Genre Grandeur – Apocalypse Now (1979) – BluePrint: Review

For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Non-Winning Oscar Best Picture Nominees, here’s a review of Apocalypse Now (1979) by David of BluePrint: Review

Next month’s genre has been chosen by me and since I’ll be debuting season 3 of my Podcast – MovieRob Minute on July 4th where we will look at Die Hard (1988) one minute at a time, I decided to link it to this months GG, so we will be reviewing our favorite Die Hard Doppelganger Movie.

Thanks again to Matthew Simpson of Awesome Friday for choosing this month’s genre.

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Jun by sending them to

Try to think out of the box!

Let’s see what David thought of this movie:


Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration)
Based on a Novel by: Joseph Conrad
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper
Country: USA
Running Time:183 min (Final Cut), 153 min (theatrical) & 202 mins (Redux)
Year: 1979
BBFC Certificate: 15

When adapting a novel into a film, writers/directors can choose from a few different approaches. They can adapt it very closely, taking dialogue word for word and recreating descriptions in the text to fit the screen. They could cut out scenes and/or characters and make many changes to help it better fit the different format. Perhaps the setting could be changed whilst keeping the essence or message of the film intact. Some writers and directors take a more radical approach, deconstructing the material into something a little more intellectual or experimental (American Splendor for instance – though it has standard elements to it). Francis Ford Coppola, however, ended up doing something completely different. He and his cast and crew ‘lived’ the story of the novel (Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’) on which his film, Apocalypse Now, was based, as well as the war being depicted on screen, in essence. As Coppola brazenly stated at the film’s premiere in Cannes, “Apocalypse Now isn’t about the Vietnam war, it is Vietnam” (I’m quoting from memory, so maybe take this as paraphrasing).

John Milius wrote the original script for Apocalypse Now as a kind of challenge after hearing of Orson Welles’ famously failed attempt to turn ‘Heart of Darkness’ into a film, as well as numerous sources claiming the novel was ‘unadaptable’ for the screen. Milius’ take on the material was a fairly conventional, action-heavy war movie and originally it was going to be directed by George Lucas. He wanted to do it cheaply in black and white with a couple of helicopters in the style of a documentary, taking inspiration from Battle of Algiers. However, Lucas had his hands full with a certain space opera by the time Apocalypse Now was due to be made, so Coppola, whose American Zoetrope company was going to produce the film, took the reins. In his mind, he was originally going to produce an all-guns-blazing epic war movie that would be expensive but should make his company loads of money so he could go back to making more personal, smaller scale work without having to worry about box office returns.

However, as anyone aware of the film and its troubled production history will know, things didn’t run as smoothly as Coppola hoped. I won’t go into too much detail as the special features in this set will fill you in, but among changing the lead actor after the start of production, getting production paused for a month and sets destroyed by a typhoon, the replacement lead having a heart attack and not having an ending decided on until deep into the shoot, it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone any worse (unless you speak to Terry Gilliam perhaps). However, as alluded to in my opening paragraph, the film’s production process mirrored the original novel itself, as well as, and perhaps more so, the Vietnam war being depicted. In Conrad’s book, Charles Marlow heads downriver to find a formerly ‘civilised’ man descended into madness in the jungle, like Coppola and his crew who headed into the Philippines on a straightforward ‘mission’ but found chaos and became overwhelmed with a little madness themselves. As the director said at Cannes, this production analogy works better when set against the Vietnam war though. Like America, Coppola headed into the jungle with a huge number of ‘troops’ and too much high-tech equipment but found themselves out of place and out of their depth.

Like America’s war effort, many critics at the time felt Coppola’s folly was a failure, but it did end up being a commercial success, as the director (and producer – he financed the film out of his own pocket) hoped, and picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes (among other awards). Over the years it’s become regarded as a beloved classic, though there are still many who feel it’s an over-indulgent mess. I’d say that’s kind of the point, or at least it’s become the point, even if Coppola didn’t mean it to originally be the case.

After that very lengthy introduction (I think my review is becoming it’s own analogy of the film and Vietnam) and before I give my thoughts on Apocalypse Now, I’d better explain the plot to the handful of readers that haven’t seen the film.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, who’s clearly suffering from PTSD and struggling to stay sane as he waits in Saigon for another mission to give him some purpose. His wish is granted when he’s asked by his superiors to ‘terminate’ the command of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The Colonel has gone rogue, conducting his own missions against the Vietnamese in an outpost he has setup with a private army over the border in Cambodia. Willard is assigned a small crew of soldiers to take him upriver on a boat to find Kurtz and kill him. As he travels closer to his destination, the madness of the war and the devolving nature of the jungle grow ever-present and he becomes fascinated by the man he’s sent to kill.

I’ll say straight up that I love this film. It’s among my top 10 favourite films of all time, so I was thrilled to see this newly polished print projected on my home cinema setup at home. I think the last time I saw it was on VHS. I think the film works best as a depiction of the Vietnam war as a drug-influenced nightmare. There are typical war-movie ‘horrors’ on screen but they’re accompanied by psychedelic rock music and opera and an air of surrealism throughout. From soldiers being ordered to surf during a firefight to a striptease show on a floating stadium in the middle of the jungle, this is a dizzying display that reflects the fact that these young men were sent thousands of miles from home to fight a war few had much passion for, during a time when drug and rock and roll culture was blooming. The Vietnam war was a nightmarish mess and the film embodies that perfectly.

I have no issue with the film’s critics though, mostly for this reason. I won’t disagree that the film is overlong (particularly in the extended Final Cut and Redux versions, both of which are included in this set, along with the original theatrical cut which is over 2 and a half hours in itself). It’s rather indulgent too, with spectacular set-pieces which could easily be called overblown. The final act is also rambling at times once Brando appears. However, in my opinion, on top of it fitting the theme and analogy being made by the film, it’s all part of the awesome spectacle Coppola put together which is so magnificent I could sit and watch it for several hours more. Saying that, I do think I slightly prefer the shorter theatrical cut to the new ‘Final Cut’, though there are some strong additions. The infamous French plantation sequence, for instance, offers an interesting discussion of how the French were involved in their own troubled conflict in Vietnam in the 50s yet also adds a cheesily-scored love scene that I didn’t feel was necessary.

In terms of cinematic craft, Apocalypse Now is practically untouchable. Vittorio Storaro is one of the best cinematographers in the business and his photography here is nothing short of stunning, holding its own against his exceptional work on The Conformist and The Last Emperor. It sumptuously presents Dean Tavoularis’ fantastic production design, which is often misted over by multi-coloured smoke. The editing, by Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg and Walter Murch, is superb too, exemplified by the memorable ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ helicopter attack sequence which is a sheer masterclass in action cutting.

Even more groundbreaking was the film’s soundtrack. Originally, Coppola wanted to use ‘sensurround’, a cinema theatre gimmick which made the seats vibrate through really bassy speakers. However, he would have had to pay loads of money to the creators to use it so instead he had technicians at Dolby create something completely new – 5.1 surround sound. This became the standard for films as you all well know but Coppola and his sound crew mastered it from day one. The sound design is incredibly rich and detailed. You may not notice its strength at first listen now, as others have learnt from the techniques established here, but compared to most soundtracks of the time it’s an incredible achievement. The score was quite ahead of its time too, with Coppola’s dad Carmine writing music traditionally for an orchestra then passing it to his son to synthesise it with a team of renowned and up-and-coming synth artists. It works a treat, adding an otherworldly atmosphere to the film.

The performances are very strong too. Sheen is underrated here, with a restrained take on his character against all the chaos surrounding him. You can see the pain under the surface though and he helps ground the film and keep our focus. His boat crew, including a very young Laurence Fishburne, are effective too. Robert Duval steals the show though with a short but very memorable role as the surfing-loving Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore.

Marlon Brando’s is probably the most famous performance in the film and also one of the most divisive. His often improvised ramblings and strange behaviour are off-putting and silly to some, but personally I feel it fits the character who is losing his mind in the jungle but has also mutated into this God-like persona. He delivers his strange musings with enough gravitas to make it work. The way his character is finally dealt with is shocking and strangely beautiful too, leading to a surprisingly quiet end that reflects the quoted T.S. Eliot poem ‘The Hollow Men’ in ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”. You could argue this is a disappointing conclusion then, but once again I feel it fits the Vietnam analogy in this sense and still feels more than satisfying in my opinion.

I could ramble on for hours about my love for Apocalypse Now but this review is getting unwieldily now, so I’ll tie things up. The film blows me away every time I see it. It feels unlike any other war movie, particularly unlike any that came before it. It, alongside the production process itself, works as a powerful and dreamlike analogy for the war it depicts. I can appreciate some criticisms of the film. It is long and indulgent, but in my mind, that fits the content and message. The US threw far too much money and far too many lives at the war in Vietnam, dragging on the ill-conceived conflict for years, before unceremoniously backing out. Whether or not Coppola originally meant his film to work this way we’ll never know. He admits he was making things up and adding scenes as he went along and didn’t know how to end the film until late into production. This is the beauty of film though (and art for that matter). Once completed, you can make of it what you will. The intentions don’t really matter, only how it makes you feel when you witness it. OK, now I really am waffling. I’ll end by saying that, whether or not you connect with the film, it deserves to be seen for the spectacle alone. I’m not sure how anyone can argue it’s not a stunningly well-made film and this polished new release is further proof.

One thought on “Genre Grandeur – Apocalypse Now (1979) – BluePrint: Review

  1. A Top 10 all-time fave for me as well, from the memorable theatrical release in 79 as a 12 year old to Redux to The Final Cut to Hearts of Darkness. Just an amazing film, period.


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