#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.”

#13 Star Wars

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Blue Letters in Space

Didn’t I just watch the terrestrial version of this last night?

Yes, Star Wars was basically the same movie as The Searchers, only without all the racism. And it was in space! This of course leads me to ask, is it okay that Star Wars is a story that has been told a million times before? Of course it is. The beautiful thing about art is that it builds upon itself. Did Fight Club suck because Sybil came first? Of course not. Star Wars’ story of “girl gets captured, boy finds out, boy adopts some sidekicks, boy faces near impossible odds, and boy emerges victorious” is certainly not a new story, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important about this movie is the way the story is told.

Granted I am more familiar with the 1997, purist killing, digitally enhanced special editions, than the originals, the fact does remain, what George Lucas was able to accomplish with this film was amazing. Visually it was unlike anything that had ever been seen, or would be seen for quite sometime. And more importantly it created a world that allowed viewers to completely lose them selves, much like Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek.

It is amazing how certain films are able to capture the imaginations of so many people, and Star Wars, perhaps more than any other film, succeeds in doing this. That is what this film did right, but there is plenty that it did wrong. Lucas is a terrific producer, and his vision for the film, although quite cluttered, was brilliant. Lucas’s failure however, can be found in his in-experience as a director. I will undoubtedly take a massive amount of flack for saying this, but some of his faults are too obvious not to point out.

The acting in this movie is not particularly good, a problem that I attribute to Lucas’s inexperience as a director, as Harrison Ford, Mark Hammil, and Alec Guiness, have all proven themselves to be formidable actors. This example is echoed by the seemingly bad acting in the prequel trilogy in which, Hayden Christensen, Natlie Portman, Ewan Macgregor, Liam Neeson, and Samuel L. Jackson, all appear to be amateurs reading unpolished lines. None of these actors could be considered bad actors, not when their full catalogue of work is looked at, yet they all seem to stumble over the clumsy guidance, and the inarticulate writing of their puppet master George Lucas.

This brings me to my next problem with the movie, the writing. Frequently Ford had to change lines in the film that were easy to write, but difficult to say. Alec Guiness even claims to have asked to be killed off in the first movie, due to the terrible working conditions and trashy dialogue. Lucas claims that Guiness’s claims are false, but the fact that Guiness did claim this says something about Lucas as a director.

Strangely though, even with all these faults, I really love this movie, it’s great. There are many explanations as to why I love this movie. Maybe because I watched it as a kid, and acting and dialogue were not as important as adventure and light sabers, the faults have been overlooked. I do not think this is the case though.

Apparently while the film was in production, Lucas instructed the props department to roll R2 units in sand, chip them with a saw, and hammer dents into them. This is why the film is so great, the flaws. Anything negative about this movie only serves to better it in the end. Corny dialogue allows us to focus on the amazing visuals. Made-up words and goofy looking aliens create a unique world capable of completely capturing the imagination. And most importantly, dirty, broken props, create a world that is tangible. Unlike most sci-fi movies, where everything is clean, bright, and foreign, Star Wars is dirty and raw. Tantooine is a place that we as viewers can believe exists. The heroes get dirt on their clothes, and they aren’t afraid to drop the stoic emotions normally reserved for sci-fi characters and just be funny. Even more important, they are relatable. Despite the fact that the heroes of Star Wars are not in fact human, they are easier to relate to than many science fiction characters that do come from our planet.

Star Wars is a classic that will be loved for generations to come. It needs the bad props, terrible puppets, corny dialogue, and played out story line, because these things are what make it so good. You have to take these bad things with a grain of salt because, as Lucas proved with his prequels, perfect and clean, is not always a good thing.

Greedo shot first.