This Is the End: James Gray on 'Apocalypse Now'
August 11, 2014, Rolling Stone
August is upon us, which invariably means withering heat and a hell of a
lot of bad cinema. Worn out by the time the dog days hit, the studios
enter hibernation mode, concerned mostly with counting their early
summer blockbuster returns (or licking their wounds). There's hope
around the corner — the fall festivals loom — but that moment isn't here
yet. The last month of summer is usually barren.
Except when it isn't.
It certainly wasn't 35 years ago — August 15, 1979, to be exact, when Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
premiered for American audiences. I was quite young at the time, but I
still remember how high the stakes seemed. It had been five long years
since Mr. Coppola had directed three monumental triumphs in a row: The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather: Part II.
He had made himself the King of the New Hollywood, and his talent and
ambition appeared limitless. Naturally, many in the press couldn't wait
for him to crash: "Apocalypse Never" repeatedly crowed one gossip
columnist, and you can bet Coppola and his team at American Zoetrope
heard all the snickering, loud and clear. It's easy for us now to forget
the amount of shit Coppola had to take, but it was brutal. Rumors flew
about how calamitously wrong the production had gone, and the unending
editing process more than hinted at the possibility of artistic
disaster. So when the lights came down inside the Ziegfeld Theatre in
New York that August day, it's fair to say the moment was fraught.
And let's be honest here: The pre-release reviews were mixed. A slightly
different version had screened the previous May at the Cannes Film
Festival, and it had won the prestigious Palme d'Or prize. But
controversy and doubt remained. Maybe it was the war — or should I say
The War? Vietnam gave the movie a political charge, and people had
their expectations. They hoped, perhaps, for some kind of explanation.
They hoped for pat condemnations. They hoped for answers.
There were none. For Apocalypse Now poses questions without any
attempt to provide definitive answers, and the film's profound
ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic. In fact, the very
sensuousness of the movie, its immersive and visceral impact, seduced me
before I could recoil from its horrors. Think, for a moment, of that
majestic opening: Initially, there is nothing but that strange,
frabjous, now-famous, noise. Thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk… Next,
the shot: palm trees, blue sky, orange smoke — and a helicopter, in slow
motion, drifting wasp-like across the frame. Cue the music.; when Jim
Morrison pronounced this to be "The End," an enormous explosion (bigger
than any we'd seen before) lit up the theater. By the time the flames
had settled, that shot had declared itself one of the greatest opening
images in cinema history. Amazingly, the film that followed proved no
We went upriver with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he pursued
Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and somehow, we felt as if we were going
along with him, deeper and deeper, so far that turning back would be
impossible. The images were crepuscular, lush — IMAX before there was
IMAX. Verdant greens, ferocious oranges, scum-bled blues, the darkest of
blacks, all captured by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro with
surpassing brilliance. How frightening it all was, how invigorating!
Yet the film is more than a visceral experience. Its core narrative idea, based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness,
provided Coppola and co-screenwriter John Milius with a true dramatic
spine. And setting the adaptation amidst the terrors of the Vietnam War
allowed them to explore the idea that our civilization had pursued its
own catastrophe. The film introduces us to American might in all its
mechanized glory, then methodically reduces that power to nothing. Our
violence had rebounded against us. Apocalypse Now, like so many
national myths, showcases the intimate connection between the
establishment of order and the violence upon which that order is
The film is indeed self-consciously mythic, and with its transcendent
imagery, it enters the cosmic realm. Captain Willard is an enigmatic
hero, and we need the narration (written by Dispatches author
Michael Herr) to help us know him. Surely the man has his dark side: he
kills a wounded Vietnamese woman and hacks Colonel Kurtz to death. But
by the end, Willard retains enough of his soul to protect the innocent,
childlike Lance (Sam Bottoms), and here we see that the human connection
endures. The film's experience expands in this moment, becoming vast
and uncanny — yet familiar. Apocalypse Now does not alienate us
or deconstruct itself. In fact, it welcomes us in. We all but
participate in the strange water skiing and surfing obsessions and the
hallucinatory Playboy Bunny show. We take macabre pleasure at
witnessing the chaos at Do Long bridge. And of course, we are utterly
thrilled by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his amoral attack on the
village — a justly famous set-piece, scored to Wagner's "Ride of the
Valkyries," that compels us even as we shrink from it. We become
complicit in darkness, and this is perhaps the film's greatest coup.
The epic scale of the picture (pre-CGI, of course) does not cease to
astound. That much, at least, was celebrated back in 1979, but to me
this is damning with faint praise. Too often a logistical achievement is confused with artistic excellence. Great art doesn't demand great scale (A Woman Under the Influence, anyone?), but there's no denying that Apocalypse Now dreams big, and it matters. So when the last act came, some considered it a letdown.
Critics called the final 30 minutes, dedicated almost exclusively to
Marlon Brando's improvised ruminations, pretentious and muddled. I don't
agree. Coppola chose to show Kurtz as a god who has cast himself into
the underworld, wrestling with the gravest of ethical dilemmas. Once
again, we're in Willard's shoes, bearing witness to the Colonel's
disintegration in the face of the tragic choices his country has made.
Our torturous passage through Kurtz's struggle is precisely what makes
us aware of our own complicity. True, the sequence risks exceeding the
boundaries of traditional formal neatness, but I don't care.
"Perfection" can be its own limitation, and sometimes a "flaw" may
contribute mightily to a work's ultimate power. (A work without flaws is
a work without ambition.) The Roman poet Horace often inserted lines in
his poetry that stuck out like a sore thumbs, forcing the reader to
confront the established pattern; Horace's aims were different, and more
profound, than the reader initially thought they were. Apocalypse Now functions in the same way, its makers committed to a rare and glorious vision.
Take a look at the landscape since this film was released: How many have
even tried something this monumental? It may well be the last of its
breed, and for this reason, among many others, I regard Francis Ford
Coppola as a national treasure. "There is no art without risk," he has
said, and it's all we can do to hope that we follow this courageous
ideal. I might well go to the jungle to make a movie soon, and I've
often joked that given the difficulties of such an enterprise, any
advice from Mr. Coppola likely would be a simple "don't go." But in
truth, this is a dumb joke, because no one is more inspiring and
encouraging in both word and deed. There are many pretenders. Francis
Ford Coppola went out and did it. He gave us a work that lives and
breathes still, its vitality an enduring force. And whenever we question
our own reach, we need only look to this magnificent movie, in all its
untidy and coruscating beauty, as the ultimate example.