Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #36
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando
Welcome back, one and all, to Twohundredfifty. I got my second wind after a week off and I'm ready to plunge into the rest of the list. This post is on a movie that I actually watched about a week ago but waited until now to write about, and having had time to think about it, I'm pretty close to declaring it my favorite war movie of all time. Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola's grand epic of the Vietnam War, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It follows the young, ambitious Captain Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen on a mission to "terminate with extreme prejudice" an Army colonel who has gone rogue in Cambodia. In a simultaneously wondrous and terrifying journey down the Nung River filled with encounters with fascinating characters (See Robert Duvall's death-obsessed Col. Bill Kilgore and Dennis Hopper's panegyric, drug-crazed photojournalist), both human nature and the nature of combat are exposed for the ugly things that they truly are. By the time Willard finally encounters Col. Kurtz, played chillingly by Marlon Brando, his views on the war and his mission are so skewed that he can barely distinguish right from wrong.
I think Apocalypse Now is the most important accomplishment in exposé-style war films since 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front. The Best Years of Our Lives came close, but it depicted the challenges of life back on the home front for returning soldiers rather than the effects of war itself. Coppola's masterpiece showed the Vietnam War for what it truly was: a senseless return to man's primitive state, a drug-induced fever dream, a dark, dank, sweating, starved horror that couldn't be explained rationally or mapped out effectively by generals or presidents. It was a horrifying chapter of American history, and better than anyone else ever would – even Stanley Kubrick whose Full Metal Jacket became so famous –Francis Ford Coppola captured it on film. A combination of powerful, visually oppressive cinematography, a fantastic screenplay, and stellar performances from the entire cast made this possible, but it's the climactic showdown between Brando and Sheen that sends the film into the stratosphere and makes it an "all-time greatest" candidate.
All of the performances of note in this film are excellent, but the most important (and probably the best) is Martin Sheen's role as Captain Willard. His story somewhat mirrors that of Ulysses – he is on a journey by boat, forced to encounter a wide array of bizarreness and horror in an episodic fashion as he goes toward his destination, and he is ultimately changed by everything he witnesses along the way. His end is much different than Ulysses', though, and his chilling encounter with Brando's Col. Kurtz is nothing that he could have prepared for no matter how many napalm attacks and drug-addled photojournalists he brushed up against beforehand. Sheen plays the role with a brilliant passivity, never raising his voice above a detached monotone, and we quickly realize that Willard is, just as the audience is, a mere observer of the horrors of war. The way he remains reserved while all hell breaks loose around him gives the film its center, and it is without a doubt the finest performance he has submitted thus far in his career.
The Good: Best war movie ever, probably.
The Bad: Coppola had to do rewrites of the Kurtz scenes because Brando was too fat to do what he wanted him to. Come on, Marlon!
The Skinny: #36 is damn high, but for this movie, I can get behind it.