Retro Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

People have written books about this film, and even made documentary films about it. The behind-the-scenes events have become the stuff of legend, including the difficult behaviour of its star, Marlon Brando. This updating of the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ has inspired academic articles, and decades of debate and discussion.

But this is just my own opinion of it as a film, and my memory of seeing it at the cinema when it was released.

Forty years ago. Can you believe that? I have never seen the film since, and yet I can recall most of it from memory, and play certain scenes out in my head with no effort whatsoever.

As far as I am concerned, that is the mark of a film that exceeded all expectations, and can well deserve to be called a cinematic masterpiece.

This was also the first time I can remember hearing a soundtrack in ‘Surround-Sound’, at a Central London cinema. The opening scene of the sound of helicopters over the view of a spinning ceiling fan was so effective, most of us turned around in our seats, and looked around the cinema. It really did feel as if a helicopter was circling above our heads.

The film had hardly started, and I was already overwhelmed.

In case you have never seen the film, I won’t just keep writing about scenes, and will add no plot spoilers. And if you have never seen it, I suggest you rectify that at the earliest opportunity.

You will know the names of many of the cast members. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederick Forrest, Robert Duvall, (in a memorable role) Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, Lawrence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. This is a film about the Vietnam War that goes far beyond that conflict, examining what war does to ordinary men, and how far they can sink into the abyss.

The cinematography is superb. Direction by Francis Ford Coppola is just right, and the casting near-perfect too. It is an experience that transcends a normal evening at the cinema. It gets inside you, and makes you think. And your conclusions are often far from comfortable.

Much has been said about this film. It was attacked on release by some critics, claiming that it was an indulgence by Coppola, a film-maker well-known for such indulgence. It famously ran well over budget, and some of the stars gave interviews about the difficulties they encountered during its making. You can read all that, and you can watch the documentaries. If you want to.

Or you could just watch this amazing film.
Because it is absolutely fantastic.

29 thoughts on “Retro Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

  1. I did really enjoy this as there’s little that can beat a really good war film. Sheen gives an arresting performance as a man wrestling with his own demons while mindlessly following a mission he’s not sure he agrees with, which is backed up by a dark turn from Brando, who steals the show playing Kurtz as both caught up in philosophy and ferociously brutal. Of course the incredible cinematography and visionary exposition in terms of the direction has to be mentioned but it’s hard not to wonder if Coppola has toppled ever so slightly onto the side of self-indulgence. Well-deserving of its cult war movie status but not quite the best I’ve ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post 🙂 I am a huge fan of Apocalypse Now – not only that, but I also consider it to be Francis Ford Coppola’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker. I also did see that documentary about the making of it as well. I can’t wait to see that new version Coppola has of this film (as made clear in that trailer link). Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  3. It rests permanently on my top ten list of all time, Pete…a brilliant film: wildly original, messy in the ways that cinema should be, and not afraid to over-reach…so many incredible moments, and the documentary “Hearts Of Darkness”, made by Coppola’s wife using footage she shot on location, shows that chaos behind the scenes…perhaps part of why the film is a cinematic masterpiece….

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  4. I have “Apocalypse Now Redux” on DVD. Since so many years have gone by since I saw the original version (and I haven’t seen the more recent “Final Cut”), I can’t really make any comparisons. But I think that, any way you cut it (or don’t), it’s an extraordinary film.

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  5. I must admit I have never seen this film. I did try some years ago to read Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness because he has a reputation of being a great twentieth century writer but I could not get on with it.
    He was a pessimist and did try to commit suicide but his life was packed to the brim with adventures , so perhaps it’s safer to be a stay at home.

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  6. Pete, Great review of a superb film. If you haven’t watched it in forty years and fancy watching it again, don’t watch the Director’s or Final cuts. Stick with the original. I received the final cut for Christmas a few years ago and there are scenes that have completely ruined the movie for me. These scenes are not violent or unpleasant but either undermine characterisation or slow the movie down too much and seem to show their age. Stick with what you know, less is more.
    Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Keith. The main reason I haven’t watched it is because it really is a ‘big screen’ film, and I thought it would lose too much on a TV screen. But I will take your advice about watching the original version.
      Love to all, Pete. x

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