Sunday, 24 July 2011

AFI 100 Movies #28 Apocalypse Now (1979)

One of several movies in the AFI 100 that focuses on the Vietnam war.

Rather than your bog standard war movie, director Francis Ford Coppola brings us a story (based on the novel Heart Of Darkness) about a messed up captain, Benjamin L Willard (Martin Sheen) who is grappling with his inner demons, when he is asked to take on a classified special ops mission to hunt down a maverick colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and eliminate him with extreme prejudice.

Kurtz was a very promising soldier, real General material. He has gone AWOL while serving in Vietnam and is thought to have gone native, and is holed up in a former temple in Cambodia, he has been able to take control of a local tribe who act as his militia.

Willard accepts the mission, he is taken to a boat which will take him up the river to Kurtz's compound. Onboard are; George Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest) and Tyrone "Mr Clean" Miller (14 year old Laurence Fishburne).

Willard and the crew of the boat are asked to rendezvous with Kilgore (Robert Duvall), an officer in charge of a squadron of attack helicopters, he is at first reluctant to take them into an enemy stronghold, which would give them access to the river that leads to Kurtz's compound. However he is convinced to go ahead when he is informed of the good surfing to be had off the beach on the edge of the enemy stronghold. And cut to probably the most famous scene from the film, as the attack helicopters launch a raid, using the combined weapons of napalm "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" and Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" being blasted from loudspeakers as the action unfolds.

En route to the compound, the crew stop off at a U.S. army encampment and enjoy a visit from the Playboy bunnies.

Back on the river again, the boat is attacked by persons unknown, and Mr Clean is killed, Phillips holds Willard personally responsible. When the crew is attacked again, Phillips is impaled by a spear thrown by one of Kurtz's militia, as Willard tries to help him, Phillips in a last desperate act, tries to pull Willard onto the spear head protruding from his chest, Willard manages to fight him off after a struggle.

Willard is greeted upon his arrival at the compound by an American photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper), who has fallen under Kurtz's spell. Willard is at first imprisoned, but Kurtz has him freed. Captain Willard is invited to speak with Kurtz, and seems to have a great deal of respect for him, but he knows what he must do.

As the tribesmen carry out a very graphic sacrifice of a water buffalo, Willard stealthily enters Kurtz's lair and dispatches him.

This is a good film, it manages to have an art house aesthetic, but still have a more mainstream appeal, Martin Sheen is very good (I've yet to see him in anything I didn't rate him highly in), Brando, restricted to speaking from the shadows, as he felt uneasy about appearing on screen after gaining a lot of weight, still puts in a decent turn as the psychotic colonel Kurtz.

Francis Ford Coppola faced all manner of trials and tribulations to get this movie finished, Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the lead role but Coppola soon came to realise that he wasn't right for the part and duly fired him. He then hired Martin Sheen, who by his own admission felt out of shape and subsequently suffered a heart attack during the filming period, a typhoon destroyed valuable sets, and to cap it all off, when he asked Marlon Brando, who was hired at one million dollars a week for three weeks work if he could start a little later as he wanted to rewrite the ending, he flatly refused, threatening to pull out and keep his one million dollar advance!

The film went on to win 2 academy awards and took $150 million dollars at the box office, so all the hard work was not in vain.

So, a good movie, and a landmark in cinema, but is it the best Vietnam film?

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