#30 Apocalypse Now

“It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ’em in half with a machine gun and give ’em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.” 

Captain Willard

Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about the Vietnam War gets under your skin, and stays there. Martin Sheen’s vacant face will burn itself into your retinas, and the haunting last lines will repeat in your head long after the credits have finished.

The film, which opens without any credits, title, or any sort of recognition that you are watching a movie, follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) on a top-secret mission, that doesn’t exist and will never exist, to kill Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a rogue special forces agent that has set himself up as a God among the Cambodian people.

Willard, whose motivations are questionable at best, is sent up river with a group of four others and, on his way, experiences nearly everything the Vietnam War has to offer.

The first real action that the group faces is when they encounter Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), head of the Helicopter Calvary group. With his help they wipe out a Viet Cong outpost and gain access to the Nung River.

On the river, Willard and his troop encounter all sorts of non-threatening action from USO shows, to an encounter with some playboy bunnies. But at they get further down the river, the stakes get higher, and the firefights become more frequent.

As the group arrives at the US’s last outpost it becomes apparent that the further they go into the heart of darkness that is the jungle, the more they will struggle to retain their sanity.

The last encounter Willard and his group have before their confrontation with Colonel Kurtz, is with a French family that has been working since the start of the war to keep a plantation that they own operational. Here Willard is confronted with, not only the futility of the war, but also the abject morality of it.

Until this point the tone of the film is mostly passive and confused, perhaps mirroring the American apathy and misinformed nature of the American people during this time. However, as soon as Willard’s ship passes into Cambodia, and the group is finally forced to confront Colonel Kurtz, the film grips the viewer and refuses to let go.

The moment Brando appears on screen the film becomes his. Every movement, every word, every shadow that comes across his face, is perfect.

Brando’s performance though, does not overshadow Sheen’s, which caries the first three hours of the film (yah, first three hours). Sheen is cold, detached, and nearly perfect. But the performances are not what should attract people to this film.

Coppola, whose interference I was not a fan of in The Godfather, dedicated so much of himself to this film, and it paid off. Every shot is meticulously planned. Close ups of actors’ faces are never just close-ups. They are haunting examples of the effects of horror on the human psyche, or the duality of man.

Even themes that would seem cliché normally seem fresh and new in this film. This is due to the fact that these themes do not exist in dialogue or self-righteous narration. Instead they are displayed visually. This lets the viewer discover these themes for his or her self, and the result is nothing short of moving.

Ultimately this film can be talked about as a masterpiece without even touching on the performances of Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and Laurence Fishburne. If that’s not a tribute to just how good this film is, I don’t know what is.  I’ll leave you with this monologue.

“I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

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