Sunday, April 14, 2024

Don't Make a Scene: Apocalypse Now

The Story: "I wanted a mission...and for my sins, they gave me one."
 
Apocalypse Now lurches like a drunken bear between realism and surrealism. Of course, it originated with John Milius (maybe more so, than even Joseph Conrad). Told by one of his film instructors at USC that Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" had even challenged adaptation by Orson Welles, Milius made it his own personal mission to scale that mountain, bring down that beast, and conquer that wave by making his own adaptation, setting it during the Vietnam War and titling it (satirically) "Apocalypse Now"—after seeing hippies (whom he loathed) wearing pins that said "Nirvana Now." His treatment was part of the American Zoetrope package that Francis Ford Coppola sold to Warner Brothers, which was cancelled after the lackluster box-office of its first released film, George Lucas' THX-1138—the result of which led to Coppola taking "a job" to save the studio—a little gangster movie that Paramount was about to produce into the ground called The Godfather.

It's a quite often-told tale, that.

But, as austere as "Heart of Darkness" is, Milius' "Apocalypse Now" is flamboyant, taking the particular eccentricities of the Vietnam war—the drugs, the music, the racial mix, the mechanization vs. guerilla fighting, and blowing them up in vast neon gouts of napalm. It can be accused of reveling in the very things it's trying to abhor, but that's a symptom of so many "high concept" films. 
 
Even this scene, which is, ostensibly, "by the book," has its flashes of weirdness—Marlon Brando's disembodied voice, the cut to a close-up of the shrimp entree just as he says the words "crawling, slithering" (enough to put you off your "surf and turf"), the whole vibe of a business luncheon while talking about a murder that "doesn't exist, and never will exist." The distaste that the uniforms feel in ordering the killing of one of their own (G.D. Spadlin's general has a general look of dyspepsia while Harrison's Ford's colonel seems to be fighting his own rising bile), while the civilian—who knows who HE is?—is as perfunctory as if he was a business man fulfilling an order. 
 
And he's the only one who comes out and says, basically, "kill the colonel" (and with "extreme prejudice") in the veiled argot of non-accountability (as composed by Milius and Coppola).

But, it's those moments of Martin Sheen...looking directly at the camera...that truly haunt. By the time they occur, we're well acquainted with the askance sight-lines he has of the other characters in the scene, so when he's looking at us in those dark moments of dialogue ("Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature"), what is he looking at? Is he looking for answers? Is he looking for approval or acknowledgment (we are, after all, the recipient of his inner-most thoughts)? Is he looking to let us know he's in a trap? Is he looking into his possible future of the choices he'll be forced to make (there IS a lot of fore-shadowing in this movie, with cross-faded images of idols and such)? 

Maybe it's the only place he can look in a room full of implied threats and unspoken deadly intent...and feel safe? Feel like Himself?

It's just another one of those mysteries that flit in and out of the Big Ideas and Big Set-pieces like shrapnel and chaos trying to be contained...and never can be.

Also, it should be noted with regret that Eleanor Coppola died Friday—she accompanied her husband, with their family, on the arduous journey to make Apocalypse Now, where she filmed extensive back-stage material, which was incorporated into the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (which I've embedded below, but Lord knows how long it will stay available), one of the best documentaries about film-making, obsession, and might even be closer in spirit to the themes of Joseph Conrad's source material than previous adaptations. Her book on the experience, "Notes," is an amazing read.
Ci mancher√† moltissimo 
The Set-Up: Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is "still" in Vietnam. He'd done his tour and returned home, got divorced and re-enlisted. An Army assassin with Special Forces, he has been languishing in a Saigon hotel, drinking, smoking, "getting softer" (in his words) when he is recruited for a mission quite unlike any other in his known experience. He has been called to meet General R. Corman (G.D. Spradlin), Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford), and a civilian he does not know (Jerry Ziesmer)
 
Action.
 
EXT. MILITARY COMPOUND - DAY 
A darkly painted Huey lands in a guarded military compound somewhere in Nah Trang. The two enlisted men jump out of the helicopter, leading Willard, who seems in much better shape. As he gets out he sees a platoon of new men drilling in the hot hazy sun. They are clean and pale. 
MEN (Chanting) I wanna go to Vietnam. I wanna kill a Vietcong- 
WILLARD (V.O.) I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn't even know it yet. 
WILLARD (V.O.) Weeks away and hundreds of miles up river that snaked through the war like a circuit cable...plugged straight into Kurtz. 
He follows the escort across the fields as the platoon drills. 
WILLARD (V.O.) It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory, 
WILLARD (V.O.)
...any more that being back in Saigon was an accident.
WILLARD (V.O.)
There was no way to tell his story without telling my own. 
They approach a civilian-type luxury trailer. It is surrounded by concertina wire, and its windows have grenade protection, but it still seems out of place in this austere military base. 
CLOSER ON WILLARD He stands before the door for a moment, as the M.P.s guarding the trailer check his papers.
 
INT. TRAILER - DAY
WILLARD (V.O.)
And if his story is really a confession....
Cool and comfortable, furnished like home. Pictures on the walls, certificates, photos of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and other mementos decorating the room. A small table is covered with linen and place settings for three. 
Willard enters. 
He salutes, and the COLONEL salutes him back. 
WILLARD Captain Willard reporting, sir.
WILLARD (V.O.) then so is mine. 
COLONEL (to Willard) Captain. Good. Come on in. 
WILLARD Thank you, sir. 
COLONEL Stand at ease. 
Willard notices somebody O.S. and reacts. 
WILLARD General. 
The General crosses over to a cabinet and picks up a pack of cigarettes, as the CAMERA REVEALS a CIVILIAN; probably with the Department of Defense, sitting at the bar, and a GENERAL sitting on a sofa. The colonel turns and offers Willard a cigarette from the pack. 
COLONEL (to Willard) Do you want a cigarette? 
WILLARD No thank you, sir. 
COLONEL (indicating civilian) Captain, have you ever seen this gentleman before?
WILLARD No, sir.
COLONEL You ever met the general or myself?
WILLARD No, sir. Not personally. 
COLONEL You've worked a lot on your own, haven't you, Captain? 
WILLARD Yes, sir, I have. 
COLONEL Your report specifies intelligence, counter-intelligence with Com-Sec, I Corps. 
WILLARD I'm not presently disposed to discuss those operations, sir. 
There is a pause as the colonel lights his cigarette, 
then moves to the sofa.
He bends down and picks up a dossier, looks at it. 
COLONEL
Did you not work for the CIA in I Corps? 
WILLARD
(pause) No, sir. 
COLONEL
Did you not assassinate...
COLONEL
...a government tax collector...Quang Tri province June 18, 1968? 
Willard doesn't answer. 
COLONEL
Captain? 
WILLARD
Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, 
WILLARD
...
nor would I be disposed to discuss an operation, if it did in fact exist, sir. 
A pause. 
Willard is tired and confused and hung over, but he is handling himself well. 
The general rises. 
GENERAL
I thought we'd have a bit of lunch while we talked. 
GENERAL
I hope you brought a good appetite, Captain. 
Willard gets up and moves towards the dining table with the general and the civilian. 
They sit down. 
GENERAL
I noticed that you have a bad hand there. Are you wounded?
WILLARD
Had a little fishing accident on R and R, sir. 
GENERAL
Fishing on R and R? 
WILLARD
Yes, sir. 
GENERAL
But you're feeling fit? You're ready for duty? 
WILLARD
Yes, General. Very much so, sir. 
The food is being passed around. 
GENERAL
Well, let's see...
GENERAL
...
what we have here. Roast beef, and usually it's not bad. 
GENERAL
(to civilian) Try some, Jerry. Pass it around. 
GENERAL
To save a little time, we might pass both ways. (to Willard) 
GENERAL
Captain, I don't know how you feel about this shrimp, but if you eat it, you'll never have...
GENERAL
...to prove your courage in any other way. 
GENERAL
Well, why don't I just take a piece here...

The colonel, who is not eating with them, walks to the table, holding a small photo. 
COLONEL
(to Willard) Captain, you've heard of...
COLONEL
...
Captain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz? 
He shows the photo to Willard. 
INSERT THE PHOTO It's an eight-by-ten black-and-white portrait of an army officer wearing a beret. 
WILLARD
Um...
WILLARD
Yes, sir. I've heard the name. 
The Colonel accidentally drops the dossier. Papers, photos, etc., scatter all over the floor. 
He stoops down to pick them up. 
COLONEL Jesus...
COLONEL
Operations officer, Fifth Special Forces. 
GENERAL
Luke, would you play that tape, for the captain, please?
COLONEL
Yes sir. I'm sorry, sir.
GENERAL (to Willard) Listen to it carefully, Captain. 
The Colonel moves to a tape recorder and turns it on. 
MALE VOICE (ON TAPE) (V.O.) "October 9, 04:30 hours, Sector Peter, Victor, King." 
GENERAL
These were monitored out of Cambodia. 
GENERAL
It's been verified as Colonel Kurtz's voice. 
All the men, including Willard, listen in wonder. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE) (V.O.) "I watched...
KURTZ (ON TAPE) ...
a small snail, crawling on the edge 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
of a straight razor. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
That's my dream. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
It's my nightmare. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
Crawling, slithering, 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
along the edge of 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
a straight razor, 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
and surviving." 
MALE VOICE (ON TAPE) (V.O.)
"Transmission 11, received '68, December 30, 05:00 hours, Sector King, Zulu, King". 
KURTZ (ON TAPE) (V.O.) "But we must kill them. We must incinerate...
KURTZ (ON TAPE) ...
them. Pig after pig. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
Cow after cow. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
Village after village. Army after army. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
And they call me an assassin. What do you call it, when the assassins accuse the assassin? 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
They lie. They lie...
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
...and we have to be merciful, for those who lie. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
Those nabobs. 
KURTZ (ON TAPE)
I hate them. I really do hate them." 
The TAPE is TURNED OFF. 
GENERAL
Walter Kurtz was one of the most outstanding officers this 
GENERAL
...
country's ever produced. 
GENERAL
He was brilliant. He was outstanding in every way. And he was a good man, too. 
GENERAL
A humanitarian man. A man of wit and humor. 
GENERAL
He joined the Special Forces, 
GENERAL
and after that, his ideas, methods, became...
GENERAL
...
unsound. 
GENERAL
Unsound. 
COLONEL
Now he's crossed into Cambodia with this...
COLONEL
...Montagnard army of his, that worship the man like a god, and... 
COLONEL
...follow him every order, 
COLONEL
however ridiculous. 
GENERAL
Well, I have some other shocking news to tell you. 
GENERAL
Colonel Kurtz was about to be arrested for murder. 
WILLARD
I don't follow sir. Murdered who? 
COLONEL
Kurtz had ordered the execution...
COLONEL
...of some Vietnamese intelligence agents. 
COLONEL
Men he believed were double agents. 
COLONEL
So he took matters... 
COLONEL
...into his own hands. 
GENERAL
Well, 
GENERAL
...you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. 
GENERAL
Power, ideals, 
GENERAL
the old morality, and...
GENERAL
...practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to... 
GENERAL
...be God. 
GENERAL
Because there's a conflict in every human heart. 
GENERAL
Between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. 
GENERAL
And good does not always triumph. 
GENERAL
Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. 
GENERAL
Every man has got a breaking point. 
GENERAL
You have and I have them. 
GENERAL
Walter Kurtz has reached his. 
GENERAL
And, very obviously, he has gone insane. 
Willard looks from the colonel to the general to the civilian. 
They are intensely interested in his response, 
which they want to be "yes." 
WILLARD
(carefully) Yes, sir. Very much so, sir. Obviously insane. 
The three men pull back, satisfied. 
COLONEL
Your mission is to proceed up the Nung...
COLONEL
...River in a navy patrol boat, 
(clears throat)
COLONEL
pick up Colonel Kurtz's path at Nu Mung Ba, 
COLONEL
follow it, learn what you can along the way. When you find
COLONEL
the colonel, infiltrate his team by... 
clears throat)
COLONEL
...whatever means available, and...
COLONEL
...terminate the colonel's command. 
WILLARD
(to General) Terminate...the colonel? 
GENERAL
He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable...
GENERAL
...human conduct. And he is still on the field commanding troops. 
CIVILIAN
Terminate with extreme prejudice. 
The civilian hands Willard a cigarette, and lights it for him. 
COLONEL
You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist,
COLONEL ...
nor will it ever exist. 
CLOSE ON WILLARD Smoking the cigarette, thinking about the mission.
 
 
Words by John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Herr (and G.D. Spradlin)
 
 
Apocalypse Now is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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