Apocalypse Now 1979 ★★★★★

Art imitates life, so the saying goes, yet in the case of Apocalypse Now with its tortured and maddening production, life imitated art. The film’s problematic production is almost as legendary as the film itself yet this difficult development seeps into every frame. It is hard to imagine that the film would have so brilliantly captured the feverish descent into darkness if the making of the film had been such an effortless experience. It brilliantly depicts the hallucinatory hell of war because it was hell for those involved in its creation.

It is hard to imagine a film like this was made in the first place. A big budget movie with an impressive star cast that is more dreamy and elusive art-house epic than a mainstream crowd pleasure. It is a once in a generation film that could only have been made by a director at the peak of their talents and with total creative freedom. Yet despite its uncompromised vision (at no point do you feel Coppola had to make it more palatable for a wide demographic) it is still a surprisingly accessible film, perhaps because every person has a slightly different interpretation and connection to the events on screen.

Like Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, the film is a nightmarish journey down river where an obsessive quest will lead to insanity and ultimately the loss of humanity. It is one of the few films that attempts to not only capture the horrors of war but also its absurdity and surrealism. Although the film has a very clear driving force - to find and assassinate Colonel Kurtz - it is far more fluid than typical war films. Essentially it is a loose connection of fragmentary set pieces all of which helps accentuate its feverish and disorienting tone.

The film marked the end of Coppola’s quite staggering creative streak whereby, in a seven year period, he would make four masterpieces in a row. No artist can ever sustain such a peak of creative brilliance and it is hardly surprising that a film as all consuming as this would be his last genuine classic. Yet, as with all periods of sustained excellence, they involve regular collaborators. One of the key collaborations for Coppola was undoubtedly sound and editing specialist, Walter Murch. His sound design in all four films is crucial in establishing mood and none more so than here. Coupled with the great Vittorio Storaro’s kaleidoscopic cinematography (Coppola and Storaro would work together again on the equally beautiful but sorely underrated, One from the Heart), it created a heady and haunting audio-visual experience.

Performances are equally exceptional with Martin Sheen never better and the larger than life cameos from Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall and the towering Marlon Brando as the enigmatic Kurtz all perfectly capture the insanity of war.

Haunting, harrowing and hallucinatory; Apocalypse Now is without equal.

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