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Apocalypse Now is a series of ‘surely this can’t get any worse’ moments. Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore telling his soldiers to go surfing whilst the beach they’re on is being directly attacked? Try worse. Willard, our quiet protagonist, killing an innocent Vietnamese who barely survived a point blank attack from a machine gun? Nope, even worse. Willard getting his last hope of survival being thrown into his lap as a decapitated head which he desperately tries to shake off? Yeah, things are pretty bad by the time the credits roll. (I think Chef’s death might be one of the most affecting death scenes I’ve ever seen on screen). Which makes me wonder why Coppola chose to include the French plantation scene midway through this Director's Cut. It feels so out of place in the film, the conversation is stilted, and the scene with the woman just seems like gratuitous nudity. Cut that out, and you’re left with a Dantesque descent further and further from any reference points, into something unspeakably primal – ‘the horror’ indeed.

Safe to say, however, this is one of the most impressive cinematic experiences I have ever experienced. Helped, no doubt, by seeing it projected on the largest screen in the UK. Every twitch of the face, every bead of sweat (and there is a whole lotta sweat in this movie), every flare colour under the sun and every flicker of light reflected in every eye, it’s all there for you to see, to bask in, to revel in, to lose yourself in. Climbing up out of the coliseum, I overheard people stuttering half-formed words of disbelief. Wouldn’t it be fun to record some vox pops of people leaving, just asking them to sum up what they had just seen. ‘Well that was a trip’, ‘could you believe that?’, ‘now you know why that’s my favourite film of all time’, ‘Charlie don’t surf’!

Reading up on some of the film’s production, it’s gratifying to see that for all of the issues on set (not least a near-death experience of the leading man), it all paid off in the end. Which isn’t to say that incredible films can’t be made without risking life and limb, but with films like these, it seems that the closer the production comes to the reality it is trying to depict, the closer it gets to actually capturing that reality. There’s hundreds, if not thousands, of production hells which can quickly prove this assertion wrong, but in this case, it just adds to the whole mystique and power of the movie, doesn’t it? Look up interviews with Coppola from the time… he looks like he’s seen some shit.

You can’t neglect the music, too. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to ‘The End’ in the same way again – and the way that the song dovetails the film from start to end is incredible. ‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’, Let the Good times roll… normal American life seems so close, but so far away. After his ill-timed surf contest, Kilgore choppers in T-bones and beer and starts playing guitar on the beach, prompting Willard’s detached voiceover to chime in: ‘The more they tried to make it like home, the more they made everybody miss it.’ But what sense of ‘America’ prevails in Apocalypse Now? Willard has to perform a summary execution because Kurtz has gone insane… but are the rest of them any better? (Kilgore is a key case in point. What about sending a 17 year old, Mr. Clean, who is clearly too young to be there – he’s like a kid playing a video game when he guns down the Vietnamese boat – only for him to be killed in the crossfire, as his mothers voice continues to play in his tape recorder: ‘I’ll have a lot of grandchildren to love and spoil’. It’s unbearable to listen to).

In the end, you start to agree with Kurtz’s statements. How can we really expect soldiers to be moral but also ‘utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion’? If the Vietnam War was doomed from the start, then Kurtz is the logical conclusion of all of its warped agendas and double standards. And that’s why Apocalypse Now may be the best, if not the most horror-fying, anti-war film of all time.


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