Wow — my favorite film of all time, the magnificent, drug-addled, seriously flawed masterpiece by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, was just selected by Sight and Sound Magazine as the greatest film of the last quarter century.
Coppola expounds on the usual themes (and cinematic truisms about the Vietnam War that we all take for granted now) — that in war lies madness, that this was the first rock-and-roll war, etc. — but delivers the message with such uncontained, sprawling, self-indulgent ambition that keeps one totally riveted. (Who can forget the hallucinatory opening with The Doors’ “The End” and the fiery wall of napalm and the frightening swish of the helicopter blades and a broken-down, liquored-up Martin Sheen? Or the frightening thrill during the helicopter/Valkyries ride?) The fact that the film itself was made as an act of sheer colonial hubris adds another fascinating layer to the movie.
The film is, of course, seriously flawed in that it is not really about the Vietnam War — there are, after all, hardly any Vietnamese in it, as if already erased, Hegel-like, from the face of the earth, never to be discussed again — but Coppola at least makes the daring (for a mainstream director) and necessary connection between the war in Southeast Asia and colonialism. (But perhaps he is right, as it really was “the American War” in Vietnam.)
(Unfortunately, the parallels between “Apocalypse Now” and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness end there, as the lamentable director’s cut showed; the tedious dinner scene with the French stragglers showed that Coppola didn’t get it either.)
Of course, what has always interested me as well is that the film was made in my home province of Laguna, and the fake Angkor Wat-like constructions in Kurtz’s compound are still standing in one of the resorts. (I’ve always wanted to write a paper about the Philippines as a stand-in for various banana republics, or for Vietnam…)