What's the Big Deal?: Apocalypse Now (1979)

War epics are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, at least metaphorically. (In literal terms, they cost about a billion dollars per dozen.) Some are famous for being huge disasters; others are famous for being technical marvels; still others are famous for being box-office hits. Apocalypse Now is, somehow, famous for being all three of those things. Its lengthy and troubled production took on mythic proportions, even before it was released. Now, more than 30 years later, what's the big deal about this particular Vietnam flick? Let's put on our gas masks, grab our surfboards, and investigate.

The praise: When at last the film premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, it was rewarded with the top prize, the Palme D'Or. It won Oscars for its cinematography and sound, with additional nominations for best picture, director, supporting actor (Robert Duvall), art direction, editing, and adapted screenplay. Coppola, Duvall, and the musical score won Golden Globes. Subsequently, the movie landed at No. 28 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the best American movies ever made, and No. 30 on the 2007 revised list. Critics polled by Sight & Sound magazine in 2002 named it the best film of the previous 25 years, and the London Film Critics' Circle in 2009 declared it the best movie of the previous 30 years. Roger Ebert has called it "the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films."

The context: One of the significant changes in Hollywood in the 1970s is that we began to see movies made by directors who had gone to film school. "Film school" -- in the sense of a four-year degree program offered at a university -- didn't exist until the 1960s; now, for the first time, movies were being made by people who had gone to college specifically to learn how to make them.

As you might expect, the formal study of what had once been a learn-as-you-go creative medium sometimes resulted in movies that were impeccable but hollow. David A. Cook called these film-school grads "a generation of American filmmakers whose visual and technical sophistication was immense but whose films were sometimes so painstakingly calculated for effect as to lack spontaneity." Someone who goes to culinary school might produce a meal whose ingredients are perfectly arranged to achieve maximum tastiness -- but how would it compare with the same dish made with somewhat less precision and more improvisation?

Four of the most prominent film-school-educated directors to emerge during this time were Francis Ford Coppola (UCLA), Martin Scorsese (NYU), George Lucas (USC), and Steven Spielberg (Cal State Long Beach). They were friends, colleagues, and collaborators during the creatively fertile '70s, responsible for some of the most important movies of that decade. Coppola's two Godfather films, released in 1972 and 1974, are sometimes cited as the best American movies of any decade. And yet Coppola is the only one of those four upstarts whose career as a filmmaker fizzled once the '70s were over. Lucas had his Star Wars empire; Spielberg would only get better and more popular; Scorsese's best work was still ahead of him -- but Coppola struggled in the '80s (Peggy Sue Got Married), sputtered in the '90s (Jack), and all but disappeared in the '00s (Youth Without Youth).

What happened to Coppola? What happened to the decade-long artistic renaissance that Hollywood had enjoyed? The answer to both questions, at least in part, is the same: Apocalypse Now.

The Vietnam War was on every American's mind between 1965 and 1975, but it was not, for the most part, on America's movie screens. Hollywood either addressed the war metaphorically (M*A*S*H) or not at all. To make a movie that was literally about the Vietnam War would mean taking a side, and the prospect of alienating half your potential audience in a deeply divided America didn't make good business sense.

Only after the war was over did American filmmakers start tentatively examining it. Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Go Tell the Spartans were all released in 1978, to varying degrees of success. In 1976, Coppola headed to the Philippines to make his own contribution, Apocalypse Now, written by himself and John Milius (a USC classmate of George Lucas') and patterned after Joseph Conrad's turn-of-the-century novella Heart of Darkness. Three more years would pass before the film was ready for public viewing.

A typhoon destroyed some of the sets and delayed the production. Lead actor Harvey Keitel was replaced early on by Martin Sheen, who eventually had a heart attack on the set. Marlon Brando was paid an unprecedented $1 million for one week's work in a crucial supporting role, then arrived in the Philippines so fat that Coppola had to film him in shadows. The budget ballooned, Brando-like, from a planned $14 million to an actual $31 million ($115 million in 2010 dollars). The gossipy entertainment press called the film Apocalypse When?. It started to look like Coppola -- the man who made two Godfathers and The Conversation in the space of three years -- would never complete his next project.

The making of Apocalypse Now is nearly as famous as the film itself, and in fact is the subject of its own documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. But that's fitting: Right from the start, much of Apocalypse Now's notoriety has been tied to its off-screen drama. When it finally premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola said: "My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam. It's what it was really like -- it was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."

In his attempt to make a movie about Vietnam, Coppola wound up making a movie that symbolized America's involvement in the war: thrilling and disturbing, yet too expensive, too long, and too wasteful. In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby wrote that the film reminded him of The Bridge on the River Kwai "because both productions were themselves military campaigns to subdue the hostile landscapes in which they were made. Kwai was shot in Ceylon; Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, which became, for Mr. Coppola, his Vietnam, swallowing men, money, and equipment as voraciously as any enemy."

Calling it a "masterpiece," Roger Ebert predicted that "years from now, when Coppola's budget and his problems have long been forgotten, Apocalypse will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking -- of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself."

Notice how Ebert and Canby talk not just about the film but about the director, about the making of the film. Perhaps it was inevitable that directors trained by film schools would make movies that were as much about filmmaking as anything else. Frank Rich, the critic at Time magazine, seemed to be thinking along those lines when he wrote: "While much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty. It is not so much an epic account of a grueling war as an incongruous, extravagant monument to artistic self-defeat."

But this was fine with Ebert. He thought critics who looked for "answers" in a movie like this and were disappointed when they didn't find them were asking the wrong questions. "Like all great works of art about war, Apocalypse Now essentially contains only one idea or message, the not-especially-enlightening observation that war is hell. We do not go to see Coppola's movie for that insight -- something Coppola, but not some of his critics, knows well. Coppola also well knows ... that movies aren't especially good at dealing with abstract ideas -- for those you'd be better off turning to the written word -- but they are superb for presenting moods and feelings, the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country." Judged by those standards, Ebert said, the film was a success.

Apocalypse NowThe movie: An army captain named Willard (Martin Sheen), unable to cope with civilian life, has returned to Vietnam in 1969 for a second tour of duty. He is ordered to find and "terminate" Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Green Beret who's gone insane and is now running his own private war in the jungles of Cambodia. Willard hitches a ride with a Navy patrol boat to go up the river, encountering all manner of war-related chaos along the way.

What it influenced: We've discussed before how various cultural changes in the 1960s -- the French New Wave, the Vietnam War, the American "generation gap," etc. -- led to the "New Hollywood" movement. From somewhere around Bonnie and Clyde (1967) until approximately Raging Bull (1980), Hollywood went through a tremendous creative resurgence as the studios, which had previously held a tight grip on how their projects were managed, found success in giving young directors unprecedented freedom to do as they pleased. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), letting a bunch of creative types make their movies without a lot of adult supervision resulted in some costly disasters. The studios -- many of which were now owned by corporations -- quickly remembered they were not in the business of taking risks, re-tightened control, and ushered in the generic decade known as the 1980s.

Apocalypse Now didn't turn out to be one of those expensive flops. It made some $80 million in the United States in its initial release, and almost that much again overseas. But the budget overruns, production delays, and other headaches associated with it contributed to the overall feeling that Hollywood's bright young filmmakers had gotten in over their heads. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) was a disaster, and so was Coppola's very next film, One from the Heart (1982), which cost $25 million to make and grossed less than a million. If Apocalypse Now had nearly ruined Coppola, One from the Heart finished the job.

Two particular elements of the film have been parodied, referenced, and quoted hundreds of times since then. Both have to do with Robert Duvall's character, the insanely gung-ho Lt. Col. Kilgore (who must have been inspired by George C. Scott's character in Dr. Strangelove). One is Kilgore's line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," which has come to stand for any macho declaration of warmongering.

Apocalypse NowThe other iconic moment is the scene in which Kilgore leads an aerial assault on a Vietnam village while blasting Wagner's opera piece "Ride of the Valkyries." He does this because it makes the attack even more terrifying. (Imagine having planes shoot at your village. Now imagine this is accompanied by a blaring soundtrack of ominous music.) That piece of music, previously known to Baby Boomers as Elmer Fudd's "Kill the wabbit" theme, was instantly associated with those images. Countless movies and TV shows have referenced it, usually jokingly, since then. (That same piece of music, by the way, was used in a similarly heroic fashion in the musical accompaniment for Birth of a Nation ... when the Ku Klux Klan rides in on horses to save the day.)

For amusement, you might glance at the lengthy list of "movie connections" on IMDb and notice just how often Apocalypse Now -- especially the napalm line and the "Valkyries" music -- pops up in other works.

In the mid- to late '80s, another spate of Vietnam films came along, including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill; many more have been made since then. Each of these exists in the shadow of Apocalypse Now, which got there first and was made by a legendary Hollywood figure, a director's director.

The film and its behind-the-scenes infamy also became the prototype for tyrannical directors and out-of-control production costs, as parodied in Tropic Thunder.

What to look for: In a 1992 essay about the documentary Hearts of Darkness, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum had this insight:

Above all else Apocalypse Now is a movie about being a movie director. The key sequence, the one everyone remembers, is Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall) of the Ninth Air Cavalry attacking a Vietcong beachhead with Wagner blaring from the helicopters and soldiers surfing ecstatically behind the boats.... We don't need Hearts of Darkness to tell us that Kilgore's "achievement" in this attack parallels Coppola's achievement in setting up and executing the sequence.

Coppola himself appears on-screen, briefly, as a TV news director trying to get "natural" footage of the soldiers as they make their way across a battlefield. ("Don't look at the camera! Just go by like you're fighting. Like you're fighting! Don't look at the camera! This is for television.") This was, you'll recall, the first war to be piped into Americans' living rooms, the first to be conveyed in surreal images that seemed to be taken from a movie.

What's the big deal: As Roger Ebert noted, the movie doesn't have a lot to say in terms of big answers. Kilgore seems as crazy as Kurtz, so why is Kurtz a liability while Kilgore is a hero? Kurtz is in trouble for murdering people, but as Willard points out, "charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." War is brutal, capricious, random, and deadly. It's also sometimes awe-inspiring and beautiful. (How else to describe those choppers arriving at dawn to the strains of Wagner? It's sheer poetry.) War is, in the words of Kurtz, "horror." Not very profound, is it?

But if Coppola's film works on you the way it's supposed to, it conveys the sensation of war -- the nightmarish cacophony, the senselessness, the total insanity. Knowing that Coppola went through a less deadly version of the same sort of experience gives the film a feeling of authenticity. Normally you'd try to separate the behind-the-scenes myths from what's actually on the screen. But in this case, the wounds from the filmmaking process bled so heavily into the movie itself that it's impossible to ignore. A great war film? Sure. A great example of an artist going through hell to make a war film? Absolutely.

Further reading: All of the articles linked throughout this column are worth your time. In addition, here is Roger Ebert's 1999 "Great Movies' essay, and Tim Dirks' characteristically thorough dissection.

Eric D. Snider (website) loves the smell of napalm anytime, really.