Film Review: Apocalypse Now

"Apocalypse Now" was worth the wait. Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film, Francis Coppola's four year 'work in progress' offers the definitive validation to the old saw, "war is hell." Coppola's vision of Hell-on-Earth hews closely to Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," and therein lies the film's principal commercial defect.

Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola Marlon
Zoetrope/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Apocalypse Now” was worth the wait. Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film, Francis Coppola’s four year ‘work in progress’ offers the definitive validation to the old saw, “war is hell.” Coppola’s vision of Hell-on-Earth hews closely to Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” and therein lies the film’s principal commercial defect. An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, “Apocalypse” abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement. Result will be many spectators left in the lurch, a factor that won’t help in recouping the $50,000,000 or more necessary for break-even by distrib United Artists, Coppola and the worldwide territorial distribs involved.


“Apocalypse Now” will also have trouble avoiding political pigeonholing, since it’s the first film to directly excoriate US involvement in the Indochina war. To be sure, inhumane attitudes surfaced on both sides as inevitable consequences of a misunderstood conflict, but Coppola wields a wide tabrush in painting Americans as either “conspiratorial” or “homicidal,” with no one in between.


Thus it seems ironic that the most widely heralded production of the last 10 years may find its niche co-opted by a pic dealing with a common subject, the effect of the Vietnam conflict on its participants, “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” are widely differing treatments in tone and viewpoint, but in the eyes of the film-going public, if you’ve seen one Vietnam war pic, you might have seen them all.


Which possible reaction would be a shame, because Coppola here reaffirms his stature as a top filmmaker. “Apocalypse Now” takes realistic cinema to a new extreme – Coppola virtually creates World War III on screen.


There are no models or miniatures, no tank work, nor process screens for the airborne sequences. The resulting footage outclasses any war pic made to date. Coppola’s wisest decision was to narrow the focus on the members of the patrol boat crew entrusted with taking Intelligence assassin Martin Sheen on a hazardous mission upriver into Cambodia. There Sheen hopes to track down and ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ Marlon Brando, a megalomaniac officer whose methods and motives have become, in Pentagonese, ‘unsound,’ as he leads an army of Montagnard tribesmen on random genocide missions.


Interaction of Sheen and the two black (Albert Hall, Larry Fishburne) and two white (Fred Forrest and Sam Bottoms) seamen gives “Apocalypse” a narrative flow when, in fact, there’s very little narrative (Sheen has a sporadic voice-over commentary done in groggy sotto-voce that does little to explicate the action).


Robert Duvall appears mid-way as an expansive screen character, an air cavalry helicopter commander who’s a surfing nut, and has his boys riding the waves in the midst of flak attacks. These and some other-worldly, nighttime river excursions seem the principal contributions of original scenarist John Milius (who now shares screenwriting credit with Coppola), and they contain a wacky, manic energy that serves “Apocalypse” well.


It’s when the ghost of novelist Joseph Conrad enters the picture, and when Milius and Coppola in effect take a back seat to a literary homage, that “Apocalypse Now” runs aground. Despite Vittorio Storaro’s haunting imagery, Barry Malkin’s explosive editing, and Dean Tavoularis’ eerie production design, final third of the pic fails to jell. [Version reviewed was a 139-min. ‘work in progress’ shown at the 1979 Cannes festival.]


Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended.


Marlon Brando’s intimidating but inscrutable performance as the bald-headed Colonel Kurtz (named after Conrad’s character in “Heart of Darkness”) doesn’t clarify anything.


Rest of the cast is extraordinary, with Sheen extremely effective in a laconic style, and Forrest Hall, Fishburne and Bottoms superb in their respective delineations.


Coppola himself shows up in a brief cameo as a combat director, and Bill Graham, Harrison Ford and G. D. Spradlin have minor roles. Duvall gives one of the best characterizations of his career as the surfer commander, and Dennis Hopper is effectively “weird” as Brando’s official photographer.


“Apocalypse Now” is emblazoned with firsts: a 70mm presentation without credits, a director putting himself personally on the hook for the film’s $18 million cost overrun, and then obtaining rights to the pic in perpetuity, and a revolutionary sound system that adds immeasurably to the film’s impact.


Even if Coppola isn’t haunted by the spectre of financial fiascos like “Cleopatra,” there’s no assured future for “Apocalypse.” It’s a complex, demanding, highly intelligent piece of work, coming into a marketplace that does not always embrace those qualities.


That doesn’t lessen its impact as film or art, but it may give the next filmmaker who plans a $40,000,000 war epic a few second thoughts.




1979: Best Cinematography, Sound.


Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Robert Duvall), Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing.


Click here to read Variety’s review of the 2001 “Apocalypse Now Redux” re-release.

Film Review: Apocalypse Now

  • Production: Omni Zoetrope/United Artists. Director Francis Coppola; Producer Francis Coppola; Writer John Milius, Francis Coppola; Camera Vittorio Storaro Editor Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, Lis Fruchtman; Music Carmine Coppola, Francis Coppola Art Dean Tavoularis. Reviewed at Bruin Theatre, Westwood, Cal., May 11, 1979. (No MPAA Rating).
  • Crew: (Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1979. Running time: 153 MIN.
  • With: Col. Kurtz - Marlon Brando Captain Willard - Martin Sheen Lt. Col. Kilgore - Robert Duvall Chef - Fred Forrest Lance - Sam Bottoms Chief - Albert Hall Clean - Larry Fishburne Photo-journalist - Dennis Hopper Also - Harrison Ford, G. D. Spradlin, Bill Graham, Cynthia Wood, Francis Coppola