Apocalypse Now is the first film in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies that I have already seen. Looking ahead in the table of contents I can see that this is not the only such film. Boy, that’s a relief. At the very least I can rest easy in the knowledge that Roger would not have been completely disappointed in my personal film history.
It was a regular college night, like any that had come before, and most that would come after. My friends and I were self-medicated, hanging out on the non-regulation bunk beds that had been constructed in one of the dorm rooms on the fourth floor of Marks Tower. I have no doubt that I was planning on going to class the next day, but I am also sure that I did no such thing, because that right there is the encapsulation of my freshman year at USC. The only thing that set this night apart from all of the others was that this was the night we chose to watch Apocalypse Now. Most likely sandwiched between Easy Rider and True Romance (because college is when you finally begin to understand why Dennis Hopper was so Dennis Hopper-y), I had no idea that I was about to watch one of my favorite movies, and probably the best war movie ever made.
The image that stuck with me the most from that night was the death of the buffalo toward the film’s conclusion, intercut with (SPOILERS for this 35 year old movie) the death of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the hands of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), the moment the entire film has been building toward. That scene is one of director Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest moments in a movie full of them. Kurtz’s murder is rather vague and kind of censored, but the buffalo’s sacrifice is as graphic as possible. This juxtaposition is brutal and visceral, and conveys Coppola’s vision without having to compromise it with too much makeup or trickery.
Coppola does this several times in the film, perhaps most notably in the opening moments depicting Willard’s post-traumatic stress and in the surreal camera work as Chief’s boat takes the Captain upriver. Apocalypse Now was a famously difficult shoot, as portrayed in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which is ostensibly a making of documentary, but is completely compelling in its own right. Between Coppola’s constant dancing on edge of a breakdown, Sheen’s heart attack, and all of the difficulties that accompanied Brando wherever he stomped, it is a wonder the movie was ever completed. It is a downright miracle that it ended up being so good.
Or perhaps that quality is the sum of all of the hard work a bunch of crazy people put into a crazy product. Willard finally rejects orders and superiors in the final moments of Apocalypse Now, opting not to destroy Kurtz’s compound. That moment echoes Coppola’s entire production; taking action that was true to himself, thus allowing him to be able to live with the results.