#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.”


#19 On the Waterfront

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
Father Barry

Elia Kazan’s tale of a Mob-run group of waterfront union workers hits all its bases, and it hits them hard.

At the centre of On the Waterfront is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-meaning, late-twenties, former boxer, errand boy for the mob.

The film opens with Terry, on one of his mob errands, leading Doyle, a fellow union worker and friend, to a rooftop rendezvous with some less than savory characters. Doyle is to be punished for talking to the cops about the mob’s illegal involvement in union affairs. Terry, being not the most intellectually gifted union worker, assumes that the mob simply wants to “lean” on young Doyle. But the mob had other plans. Instead of simply threatening the young man these “less than savory characters” throw Doyle off the roof.

Immediately it can be seen that this does not sit well with Terry, but due to the fact that his brother is the mob leader’s right-hand-man, Terry keeps his mouth shut, and he is not alone in this. No one seems to be willing to say more than two words to the police abut anything related to the waterfront. That’s the thing about people who have grown up around the mob, a different code dictates their actions.

It is not until a zealous priest, and Doyle’s younger sister, make their way to the docks that there is any real hope for change. The priest calls a meeting in the church basement for all dock-workers who are tired of the oppression they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The mob quickly gets wind of this though and sends Terry in to keep any eye on the would-be uprising. But when a group of people from the mob decides to violently end this meeting, Terry is forced to escort Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), to safety.

What ensues is a fledgling romance between Terry and Edie, and the result is the development of a conscience for young Terry. Terry quickly realizes that he can not keep living a life of service to the mob, and hope to enter a relationship with Edie, so he is forced to choose between his code of honour, and his new-found sense of morality.

Kazan proved his skill as a director in this film. Not only was the story well told, but it was told in a way that allowed the viewer to dig deeper, and find meaning in the carefully selected imagery.

After Doyle’ death, which Terry feels responsible for, Terry begins to look after Doyle’s pet pigeons. This simple act may not seem like much, but when Terry reveals the necessity for guarding the pigeons from hawks it becomes quite clear that Terry cares about more than just pigeons.

With Doyle, the only person who had been willing to stand up to the mob, dead, the task will soon fall on Terry to take over, just as he did with Doyle’s pigeons.

But Doyle wasn’t the only Shepard to come before Terry. The Zealous priest (Karl Madden) was the first audible voice of opposition against the mob. Notice in the film that he constantly is asking dockhands for a cigarette, but he never actually lights one. This shows the priest’s dedication to the union workers while never actually succumbing to their vices.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the film though, is the idea of self-sacrifice. The most obvious reference to this in the film is that of Jesus. It is important to notice the physical changes in Terry as he begins to understand the need for this sacrifice.

Almost immediately after Terry agrees to cooperate with the police he is cut with a piece of glass. Normally this would be insignificant, but Terry was cut in the wrist (the exact place that those who were crucified received their nails). He continues to gain more physical similarities to Jesus as the film goes on. Not only does he take a flogging from a group of mob henchmen, which pretty much destroys his face, but he also is forced to take one last walk along the docks in front of the rest of the union workers, a task that is not made easy due to the fact that he could barely stand under his own power. This one final act of sacrifice served as a symbol that was able to set the other union workers free of the mob.

This is a film that was based on a book, which was inspired by newspaper articles, which are (of course) based on true events. More importantly, as one of the detectives in the film said, this is a story that the public has a right to be told. We so often take for granted our rights in this country but we never actually think about where they come from. The military seems to get its due credit, probably about eight or nine times on this AFI list for instance, but men in arms weren’t the only ones that suffered to make our lives better. Countless people had to go hungry, cold, or homeless so that we could enjoy the labour standards that we have today, but they don’t seem to get any credit (as far as I know there are two films on this list that celebrate the achievements of union workers: On the Waterfront and The Grapes of Wrath). Well this is their epic. This is a film that those in the past can be honoured by. And, it is a film that we can still enjoy today.