IT’S HARD not to get all your fuses blown by Apocalypse Now, no matter how many times you may have seen it.
Before the lights go down at the QFT, I take a quick look around me and see an audience that is almost totally male, of a certain age. It’s picked up a reputation over the years for being such a boy movie, after all. Some of them are here in packs, groups of four or five buddies taking their seats and settling themselves in again for the long ride up the river. You can sense their lips moving in time with the famous lines: ‘some day this war’s gonna end...’. The guy beside me chuckles low and soft under his breath in recognition as Willard intones the opening words: ‘Saigon... shit’.
Each time you see Apocalypse Now, you feel immersed in that world of heat and madness and chaos again. However, this was my first time to see the movie on the big screen – and it surprised me what a ravishing thing it is. The colours and the lighting are nothing short of superb. There are several moments when everything is seen through coloured mist, or in dappled light through leaves, that are breathtaking when seen on a big screen. The light on the water as the boat sails upriver into the night. The central performances remain impressive and the setpieces are still as spectacular today as they must have been when this first hit the screens in the early 70s.
The action scenes involving Robert Duvall’s airborne cavalry, remain some of the best sequences from any war film I’ve ever seen: Random violence and madness on an enormous scale, with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ as the soundtrack.
There are many more things you notice though, when you get the chance to pay attention, in a silent theatre, away from the distractions of the phone and the family - and the million other things that get between you and your concentration when you watch a movie at home.
I notice most of all the back-to-front construction of the film. It offers up its biggest setpieces in the first half – the first exposure to Robert Duvall’s unit, and their subsequent attack on the beach, and then the dazzling concert with the Playboy bunnies, way up river.
All of those are given away in the first half. Now, the years spent watching a million movies tells us that blockbuster films always build and build and build, towards an enormous climax. Instead, Apocalypse Now gets quieter and more philosophical, deeper into the jungle, into personal madness - and it becomes a very intimate, one-on-one meeting of minds between Willard and Kurtz. Note how the methods of killing become more antique as the movie progresses – we open with napalm (ordered in by radio like a pizza delivery), rockets, bullets and grenades - and we progress through to arrows, spears and finally knives.
As a piece of art, reducing the scale as the narrative progresses is a very interesting approach. As a movie, it’s an enormous gamble to take with the flimsy attention spans of a modern audience. These days, you can be sure that no major studio would allow the film to go out in this state. There would have been calls for a mammoth showdown, an apocalyptic bullet festival with a ten-minute moral tacked on at the end before the credits.
Instead, Kurtz is slain in a shadowy, obscured way – and he puts up no struggle. The film turns convention on its head the further along it goes. We move from daylight into darkness, from outer chaos to inner madness, from slash-and-burn warfare to close-quarters one-on-one conflict, from all-out war to an intimate human sacrifice, from The Rolling Stones to TS Eliot. The characters move out of the sunshine and into shadows, from the city and civilisation into the jungle, from the delta into the inner landscape. They put camouflage paint on their faces and lose touch with their identities. The last scene is Willard walking calmly through the silent, massed warriors, before getting back onto the boat and slipping away into the darkness. The face of a stone idol watches as the screen goes to black and the titles come up.
Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene with Kurtz reading from TS Eliot, and a brief reference to his famous line – ‘this is the way the world ends... not with a bang but a whimper.’
Having seen the film again for the first time in years, the line felt more and more appropriate: a sense of intimate, shadowy ends to extraordinary and dazzling stories.