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"Apocalypse Now" and the stark splendour of "the horror, the horror"

Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Lawrence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Fred Forrest Lance, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Cynthia Wood and Harrison Ford. Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Streaming on Amazon Prime. 182 minutes. 14A

Apocalypse Now


Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War opus "Apocalypse Now" was Hollywood’s last great movie of the 1970s, a brilliant decade of risk and regeneration.

The superlatives were mostly negative when it arrived in the late summer of 1979. Filming had been dogged by delays and cost overruns caused by destructive acts of God and man: a set-destroying Philippines typhoon, a near-fatal heart attack for lead actor Martin Sheen, a bloated and unprepared co-star in Marlon Brando. Gossips predicted a cinematic debacle.

And yet when the house lights went on at the end of a 70mm screening at Toronto’s University Theatre, I turned to my friend Tom and said the single most pompous phrase I’ve ever uttered (and there have been many): “This movie is so good, it shouldn’t be allowed to be shown in public theatres.”

I really felt this way about "Apocalypse Now," a film about the sins we commit in the name of liberation that seems even more urgent today than it did then. I was and still am in awe of Coppola’s immense accomplishment.

In the story loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella "Heart of Darkness," Sheen plays a military burnout, U.S. Army Capt. Willard, who seeks redemption by travelling up Vietnam’s Nung River on a top-secret mission.

He's been assigned to “terminate with extreme prejudice” the command of Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), the mad emperor of a personal fiefdom and abattoir in the jungles of Cambodia.

Coppola’s sharp eye and Vittorio Storaro’s savage lens combine for unforgettable images, but it’s the sound of "Apocalypse Now" that haunts me. From the whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades at the start to the whispered “The horror, the horror” finale, and with a soundtrack ranging from The Doors’ apocalyptic “The End” to Wagner’s triumphal “Ride of the Valkyries,” the ear is constantly engaged, and so is the mind.

Coppola re-cut the film in 2001 for "Apocalypse Now Redux," which extends the “Charlie don’t surf!” insanity of Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (arguably crazier than Kurtz, but Uncle Sam approves his murderous methods), fleshes out the Playboy bunnies sequences and restores from obscurity the fabled lost French Plantation scenes, which shades and sexes up Willard’s character. It’s the rare director’s cut that exceeds the original, but either version of this film works. (The most recent version is "Apocalypse Now: Final Cut," released last year.)

And unlike the pretentious 23-year-old me who first saw it in 1979, I want as many people as

possible to see and think about "Apocalypse Now," the grandest and most terrifying cinematic statement ever on the folly of war.

(From "Movies I Can't Live Without," by Peter Howell.)

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