This spectacular film, long delayed and said to be 17 million dollars over its budget, ends in a welter of bathos that has to be seen to be believed, and that weighs down the whole work with its mournful freight of clutching, unappeasable ambition. But the film holds together well enough until it reaches its final muddle, and it has scenes and moments unequaled in recent European or American movies. Indeed, it has one long sequence so right and so powerful that it actually causes the confusion of the end, since it leaves Coppola with nothing to say. He cannot discover the promised “heart of darkness” in the murk of his conclusion, because he stumbled across it much earlier—earlier in the finished film and in the shooting—on a bright, noisy beach strewn with soldiers and helicopters, sheets of flame lighting up the background, as a plausible imitation of napalm devoured the jungle. He went on looking—writing, directing, editing—for the horror he had already found.
He seems almost to have known this. “The movie is a mess,” he wrote in a note addressed to himself.
A mess of continuity, of style—and most important, the ending neither works on an audience or philosophical level. Brando is a disappointment to audiences—the film reaches its highest level during the fucking helicopter battle.
The note dates from May 1978, and can’t represent Coppola’s last thoughts on the subject. Certainly the style and the continuity of the film have been satisfactorily cleaned up. But he was right about the ending, about Brando, and about the helicopters.
Marlon Brando, vast, entirely bald, looking something like an outsize Kojak who has gone in for meditation, mumbling as only he knows how, plays Colonel Walter Kurtz, a Green Beret who has slipped over into Cambodia and taken the Vietnam war into his own hands. The army, borrowing a phrase from Joseph Conrad, decides that Kurtz’s methods are “unsound,” and sends Captain Willard, ably played by Martin Sheen, to kill him. We see Vietnam with Willard, and largely through his eyes, as he leaves Saigon and takes the long trip upriver to Kurtz.
Apocalypse Now is a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although there are no credits of any kind on the print being shown in New York and the program notes simply say the film was “written by John Milius and Francis Coppola.” Actually the movie is full of remarkably inventive translations of pieces of Conrad’s complicated tale, down to the French man-of-war “firing into a continent,” which becomes a formation of jets burning an empty tropical landscape. The quest for Kurtz lends suspense and direction to the film; the adaptation is not the problem, although a number of Conrad’s shakier assumptions about the life of savages do survive into the movie. The problem is the encouragement Conrad appears to have given to Coppola’s solemnity—the invitation, as it seems, to drag out every pretension …