TORBAY, England – To describe how or why Apocalypse Now is so good is like trying to describe why great art is so much better than the rest.
Francis Ford Coppola produced a masterpiece in 1979 with this harrowing, brutal, chilling look into something much, much deeper than just the war in Vietnam.
Martin Sheen plays Captain Ben Willard – the second best character of his life, short only of that of the president on The West Wing – who is sent on a mission by two special ops soldiers to terminate, with extreme prejudice, Colonel Kurtz, an excellent soldier played by Marlon Brando, who has gone rogue and is leading a group of renegade troops in Cambodia.
Willard makes his way up on a boat containing a handful of characters as they encounter many different things along the way, even more in the Redux and especially excellent extended edition, with Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Harrison Ford and Dennis Hopper all making appearances.
The film itself was, as a documentary charting the making of it once said, a “filmmaker’s apocalypse.” One cast member lied about his age to be in the film, claiming he was 17 when he was 13. However, by the time the film was released he was 17.
Coppola struggled to complete the film after years and years, problems after problems and more. It was finally released to a slightly poor box office.
But the box office lies, as Coppola, the production team and the cast created one of the greatest films of the 20th century. Sometimes people can say too much, but the basics of what make a good film are all there, and they are better than most of the rest.
The screenplay, also written by Coppola, is a haunting, compelling, entertaining experience. The words seem so natural, as does the action that takes place on screen. Add this to narration by another man, as Willard tells us the story of both Kurtz and himself as we wind further up the river.
It is gripping and beautiful, combined with poetry from the mouth of Kurtz.
The cinematography is something to be proud of. The haunting sequences of helicopter attacks mixed with the sound of Wagner counter-balance the calm and surreal close-ups of Willard as he narrates, while they fade into the next horror, re-enforcing the madness of the jungle and the world into which we are being taken.
The acting is all-around good, but of course the credit must go to Sheen and Brando, who play their characters so well that we believe both men are mad and will snap at any moment.
But what makes Apocalypse so good isn’t the fact that the technical aspect is spot on, it’s the fact that although we are watching a film about Vietnam, we are actually observing a study in human madness.
The film looks at how the horrors of war drive its two central characters – two great men – to madness.
Coppola does something which a film has not done for years and had not done for years before, and takes his audience into the human psyche and makes them able to understand the terrible insanity men experience.
The only way anyone can truly understand his accomplishment is by watching this truly magnificent film.
But perhaps watch is the wrong word. You don’t watch Apocalypse Now, you experience it.
Adam Kelly is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.