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Hearts of Dante's Apocalypse

Updated on July 19, 2014

This is the end, my friend.

"My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie is Vietnam."- Francis Ford Coppola at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
"My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie is Vietnam."- Francis Ford Coppola at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. | Source

Director Francis Ford Coppola: On Monday.

"I bring to my life a certain amount of mess"
"I bring to my life a certain amount of mess"

The Beginning of "The End, My Friend"

Francis Ford Coppola cusses out a producer over the phone from his office after hearing that Marlon Brando- a veteran of big budget Hollywood- was about to drop out of the film he had already invested so much of his personal income into. This would’ve marked the 2nd actor in this production that he would have to replace, the other being Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen. He might have been comfortable getting a new actor, but Apocalypse Now was now reaching a make or break point, threatening to- once again- bury the dreams of struggling artist/director Coppola. Ultimately, Brando stays and production furthers. Copella is desperate, wanting to prove that his company American Zoetrope isn’t just a collection of hippies and potheads looking for a piece of the “new hollywood” pie; the truth is, that pie was already picked over by the this time- this time being end of the 1970’s.

Wait.. is that...?

Yes, that is Laurence Fishburne. And the acne that would make his face resemble lunar topography.
Yes, that is Laurence Fishburne. And the acne that would make his face resemble lunar topography. | Source

I'm a dude, payin' a dude...$$$

Despite the hitches, Apocalypse Now was released in 1979 after an over 3 year production of delays, budget constraints- and to add insult to injury- a 3 ring circus of Hollywood media, and U.S. government criticism, seemingly working in a trinity with the Philippine government in order to stifle the creation of the most epic films about the Vietnam War ever made (and this journey would later be parodied in 2008’s comedy Tropic Thunder). The end result was as spectacular and mesmerizing as it was mysterious and mythological. And just as much as the war was over and America was still in mourning over the loss (of the people and the conflict), the filmmakers of new Hollywood became established; comfortable in their stances on the themes of war, poverty, authority and the relationship they often confronted with the old Hollywood- which was now more corporatized than in the days of David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock. Though the agenda of these creative minds was to “give the finger” to the corporate powers that be, it seemed like some of them were starting to bend to them, or become the very thing they sought to fight against. Whether this was because of corporations “the man” giving in or rebel “the artist” throwing in the towel is still up for debate.

They've come to snuff the roster

I love the smell of brimstone in the morning.
I love the smell of brimstone in the morning. | Source

Dante's Saigon: a Mad, Mad, Mad world

The theme of the Vietnam War in 'Now that strikes me the most is madness. Madness is an accurate byproduct of any conflict; AN has a cast of mad men . Special Ops officeer Benjamin Willard is on a mission to kill Marlon Brando AKA: Walter Kurtz who has gone far from merely being AWOL to going completely insane. Willard boards a boat along side a ragtag group of personalities, with a dossier of information about his target; a story about how this man went from a promising soldier that got promptly promoted to the rank of Colonel- before it all went to Hell. After fighting in the ‘Nam, Kurtz goes completely insane, takes over a village and rules over a people with a mind that is not only unstably crazed but also charismatically calculating- even poetic. It’s all Madness. Our hero is slipping into madness from the very beginning of story as he trashes his hotel room in a drunken stupor after a series of flashbacks about the war he’s already been fighting. Mad heroes. The story also revolves around a band of soldiers, both young and old- all of them are affected by the war. They exchange terrible, or often humorous tales of past victories and defeats. While these behaviors are normal in a time of war, in the scope of Coppola’s vision- the theme of madness and war translate this story from a war story to a mythology the likes of Dante’s Inferno, and The Odyssey.

Apocalypse Now - 'Hotel Room Freakout'

Let's pit father against son! Shall we?

Who plays the better 'Nam veteran?

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Sorry, Charlie. Your dad was "winning" far sooner

One of Kurtz’s mad rantings tells the story of enemy soldier that hacked off the arms of villager children that had been inoculated for a vaccine, and as he tells of “the horror”, he doesn’t flinch and he even commends the savagery of the men that did the act. Francis must have thought very much the same when shooting this film as much of is very much under complete, unflinching control regardless of how insane the themes and characters appear.. One scene in particular that shows the theme of madness-versus-control in Now is the “flight of the valkyrie” as choppers fly over a Viet Cong village. While most directors would have used nauseating handheld camerawork, as well as not given much of any direction to the crew on screen other than “just run” the scene Francis shot was far from unruly or uncontrolled. Every shot was painstakingly planned as to which helicopter flew where, who was firing at what object and what explosion was timed for what location. Another example is the moment we first meet the character of Bill Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall), who walks casually though the landscape of mangled bodies, explosive munitions discharging, and other aircraft landing and taking off. Every corner of the screen is moving with kineticism (Hell, there’s even people surfing in the background!) and Copella even uses colorful smoke signal flares to paint the scene with yellows, purples and reds (in the reality of the ‘nam, soldiers didn’t use just any color flare for a situation). The third example of madness in cinematography was when Willard finally confronts Kurtz and I see the showdown. The slaughter of Kurtz is in almost complete darkness, only a few shreds of light give us the impression of what has happened, but we know that he is hacking at Kurtz with a machete. Why? Because that moment is also intercut with a slow motion chopping of a live water buffalo shown in full light as Kurtz savaged followers chant and dance next to a fire. Contained inside the four corner of a frame is madness, but only is it contained so well and shot so well thanks to the calculated judgement of Francis Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. All this craziness on screen, but so much unfazed control editing the art.


Martin Sheen was beyond himself to be Willard in this role, and my introduction to him in Apocalypse Now proves this to me most in the very beginning of the film. Willard awakens from a nightmare of napalmed fields and choppers only to see a ceiling fan further remind him of the battles he’s seen. Then, Willard drowns himself in an alcoholic bender and starts tearing his room apart, bashing in a mirror, cutting his hand. What might come as a shock to no one is all this is real. Martin Sheen was actually drunk, losing himself in the moment of shooting and BEING the character, not just acting. He was lost in his role so much that his crying was just as real, and the camera never cut away from this just because of the actor’s discomfort. If I were to have found myself in this role, I could’ve upped the ante by studying the story of a real veteran- there were plenty of them during the time of production that have lives similar to the pain of Willard’s or even Kurtz’s. I could also find myself downing a lot of booze and reading Dante in order to reinforce the mythos of who I am supposed to play. As an aspiring writer, accessing the subconscious mind under the influence often gives birth to the most creative thoughts. The trick is when you further edit your work you keep the mind clear.

What might have been the "end" my friend:

I’ll never fully know what Brado endured to become Kurtz, but Martin Sheen’s Willard feels solid- This is why I fell in love with the madness of ‘Now and it’s hero. This film marked the end of the “new Hollywood” era, and Apocalypse Now is a great swan song before a new crop of filmmakers of the 1980’s came along and gave us Oliver Stone and Platoon. And let's not forget what else came of of the American Zoetrope that still carry on great art:

Who were these men that worked hard as visionaries throughout the decade (the same decade that also gave us directors of films like Zapped...who would later be forgotten)?

Spielberg and Lucas, of course. And I think we all know who hasn't lost his touch and who totally sold out among those two...


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