Monday, 9 November 2015

Apocalypse Now (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #8

First of all my apologies for posting this review a day late. My original intention was to watch one film each day from my list of 30 films, but things happen. Sometimes I'm busy. Believe it or not, I have a life outside of films. I'll catch up in the next few days.

"Apocalypse Now", originally released in 1979, is usually called an anti-war film. After watching it today I don't think that's the film's purpose. It's true, the film does show the absurdity of war, but this is just part of a bigger picture. The film is about the absurdity of civilisation, and in an extended way about the absurdity of humanity. Are the savages in the jungle any more or less civilised than the savages from America who have come to kill them?

The film is based loosely on the novel "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. In that book a boat is travelling along a river in Africa, in the film the boat is travelling along a river through Vietnam into Cambodia. There are many other differences, such as Kurtz's background (in the book he's an ivory trader, in the film he's an army colonel), but the underlying messages are the same. The war itself is super-imposed on the film, there is no war in "Heart of Darkness", so it's easier to understand "Apocalypse Now" if we strip away the war.

Today I watched the 2001 Redux version with an extra 49 minutes of footage. I'll probably go back and watch the original version next year. A lot of people don't like the Redux version because the extra footage consists of long talking scenes that slow the film down. In a way I agree. The shorter film is tighter and better paced, but the scenes added to the extended version underline the film's message. We see the French settlers clinging onto their land, saying that Vietnam is their home. The French are just one tribe among many. We also see the absurdity of Chef finally meeting the Playboy bunny that he's idolised for years. Rather than accept her as she is he wants to make her look like a page in the magazine. He encounters reality and wants to turn it into an image. That's an important scene as a metaphor for the American military actions in Vietnam. America sees Vietnam, an exotic new world, and wants to turn it into America.

Captain Jack Willard is sent to kill Colonel Kurtz because he's gone mad. The question the viewer has to ask is whether he really is mad. He sees more clearly than anyone else around him. He's not opposed to the war, even though he criticises the way it's being run. He says that America could win the war with a quarter of the soldiers they were using if they were properly trained elite soldiers. Even though he doesn't say it, this is a jab at America's policy of drafting soldiers to fight in the Vietnam war. If the war had been fought by highly dedicated volunteers the war effort would have been more efficient.

Colonel Kurtz has set himself up as a God. His followers are a mixture of Vietnamese, Cambodians and American deserters. Even the Americans sent to kill him on previous missions have now joined him. Does calling yourself a God make you mad? It depends on what sort of a God you consider yourself to be. Colonel Kurtz didn't create the world, and I doubt he claimed he had, but he had the power over life and death. When he spoke, people listened. Those are the true characteristics of a God. In Kurtz's kingdom dead bodies lay rotting everywhere, but is that a sign of madness? It's a different way, disgusting to the civilised people in the West, but is it wrong? It's the will of God, the God called Kurtz. It's not mad, it's arbitrary. What God says is right is right, what God says is wrong is wrong.

It's not only Gods who are arbitrary. The civilised nation of America is also arbitrary, as Kurtz himself points out. "We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene". Do we have the right to judge others when we can't even see the absurdity in our own actions?

Captain Willard is hesitant to kill Colonel Kurtz. He doesn't know what will happen. We see the result at the end of the film. He who kills God becomes God. When he emerges from the temple with the murder weapon in one hand and Kurtz's words in the other the people kneel before him. Is Willard capable of becoming a God? He certainly begins his life of deity by making the right choice. He sits reading Kurtz's book in front of a candle. The viewer asks if he will set the pages on fire. This made my heart stop. No, he doesn't. He preserves the document. You can kill a God, but you should never destroy God's word. The blood-stained machete is thrown to the masses, who will doubtlessly preserve it as an object of worship. Captain Willard retains the words, taking them back to America.

If you like this film, there are many other intensely thought-provoking films directed by Francis Ford Coppola over the course of his log career. I can recommend

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