You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

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

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.

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

More Film

  • Kevin Costner Diane Lane

    Kevin Costner, Diane Lane to Reunite in Suspense Thriller 'Let Him Go'

    Focus Features has tapped Kevin Costner and Diane Lane to star as a husband and wife in the suspense thriller “Let Him Go.” The two also collaborated on “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thomas Bezucha (“The Family Stone”) is set to direct his own screenplay, based on Larry Watson’s novel [...]

  • Chris Hemsworth Hulk Hogan

    Chris Hemsworth to Play Hulk Hogan in Biopic for Netflix

    Netflix is in the early stages of developing a Hulk Hogan biopic with Chris Hemsworth attached to star as the wrestling legend and produce. Netflix has obtained the exclusive life rights and consulting services from Terry Gene Bollea AKA Hulk Hogan. Todd Phillips, whose credits include “War Dogs” and “The Hangover” trilogy, is attached to [...]

  • Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant

    Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant Winners

    Swedish documentary filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova and “Negative Space” co-directors Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter are among the filmmakers who will receive grants from Rooftop Films to help complete their upcoming projects. Kirilova will be awarded $20,000 to finish her film, “In the Shadows of Love,” while collaborators Kuwahata and Porter will receive $10,000 for “Dandelion [...]

  • Jim Gianopulos

    Paramount Chief Jim Gianopulos Unveils Diversity Initiative

    Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos has announced that all studio productions will be required to complete a plan to enhance diversity. Wednesday’s reveal follows Paramount’s commitment to participating in Time’s Up and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge. The name is derived from women having directed only 4% of the country’s top grossing movies [...]

  • Leave No Trace

    Oscar Analysts Are Sincere -- but Often Totally Wrong

    With Oscars arriving Feb. 24, we can expect multiple “who will win/who should win” columns. There will also be a flurry of post-show analyses about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and why members voted the way they did. Since AMPAS never releases polls or voting tallies, these pundits will never be contradicted [...]

  • Green Book spiderman into the spider

    On Eve of Oscars, Variety’s Film Experts Answer Three Pressing Questions

    We continue to live in a divided world, with the current political landscape in the United States a seemingly endless hotbed of tumult and acrimony. Issues of racism, bigotry, diversity and gender equality drive the creative players as well, with Oscar-nominated films parlaying said themes into compelling, thought-provoking cinema. To analyze 2018 in big-screen entertainment, [...]

  • Karl Lagerfeld'Lagerfeld Confidential' Photocall at the

    Karl Lagerfeld Remembered at Costume Designers Guild Awards

    The death of fashion and costume designer Karl Lagerfeld cast somewhat of a shadow over the usually jubilant Costume Designers Guild Awards — the only award show where clothes literally steal the spotlight away from actors — which was held at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday night. Here it was obvious that Lagerfeld’s impact on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content