Remembering Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’

There will never exist a perfect film, though there will always be great films. The definition of both words perfect and great may be slightly similar, however, their disparity in cinema could not be more pronounced. To make a truly great film a director must break down cinematic barriers, try concepts that he/she is unsure of and enter unknown places. The prime example of this is when Francis Ford Coppola set out to make his epic war adventure masterpiece ‘Apocalypse Now.’

Infamously nicknamed by pessimists ‘Apocalypse When?’, this dark-hearted tale’s filming took two strenuous years to complete. Coppola’s problems first arose when actors such as Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and even his cherished Al Pacino rejected the protagonist’s role; Keitel was even hired and fired. Eventually, the unknown and at the time alcoholic Martin Sheen was drafted in – later suffering a non-fatal heart attack.

“Unlike all those innocent soldiers, [Coppola] suffered this nightmare for a meaningful cause”

Further, a typhoon vehemently destroying the Philippian set delayed filming for two months, while there have been rumours that a rogue tiger terrorised the crew one night. However, Coppola persevered; despite costing him his marriage, his millions and even potentially his mind. Unlike all those innocent soldiers, he suffered this nightmare for a meaningful cause.


Opening poetically with The Doors’ song: ‘The End,’ ‘Apocalypse Now’ follows an undercover US Army Officer Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on a destructive yet cathartic expedition right into the Cambodian rainforest to assassinate a decorated war-hero named Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who stopped fighting and created his own native kingdom in the jungle. We watch as Willard delves deeper and deeper into death’s clutches as he witnesses the sheer terror and madness that is unfolding around him throughout his expedition.

“The scorching images of horror captured penetrate our souls to the darkest realms that have yet to be exposed”

The entire picture is a journey towards the understanding of the horrifying truth that Kurtz uncovered and can now no longer stare at without insanity or despair. It is a Vietnam War take on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’ where the symbolic theme is that insane people are more intelligent that sane people. Think about that for a second or so.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s transcendent imagery is miraculous; rivalled by only Kubrick films such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Barry Lyndon.’ He paints the most viciously intense orange, verdurous green and deathly black. The scorching images of horror captured penetrate our souls to the darkest realms that have yet to be exposed.

However, there is something attractively endearing about this beautiful but empty hell of a place, almost as if we want to be there, belting out Rolling Stones classics like the soldiers. Coppola reproduces war’s high octane virility and full spectrum from the grotesque irrationality to the visual horror of a Wilfred Owen poem. Moreover, the seamless editing makes for one of the most haunting endings in cinematic history.


‘Apocalypse Now’ has themes that are just as prominent in the modern day as forty years ago as we watch young men march off to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. It exposes the concealed truths of war that though none of us would ever want to discover, which millions of scarred souls throughout history have; as Kurtz famously mutters: “the horror, the horror…” So, remember this; we are all lucky to be less intelligent than some others. Come and join me, let’s spend the rest of our lives living in a fool’s paradise.

Sean McGurk

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