As much as I love rediscovering random movies and seeing how well they hold up, the ones I love revisiting the most are the ones that have achieved almost mythic proportions – the epics, the classics, the award winners whose greatness basically goes undisputed, even though most folks haven't seen them in years. Most of the time, of course, they live up to the legacy of their artistic and commercial achievements, but occasionally they fall short, and seeing not only how but why they do remains one of the more fascinating aspects of film history. The time in which a film is released is often as important as who made it.
'Apocalypse Now' is a film with a particular type of legacy, one which almost overshadows the film itself. Its troubled production, followed by a contentious but ultimately celebrated release, not only signaled the end of a particularly successful time for director Francis Ford Coppola, but heralded the last days of an era of studio filmmaking where control over the film remained in the hands of the filmmakers. While the new Blu-ray looks absolutely gorgeous - a remastering on par with Coppola's high-definition versions of the 'Godfather' films, if not the best transfers in the medium's history – how does 'Apocalypse Now' hold up as a film, set apart from its off screen history?
The Facts: 'Apocalypse Now' was released on August 15, 1979, and it was a hit from the start. After earning a considerable sum in just a few theaters, the film went on to earn approximately $150 million worldwide. Meanwhile, the film netted six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay for Coppola and John Milius, Editing, Art Direction, and Supporting Actor for Robert Duvall, and two wins for Best Cinematography and Sound. As a work in progress at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, 'Apocalypse Now' won the Golden Palm, and at the 1980 Golden Globes, the film won awards for Best Director, Supporting Actor for Duvall, and Best Score for Carmine and Francis Ford Coppola.
In 2001, Coppola released 'Apocalypse Now Redux,' which restored some 49 minutes of footage cut from the film. Although there is no clear distinction which reviews are for the 'Redux' cut and which are for the original cut (meaning some of the reviews attached to the theatrical cut are undoubtedly from DVD releases featuring both versions), 'Apocalypse Now Redux' has a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the theatrical version has a 98 percent fresh rating.
What Still Works: The most amazing thing about 'Apocalypse Now' is the way that its reputation, its history of madness on a movie set, feeds into its greatness. As excessive as the production was, as crazy as Coppola went trying to make sure every detail was right and every flourish was massaged and manipulated into his and John Milius' tapestry of Joseph Conrad mythmaking, existential introspection, and almost incidentally, Vietnam War atrocities, it all works together and feels cohesive when watching the film. (Incidentally, for the purposes of this column, I only watched the theatrical version of the film.) All of the insanity of the production empowers and invigorates the text, and quite frankly it now seems as if one could not have existed without the other.
At 153 minutes, the film seems perfectly paced, following Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he ventures further and further into the deep, primitive recesses of the jungle to kill a man whose accomplishments seem too good to be true. The slow and subtle way that Coppola allows Willard's world to travel back in time, to devolve, manages to happen via story developments and casual details that register both narratively and almost subliminally. For example, a boat that passes by Willard's throws something onto its roof, burning off the tarp and requiring the soldiers to cut down tree fronds for cover. The act itself is obvious but the overall effect is hypnotic, especially once you get to Kurtz' compound; you, like Willard and even Kurtz himself, feel like you left civilization behind long ago and are now immersed in this primordial, ritualistic world that bears little resemblance to anything you knew at the beginning of the film.
What Doesn't Work: I'm not sure how I feel about the very end of the film. The sequence leading up to Kurtz' death is mesmerizing and suspenseful, a master-class study in editing music, sound and image into one blinding montage. But other than Willard's "rescue" of Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), their departure has a lack of finality or closure that may turn some viewers off, especially after such a long journey into the black heart of the jungle, and the main character. Admittedly, there are philosophical reverberations in the act of murdering Kurtz, and that may reflect the true climax that Coppola was attempting to reach, but the rest of the film has an odd ability to be both vague and specific, and the final shots are just vague. (Testament to the possibility for different interpretations of the ending is the fact that Coppola changed the ending several times to reflect an airstrike that Willard was supposed to call in, or in another version, does not call in.)
What's The Verdict: 'Apocalypse Now' isn't just a great movie, it's one of the greatest movies ever made. Visually it's stunning, a gorgeous array of images that soak into the mind of the viewer like lapping waves; narratively, it's both focused and languid, offering plenty of time for reflection and introspection while making sure that things actually happen on screen to the characters. Metaphorically, it feels like one of the last great examples of the filmmaking medium (at least in the mainstream) being used to exercise multiple layers of meaning, to peer inside the thoughts and feelings of man, to dissect his philosophies and politics, and to provide the right questions without feeling obligated to find their answers.
There are several speeches that Kurtz gives that dance brilliantly on the edge between genius and madness, and it's on that line that the film dances as well – and it's why it is such an amazing, singular achievement. At the same time, I can see precisely why studios wouldn't bankroll another film like this ever again; looking at just background detail in random sequences, there is so much material that was obviously created for the film that it's a wonder it ever got finished, much less made sense. But it does make sense, even if its purpose is to dive headfirst into the mouth of madness; in which case, it's too bad that there haven't really been any movies since 'Apocalypse Now' that are like it, but at least 'Apocalypse Now' is the reason we haven't had any – none could match it, even if they tried.