Apocalypse Now (1979)

Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
 Martin SheenMarlon BrandoRobert Duvall

Plot:  During the on-going Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade Green Beret who has set himself up as a God among a local tribe.

  Drama / War
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Cinematography, Best Sound.  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction.  
Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  153min 

Rating:  M18 for disturbing violent images, language, sexual content and some drug use.  


This film is massive and controversial, a one-of-its-kind which would have defeated almost any other director.  And judging by the insurmountable problems plaguing on-set shootings and post-production, it is a miracle that it even got made.  

Directed by multiple Oscar-winning filmmaker of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), this Cannes Golden Palm winner marks the last high point of Francis Ford Coppola’s career whose movies in the 1980s and 1990s are uncharacteristically poor. 

Filmed in
Philippines, shooting was to be wrapped up within sixteen weeks.  But it took almost a year, overrunning tight budgets, and sucking the morale of everyone involved.  Lead actor Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack and Marlon Brando turned up overweight and unprepared.  

A typhoon also hit the filming site, destroying most of the sets.  The chaotic production of the film is as legendary as the film itself and is documented in the acclaimed documentary – Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker Apocalypse (1991). 

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel "Heart of Darkness", Coppola shares the screenwriting task with John Milius, and is nominated for an Oscar here.  They capture the horrors and futility of war through the weary eyes of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is assigned the precarious mission to find renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and “terminate (him) with extreme prejudice”. 

Disguised as an adventure set during the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is a haunting trip into hell.  Both hypnotic and at times repulsive, the film has its fair share of flaws, but it remains to be perhaps the most powerful war picture ever made. 

Besides an excellent display by Sheen, and the underappreciated performance by Brando, the other star performer is Robert Duvall who plays Colonel Kilgore whose line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is a classic.  Slightly charismatic but mostly mental, Kil
gore represents the ideal that ‘to be loony in a world of madness is to be sane.’  

His order of a raid on a Viet Cong controlled coastal village in the second quarter of the film is a tour de force, an unforgettable set piece in war cinema which combining with Wagner’s "The Ride of the Valkyries", stunning cinematography and immaculate editing of visuals and sound gives viewers an overwhelming sense of awe, that they are witnessing something great. 

Apocalypse Now is made up of three major acts - the pre-mission, the journey, and the confrontation with Kurtz.  It is the last act that sums up the whole meaning of Coppola’s vision; a surrealistic, almost nightmarish encounter with a monster in his lair.  Yet this very beast cajoles Willard and us into his labyrinth of philosophical thoughts, urging us to understand the reasons he has become the way he is, yet at the same time deflecting the absolute truth away. 

The best film to ever capture the reality of ‘Nam, Apocalypse Now is in my opinion a more potent picture than the three films that are always compared with - Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). 

Coppola has built such a staggering piece of cinema that its status as the top draw of its genre is rarely threatened…that is until Steven Spielberg crashed the party in 1998 with the visceral Saving Private Ryan, my favourite war movie of all-time.


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