Saigon, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) was still in Saigon. After a night spent in his room getting smashed, and smashing a mirror too, he tried to blot out the reality of being stuck in the Vietnam War, not knowing how to get out of it and part of him not wanting to, although he could barely admit it to himself. But he had a new mission, as the soldiers who showed up at his door that morning told him, and after a cold shower to wake him up he was dressed and brought to the office of three powerful Americans. Here they informed him he had to undertake a search: find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the jungle.
And terminate him with extreme prejudice, natch. Apocalypse Now is one of the most quotable movies of all time thanks to the quality of the dialogue, but opinions have been divided on its other merits ever since its very belated release back in the late seventies (it was nicknamed Apocalypse When? and Apocalypse Later by the sceptics). Certainly when Clint Eastwood, who had been considered for the Willard role, heard of the huge amount this cost, he reportedly observed "For that sort of money we could have invaded somewhere," and the shoot was so harrowing to all those involved that many felt that had actually been through a war.
Or at least the moviemaking equivalent. The tales of the utter chaos this degenerated into would fill a whole other film - and it did, a documentary called Hearts of Darkness, released some years later under the guidance of director Francis Ford Coppola's wife Eleanor, who saw her marriage as one of the casualties of the black hole that was this film. But put the typhoons, the corruption, Martin Sheen suffering a near-fatal heart attack, all of that to one side and watch the work on its own merits and what did you have? For some, it's a masterpiece, undoubtedly Coppola's greatest achievement and well worth the hell it took to make. But for others, it's a hopeless, pretentious muddle.
Perhaps if you go halfway between those extremes you reach the truth of Apocalypse Now, and the fact remained that it did manage to convey the texture of nightmare was more to do with the conditions Coppola and his team were labouring under for far too long in the Philippines and afterwards in the mammoth task of editing it into some kind of sense. If that was what the Vietnam War was like, and some who were there recognised it here, then it was a success on artistic terms, yet Michael Herr was brought in to muster up narration for Sheen to recite, his book Dispatches being the classic text on the conflict from someone who was indeed there, and that voiceover was one of the most notable rescue attempts on a movie ever staged.
Even with Sheen deadpanning his way through Herr's words, that method of tying it all together only went so far, and the rest of the film often betrays the pandemonium that it was manufactured through. The plot is actually quite simple, laid out by those shadowy figures at the beginning for Willard: all he has to do is sail upriver and find Kurtz, then kill him, and that's pretty much what happens up to a point. However, the devil is in the details and it's what happens on the journey, sort of a battle-weary Wizard of Oz, that makes the most impression as at every bend of the river it seems someone is there to make life difficult for him, from Robert Duvall's scene stealing officer to the spear throwing natives to Dennis Hopper's raving photographer (no act, reputedly); after all, if it had been a quiet trip it wouldn't have been quite as memorable a tale to spin.
Famously Coppola was creating a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness here, which illustrated his grand ambitions and also, more sadly, how far he was from his goal as aside from a few scenes this was not up to that crepuscular standard of soul-scathing. If anything, it was the drugged up, self-centred version of Conrad, with the source seen through the haze of narcotics, just as the war is, leaving the tone starting out woozy and ending up groggy. When Brando showed up to shoot his sequences, he had his own ideas of what to do, leaving Coppola floundering in the wake of his star's whims which explains why he is never seen out of the darkness, is obviously making up his lines as he goes along, yet best represented, maybe ironically, what turmoil this production had descended into. The feeling that mere cinema faltered when trying to plumb the depths of the human condition was never more apparent than here, whether that was true or not; good luck using this as a history lesson, but as a series of hallucinations it's an accomplishment. Music by Carmine Coppola and the director.
[Optimum's Blu-ray box set of this features the original, looking pristine, the Redux extended version, and the Hearts of Darkness documentary along with a whole disc full of featurettes about the film.]