, we had actually seen one that fulfilled the incredible promise of the medium?
        Now, with the film about to open in Vancouver, I'm sure that is exactly what happened. This is a picture so stunning, so powerful and so true that seeing it actually does make a difference. Apocalypse Now comes as close as a film can to simulating direct experience, a picture capable of altering perceptions and bringing about real change in the outlook and attitudes of the viewer.
    This, apparently, is precisely what director Francis Ford Coppola set out to do. His inspiration was Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.
    Conrad's tale was set in colonial Africa. His narrator, a professional sailor named Marlow, accepts the captaincy of a riverboat operated by a company trading out of the Belgian-held territories.
    During his journey upriver, he hears about the extraordinary Mr. Kurtz. Everyone is in  awe of Kurtz, for he has about him the air of a man of destiny.
    Marlow is fascinated, all the more so when he learns that Kurtz has apparently gone mad, gone savage, and used his powerful personality to set himself up as a native god. Kurtz has succumbed to "the horror," the primitive evil that exists within all of us.
    Coppola's script (co-credited to John Milius) differs in at least one significant way. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is not a passive observer. A professional military assassin, he has already made his accommodation with "the horror. ''
    Willard has an almost physical craving for the kind of mission that "does not exist." Apocalypse Now is the story of his journey upriver to locate and "terminate" Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade Green Beret, whose methods have become "unsound."
    Like Marlow, Willard is fascinated by Kurtz, who, it turns out, was once an able and brilliant soldier. Unlike Marlow, he is troubled by his mission. Killing doesn't bother him, but "this time it was an American, and an officer."
    This time he's uneasy, somehow offended. On this journey, he will see the war in Vietnam through new eyes.
    What are we to make of all this? As Willard's story unfolded, I couldn't help recalling something John F. Kennedy liked to say: "Of those to whom much is given, much is expected."
    The Vietnam war was unexpected. Instead of bringing the wonders of freedom, democracy and technological civilization to a backward people, it brought a generation of young Americans face to face with ''the horror."
    Coppola not only shows it, he makes us feel it.
    Making his way upriver, Willard encounters Lt.-Col. William Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the flamboyant commander of an Air Cavalry unit. Willard needs a lift and, as a result, accompanies Kilgore's force on an early morning attack on an enemy-controlled village.
    Kilgore, an avid surfer, chooses his target on the basis of local wave quality, looking forward to a little R&R later in the day. No sense leaving a seaside hamlet in Viet Cong hands, he reasons. "Charlie don't surf!"
    An heir to the mantle of Custer, Kilgore maintains many of the colourful cavalry traditions. It is impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement and genuine exhilaration as his unit takes to the sky.
    Because he believes that "it scares the hell out of the slopes,'' Kilgore plays Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" during his final approach. Coppola thus manages to fire our anticipation both visually and aurally.
    Suddenly, the theatre goes silent. Now, as we look down into a village square, we become aware of ordinary morning sounds. Children are crossing the square on their way to school. Quietly, as if in the distance, we can make out . .  is it music?
     Oh god, it's "The Ride of the Valkyries"!
    This is not right. The good guys don't waste children!
     As our delicious sense of anticipation turns sour, Coppola cuts to a shot of the gunships coming in fast and low out of the sun, over the surf — Kilgore's  goddamned surf! — engines roaring, "Valkyrie" blasting, guns blazing . . .
    I realized that I was sobbing. I couldn't help reacting with savage excitement to the bloodlust — the horror — and couldn't help the feeling of outrage and emptiness because it was all so tragic, so unnecessary, so intensely personal.
    "If that's how Kilgore fought the war," Willard says in narration, "I began to wonder what they had against Kurtz."
    That, of course, is the point. Conrad's Marlow had to travel a long way to see "the horror.'' In Vietnam, it is all around.
    Kurtz, the renegade waging his own war, differs from Kilgore not so much in degree as in quality. Kilgore thinks he's doing "his duty."
    Kurtz knows better. He's smart enough to realize that duty is no excuse. He has embraced "the horror'' of his own free will. He is terrifying because his guilt is real.
    More than a generation ago [1949], Audie Murphy, the Second World War's most-decorated (American) soldier, published his autobiography, To Hell and Back. In 1955, his book was filmed, becoming in the process a routine Hollywood war movie.
    There is nothing routine about Apocalypse Now. Using, his awesome skills as a filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola carries us further into the abyss than any movie has gone before.
    In the process he exposes us to "the horror," bringing us as close to it as a reasonable man ever needs to get.

The above are restored versions of two Province reviews by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In 1979, I shared with Coppola the belief that movies could make a difference, that speaking truth to power through such works as Apocalypse Now, and 1976's All the President's Men would insure a better world for us all. In 2014, I realize that their lasting legacy was to alert power to the importance of better controlling the mass media. Following the 9/11 event, the U.S. media effectively ignored widespread public opposition to the 2001 deployment of forces to Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion (and subsequent occupation) of Iraq. As both "wars" dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the pretexts upon which they were based. By 2006, it appeared that a flood of anti-war films were in preparation. At least six features — Home of the Brave (2006), Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Redacted (all 2007) and Stop-Loss (2008) — were released. All were well-made, and all bombed at the box-office. For reasons too complex to unpack here, the cinema is no longer the place for serious civic engagement. The U.S withdrew its combat troops from Iraq in December 2011, after nearly nine years, but its forces remain in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, America continues its love affair with superheroes, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier the No. 1 box-office attraction since it opened Friday (April 4).

See also: In an interview in New York, following the 1979 preview screening of Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola mused how he was "losing years off my life."