The best war movies generally aren’t about war at all. “My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam,” director Francis Ford Coppola states at the Cannes press conference that begins the legendary documentary Hearts of Darkness, the chronicle of the difficulties involved in making Apocalypse Now.
Coppola’s visceral masterpiece isn’t about warfare; it’s about the madness of war. It seeks to be not primarily a political statement, but an all-out assault on the senses, disorienting and overwhelming the viewer much in the same way that Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) experiences Vietnam.
And yet despite the inhospitable living conditions and unending violence, Willard thrives in the jungle. It’s the only place he knows how to any more after a three-year stint that ended with an attempt to rejoin society that miserably failed. He takes on the mission to kill the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) because what else is he going to?
Coppola loosely connects narrative threads as Willard travels the country toward Cambodia, where Kurtz is holed up, but mostly, we’re thrust into the moment just as much as Willard’s crew (Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest), who don’t know anything about the mission.
As the film progresses, the action moves from the sensory-shelling (Robert Duvall’s gung-ho Lt. Col. Kilgore, who possesses nothing that could be referred to as qualms) to the increasingly surreal — by the time the film reaches Kurtz’s temple and the madness that accompanies it, like Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed photojournalist, it’s clear that a major tonal shift has taken place. And yet, the film has a hypnotic quality that makes such a change seem natural.
Apocalypse Now is the kind of film that could have (and perhaps, should have, considering the production foibles) collapsed under the weight of Coppola’s ambition and the huge amount of resources he employed to make it a reality. But 30 years later, the film still feels remarkably cogent and forceful, without the kind of dead weight that can negatively affect large-scale epics like this.