From its explosive introduction to The Doors’ The End to its final, unflinching moments, Apocalypse Now is the maniacal, dangerous creation Francis Ford Coppola trooped on through to accomplish. His shaky and loose adaptation of the values found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are established alongside the waning post-Vietnam war fallout, which inspired so many for the decades to come. It is hard to argue against Apocalypse Now as, at the very least, a definitive, stalwart remedial on the effect the war had on those involved. It is with that in mind that Coppola heads into the heart of darkness, combating not just the powers and horrors between America and Vietnam, but his own demons as well.
How these demons are displayed is an entirely different story. Immediately noticeable is the sense of craftsmanship on display. Shots fade into one another from various points in the movie to introduce Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen). He is agonized, not by the death of his marriage and divorce, but by his need to keep moving. He is desperate for a mission, a job of some description. “When it was over, I never want another” he mutters through narration. This is the final flight of a man burning out. To that degree, Coppola reflects on the outing of one last charge. Apocalypse Now feels very much like a man slipping away into madness, offering one final, triumphant effort mired by disaster after disaster. “Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live on a flicker.” Conrad wrote. Coppola has one such flicker here, and it is the glint of genius.
That artistry flows well and often throughout. Each character battles their demons, or are at least shown to be doing so. But the greatest demon of all is the one that taunts and stifles the life of Willard for much of the film, without ever appearing. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is the ideal soldier, but a man who, like everyone, has gone mad. Some are born mad, such as Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who is seemingly based on George Patton IV and his various tours of Vietnam. He flies in under the music of Wagner, the glorious, impending victory Patton was sure of guiding these troops into the terrifying jungles and poor conditions that nobody could possibly have prepared for.
A year on from the initial end of the war, Coppola still could not have prepared for the conditions of his work. 220 hours of footage and four years later, he had found a comfortable release. He has continued work on the film for forty years, trying to perfect his vision. But there is no clearer vision than in the sudden moments of death, the screams and cries as soldiers lose their brave and brutish façade in the face of gunfire and gore. They are people, that is what lingers throughout each cut Coppola offered, they are human. Scared, alone and trying to plough through a war they have no particular understanding of. They merely know they should try and make it to the end, even if they lose their sanity along the way.
What benefits the crazed and hysterical approach to creating Apocalypse Now is the sense that the war was very much the same. A priest gives a sermon as a cow is helicoptered out of a warzone, whilst steaks and beers are dropped in for the resting soldiers. All in the span of just a few moments, the disillusionment and desire for home is established. The brave boys that fought in Vietnam are present, but the lingering tensions of filming thousands of miles from home in damp, dark conditions became all too much for cast and crew. Its legacy is not one of worthy pay-off, and despite how incredible the film is, it should always be remembered as a fine example of perseverance in the face of disaster. In his own right, Coppola pushed forth into the heart of darkness and came out the other end a changed man.