Sunday, November 19, 2006

Apocalypse Now ****

I'm not sure if there could possibly be a more fitting title for this film than "Apocalypse Now." The famous opening scene shows a line of trees for about a minute as we hear helicopters chop-chopping in and out of the frame. We begin to hear the first notes to The Doors' "The End" and as the first words are spoken the entire forest is hit by napalm and bursts into flame silently. Then it fades on one half of the screen to a shot of Martin Sheen's face, and the helicopters are really the ceiling fan? "And all the children, are insane! All the children..."

The first lines spoken in the film is Sheen narrating "Saigon. (expleteive). I'm still only in Saigon." He continues to narrate his life story. How he fought in Vietnam, went home. Couldn't stand being away from the jungle. Only word he said to his wife was yes to a divorce. And now he was back here. Still only in Saigon. "Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter." Sheen, drunk, tears apart his room and cuts himself punching a mirror. Having fun yet? The next morning he is in luck - HQ gives him a top secret mission up the river into Cambodia, to kill a Green Beret colonel who has lost his mind and commands his soldiers to commit atrocities while they worship him as a king. Willard narrates: "I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable - plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory - any more than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine." He is sent up with Chef (Fredrick Forrest), Mr. Clean (a 14 year old Larry Fishburne), Lance (Sam Bottoms) and Chief (Albert Hall), who are all (except Chief) young and inexperienced soldiers. In the films most famous scene, they are chauffeured to the mouth of their river by Robert Duvall and his air Calvary, who bomb a Vietnamese village to clear the area for surfing. The famous detail is that the helicopters are blasting Wagners "Ride of the Valkeries" as they attack the village.

From there the film descends, one scene after another, into a world of chaotic insanity and madness. One of the most memorable scenes is when they pass the last American outpost on the river. Soldiers carrying suitcases swim into the river desperately, crying out "take me home!" When Willard goes onto the crazily lit bridge (we only see his face every time a flare goes up) he asks a soldier who the commanding officer is. The soldier looks horrified and replies "Aint you?" Finally, the film reaches the end of the river. Only a couple of the men are left. Men hang from the trees and skulls decorate the sides of the river. Heads and severed limbs and graffiti (one which says "Apocalypse Now") cover the ancient temple. The beret, Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) recites poetry and Willard is disturbed to discover the many parallels between him and Kurtz. Kurtz's biggest admirer is "The Photojournalist" played by Dennis Hopper, who says things like "You don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him...he's a poet-warrior in the classic sense." This is a stunning film to watch, and what is more stunning I can see this again and again and again and never get bored of it.

Original or Redux? There isn't much difference between the two versions. You might want to see Redux for an interesting new way to look at the film (the scenes have been rearranged into a different order) but I would see the original first, which stays closer to the novel on which the film is based, Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

"Arresting a man for murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500"...good line.

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