Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) has, over the decades, attained the stature of not merely a great war film, but a sort of mythic masterpiece of American cinema. At the time, however, it was considered a “troubled production” – the vision of a director run amok; with money (having cost at least $31 million), with stars (an extravagant $1 million of the budget went to an overweight, almost unrecognizable and underprepared Marlon Brando), and with time (the film was shot over the course of a few years in the Philippines).
In his review for the New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby wrote “It’s an adventure yarn with delusions of grandeur, a movie that ends … not with a bang, but a whimper.” In a sense, this is a fair assessment. Certainly the film’s ending, following the violent hacking to death of Kurtz (Brando) at the hands of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), if by no means a letdown, does culminate in a murky, eerie, quiet montage which you would not expect from a war movie. The film is not exactly “operatic” then, as Coppola is quoted as saying – despite the use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” over the famous air strike led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry. It is instead, despite what Canby says, more of a tone poem, giving impressions of Vietnam, of the madness that drives Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) mad, rather than a rock-em’ sock-em’ war film.
This difficult and precarious balance between the large epic and the intimate tone poem is perhaps best described by Roger Ebert’s original review, an assessment I happen to agree with, where he calls it “a good and important film – a masterpiece” and “a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking – of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.”
At the least, Apocalypse Now has stood the test of time as a great film.
Note: Written for Sue Brower’s Seventies course in Spring 2010.
Canby, Vincent. Apocalypse Now. The New York Times. 1979 Aug. 15.
Ebert, Roger. Apocalypse Now. The Chicago Sun-Times. 1979 June 1.