Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 10/31: Apocalypse Now (suggested by @linkmachinego)

Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now"

Film Hearts of Darkness: A Film-makers Apocalypse is one of my favourite films. Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s gathering together of Eleanor Coppola’s behind the scenes footage of the making of her husband Francis’s mad expedition into Manila to shoot a Vietnam war movie is one of the reasons I became interested in film and probably fuelled my obsession not just in what happens on screen but who’s pointing the camera. Too many great moments to list (“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”) but rest assured it's impossible to watch the elder Laurence Fishburne in quite the same way once you’ve visited upon the teenage version, spaced out on a boat. His character in Apocalypse Now was not much of a job of acting.

I saw Hearts of Darkness before Apocalypse Now. In fact, so obsessed was I with this “making of” that for years I banned myself from watching the Vietnam war film itself lest I taint the version of it I’d conjured in my imagination from the few fragments that appear in Bahr and Hickenlooper’s work along with the surrounding 8mm b-roll. Myths are rarely less potent than reality and I couldn’t imagine the vérité shots of Martin Sheen falling off the wagon could really be improved by being shot and edited on 35mm film with a soundtrack by The Doors. Plus, please remember, that at this time Apocalypse Now had been gone from the cinemas for over a decade and only really existed in a pan-scan version which would look even less epic on the 14” portable in my bedroom.

But eventually I succumbed when a widescreen version of the film was released on VHS and inevitably it wasn’t as good as the epic I had in my head.  Not Coppola’s fault, of course, and whilst it was far from the classical Hollywood mode, it just didn’t reflect the frenzy of its creation. I remember being slightly bored that first time around, impressed by the visuals but unable to rationalise the need for the pop philosophy. Willard’s decent into madness seemed strangely abrupt with only the mother's letter scene really effecting me (I was at university and homesick). I also remember being a bit angry that not more of Marlon Brando’s improvision had made it to the final cut.

On subsequent viewings, especially in its Redux version, my appreciation of Apocalypse Now has increased. The element of boredom I’d detected in that first viewing is an important part of the experience. Coppola is attempting to recreate the monotony of war, the long periods of listlessness when someone can spend too much time in their own company, inside their own head, punctuated by moments of utter horror when anything can happen and you’ll most likely watch your best friend receiving bullet assuming you’re not hit yourself. Little by little Willard goes insane but it's not until he reaches Kurtz that he really falls off the deep end, but in a measured way, in a way that allows him to complete his mission.

All of which, after some reflection, many years of reflection, only increases my appreciation of Hearts of Darkness and how ably it demonstrates that Coppola’s real achievement was not to let his own frenetic need to complete the film be reflected on-screen and that he was able to craft such a coherent piece of work from the years of footage collected during principle photography and in a way that directors with far larger budgets and shooting under relatively perfect conditions seem incapable of. Now, what I’d really like to see is the four-hour bootleg version which is apparently knocking around. Nothing can be as good as the version of that film I have in my head …

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