Sunday, 24 February 2013

Insanity And Murder - Why Apocalypse Now Is My Favourite Film Of All Time

Sometimes it amazes me that films ever make it all the way through on to the screen, such is the welter of hands clawing at any singularity of artistic vision it could ever hope to possess. Scripts that go through innumerable scriptwriters, endings that are trialled and changed before release, the input/meddling of powerful lead actors swinging their weight, the interference of the Executives worried about bloated budgets and how the film will be received. "Apocalypse Now" had all these and more, yet still emerged as a stunningly literary and mesmeric piece of film-making that for me still outmuscles any film about modern warfare.

Like most scripts, John Milius' for AN was constantly rewritten, even to the point of Michael Herr being brought in well down the shoot, to write interior monologues for Martin Sheen without which the narrative would make far less sense. The film had so much material, that the "Redux" version was brought out twenty-two years after release with 53 minutes of footage omitted from the original (and to my mind adds nothing that wasn't already in there, while serving only to break up the narrative flow). Other inundations on the production included a typhoon in the Philippines which wrecked several sets and forced a hiatus as everybody decamped back to the US. Marlon Brando arrived on set appallingly overweight which made demands on how all of his scenes were shot. Such an ensemble of bon vivants as Hopper, Brando and the then alcoholic Sheen, were forced to make their own entertainment in remote jungles. A recipe for diaster. Sheen aged 36 suffered a heart attack, but bounced back into the production in under two months. Goodness alone what fourteen year old Laurence Fishburne made of it all, having lied about his age to land his role. He was seventeen when the shoot finally wrapped up.

The film uses Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness" for its narrative spine, swapping the Congo for the Mekong. It too is an investigation into a jungle-borne colonial heart of darkness, represented in the figure of Brando's Colonel Kurtz a direct echo of Conrad's character of the same name. Kurtz is the colonial gone native, ascending to a tribal god. Summed up by Hopper's photojournalist character as "The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad". It tilts at the "fisher king" archetype of Fraser's "The Golden Bough", a book Kurtz is shown reading, where the infirm king is culled by the young Pretender, thus healing the infertile landscape, in this case Sheen's character is the assassin that must commit the patricide of terminate Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice". The circle of literary references in the film are completed by Kurtz reading TS Eliot's "Hollow Men", which has Conrad's "Mistah Kurtz he dead" for its epigram.

So with a strong narrative armature in place, the film goes on to fashion a uniquely cinematic treatment of its themes. On an epic level, there is a clash of mythological proportions between Sheen and Brando's characters, resolved to the haunting echo of The Doors' Oedipal song "The End". The complexity of both characters knocks rival films like Oliver Stone's "Platoon" into a cocked hat, since they offer little more than a good versus evil scenario. What elevates AN to a unique pinnacle, is that it didn't just pursue a "war is terrible, war is futile" line, but actually suggested the insanity of war on the ground. Here I believe it is in Lance Johnson, the only other character to survive the carnage by the film's end,  who holds the key to the movie. Johnson is a Californian beach bum and renowned surfer, GI grunt fodder for conscription. A likely stoner back home, his hardening drug use along the course of the journey up the Mekong is the filter through which this war is refracted. He drops LSD and views the stunning battle scene for the bridge at Do Long as an array of psychedelic lights and colours. It is Johnson who gets more upset at the loss of a puppy, than the slaughter of its human family he has recently helped perpetrate. And it is Johnson who is so dehumanized by his experiences, that he readily adopts the pale-face paint on his face and bow and arrow armoury of the legions who follow Kurtz the tribal god once they are in Cambodia. Sheen has to lead him by the hand back to the boat at the film's end, an adult who has fully regressed into a bewildered childlike state.

Vietnam may not have been the first asymmetrical war of liberation from a colonial power, but it probably represents the biggest reversal for a first world power (and of course it was an American war and America has Hollywood). Here was an enemy who would not engage along a battlefield, but rather emerged from below via tunnels, or from above with snipers and booby traps in the jungle canopy. 'Hostiles' who could not be determined from the 'friendlies' and neutrals just by looking at them. This war was already shaping up as something of a hallucinatory battlescape compared with prior conventions, before some of the American troops resorting to drug use to help get them through it. The scene where the Playboy Bunnies are helicoptered in to a stage erected in the river to entertain the troops, is sufficiently unhinged without the use of mind-altering drugs; juxtaposed with the hard material fact that Sheen's character is trying to secure the necessary diesel to keep the boat fuelled for its journey. This hyperreality is what Johnson's character represents so well, and indeed all the boat's crew have no idea where they are heading and to what purpose. It is a delicious irony that this mission is to wipe out one of their own. This level of cultural blindness, of not coming 'to know thine enemy' as Kurtz actually does, is what undermines the entire American campaign (and just about every campaign fought since), which is why I feel the main addition in the "Redux" version, of a long scene on a vestigial French rubber plantation where the characters discuss colonialism is redundant, because it's already utterly coursing through the grain of the film.

These represent the bigger picture, but there are so many powerful vignettes, so much wonderful dialogue within the film that have really seared it into people's minds. I'm unsure what the appearance time limit on a cameo role is, but Robert Duvall gives what I reckon is the greatest cameo appearance ever committed to celluloid, where he just picks an already engaging film up by the scruff of the neck and hurls it to new heights. Much like the boat that his choppers airlift and drop into a Nung river tributary. The film's fiery, apocalyptic opening is played out to the Doors' "The End" and segues into Sheen's inverted face and the opening line, "Saigon, shit I'm still only in Saigon". In fact, I'll just give you a link to some of the movie's best quotes, but I'll end with what is probably my favourite, from the scene of the battle for the Do Long bridge, when Sheen asks a beleaguered GI "Hey soldier, do you know who's in command here?" to be met with the response "Ain't you?" The chaos of an unwinnable, rudderless, aimless war summed up in two lines. I commend you to another look at this masterpiece. But don't watch the "Redux" version. Somehow, by hook or by crook, the original 1979 print forms the definitive film. 

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