Saturday, 4 June 2011
Apocalypse Now - a flawed masterpiece?
The making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has passed into cinema history. A catalogue of disasters threatened to railroad the film. These have been documented in his wife, Eleanor Coppola’s 1991 film, Hearts of Darkness: a filmmaker’s apocalypse. Shot on location in the Philippines (a scheduled 17 week shoot ended up being 34 weeks and the budget spiraled from $12-13 million to $31), a rain drenching typhoon destroyed huge sets and stopped the production. The star, Martin Sheen (who had replaced Harvey Keitel), suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Marlon Brando (then being paid the enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month’s location work) turned up so overweight that he could not perform his scenes in the script and his performance was reduced to the famous talking head in shadow. There were extra marital affairs on set, drug taking and Coppola became suicidal as he shot hundreds of hours of material in the face of adversity. When he finally presented a cut to the studio it ran for over six hours and he was sent back to the editing suite.
He returned to the studio bosses with a 153 minute version of the film and it is this that has just been re-released in this country. It is a remarkable cinematic experience. Without the aid of CGI engineering, there are scenes that are so technically complex, emotionally evocative and visually dense that it is a small miracle that they ever made it from one man’s imagination on to celluloid. These supercharged moments, choreographed with fearless audacity, take your breath away. Mixing symbolic, Bunuel-like sequences with straight war-genre action, Coppola scrambles our expectations and creates a disorientating space where the confusion, violence and madness of war and human hubris can be viewed from multiple perspectives. A film of such scale and artistic ambition, a film that defies facile categorization, cries out to be seen on the big screen. Don’t watch it on DVD.
The general orthodoxy is that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece but a flawed one. That in the final analysis, Coppola was not in control of his material and that the last twenty minutes of the film (those where Marlon Brando appears as the demented Kurtz) lack cohesion and sap the film of its explosive energy. I disagree. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and all the kinetic expansiveness of the earlier parts of the film find a proper resting place in the dreamy, meditative quality found in those final eerie scenes in Kurtz’s lair. Coppola’s brave decision not to conclude the film with another bravura set piece, but to steer the audience towards quotations from T.S.Eliot’s Hollow Men and Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness is correct. Coppola understood that he wasn’t making an action movie, but a literary movie that could move an audience to deeper consideration of human failure and moral contradiction.
Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece. Go and make your own mind up, but go.