The production of “Apocalypse Now” was a disaster befitting the title.
Director Francis Ford Coppola fired original star Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s replacement Martin Sheen suffered a heart-attack on set. The production was delayed by typhoons and the budget ballooned. Coppola rented helicopters from the Philippines but the army kept taking them back to conduct actual war maneuvers.
When filming began in 1976, studios were letting geniuses like Coppola have complete budgetary and creative control of their movies. By the time “Apocalypse Now” finally limped into theatres three years later, the era of Hollywood supervision and PG-crowd-pleasers had dawned.
Incredibly, amid all the chaos, Francis Ford Coppola almost made the perfect war movie. The first half of “Apocalypse Now” is spellbinding.
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is – by his own admission – too sick in the head to handle life in the States anymore. So he’s back in Vietnam and he’s just been given his most compelling assignment yet.
Willard has been sent on a top-secret mission to assassinate a fellow officer. We learn that Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) used to be a model soldier. Now he has lost his mind, gone rogue, and is leading an army of his own deep in the jungle.
As Willard makes his way up a dangerous Vietnamese river, he ponders his own broken brain and wonders whether it is possible that Colonel Kurtz is crazier than the other officers in the war.
Case in point: Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Kilgore is delighted to use his helicopter cavalry division to help Willard get upriver. He has learned that there’s a splendid spot for surfing that he can take advantage of. The only thing Kilgore loves more than violence is surfing.
This is the finest hour of Robert Duvall’s career, an all-time great movie sequence. The action scene where Kilgore’s helicopters clear out a Vietcong school to make room for surfing (with Wagner playing on Kilgore’s stereo) is perfectly executed.
It is an unequaled technical achievement by Francis Ford Coppola. “Someday this war will end,” Kilgore sighs wistfully. And at that point, we feel his pain. We don’t want the sick fun to end either.
But the film gets worse from there. Much worse.
After two hours of anticipation, we are so excited to meet Colonel Kurtz. What a letdown!
We’ve been told that Kurtz was a West Point prodigy, a Napoleon-level tactician, and so charismatic that American soldiers and Cambodian villagers follow his every word. But the pathetic Kurtz that we meet is nothing like this. He’s a corpulent kook spouting incoherent poetry and college-level philosophy.
The craziest thing about this crazy film is that Marlon Brando came to the set without any understanding of the script or his own character. Does one laughably incoherent section destroy an otherwise great movie? I’m not sure, but Brando sure as heck tries.
The ending of “Apocalypse Now” is strangely appropriate. It is a disaster.