The main characters are played as understated as only two giant actors could do to depict the larger-than-life personas on the screen. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in these roles. As charismatic and dominant a personality as Marlon Brando is (to the extent that sometimes the characters he plays disappear into the actor), you see that nobody else could have believably gotten into the skin of Major Kurtz. Certainly none in the living crop of American actors. Perhaps, Brando is flawless as Kurtz because there is something of Major Kurtz in Brando, but is that not the case in all successful portrayals? Sir Anthony Hopkins might come the closest to approximating Major Kurtz if he could assume that faraway, meditative, and lost look of someone whose soul is already dead but who continues to feed his earthly appetites.
Martin Sheen as Captain Willard plays the jackal to Brando’s lion. He is taut but verging on losing control, private and solitary but vulnerable to the rare individual who pierces his facade. He carries his mission to kill Kurtz not because he is following military orders but because he senses that Kurtz not only anticipates it. but wants and expects it of him. In the end, the lion swallows the jackal. Willard finally completes the process of dying that preoccupies him in his Saigon hotel room and is too cowardly to conclude. But like Kurtz, it is only his soul that dies. You see this in Willard’s eyes, wide open and vacant in the closing scenes.
On a socio-political level, the film continues to assume larger and larger meanings with the passage of time. From the very beginning when the chugging of a helicopter is heard, a landscape that could only be foreign comes up on the screen; and the greenery is filtered through the yellow haze of napalm. From the first strains of a song that begins with “This is the end,” you sense the allusions to the death of a war, the death of a country, the death even of humanity. This opening scene was, to me, sheer poetry. This film as poetry is Francis Ford Coppola’s prophetic vision, not only of that war, but of all other wars that would follow it—wars that would slowly, but surely, eat away at the supremacy of this country and at the humanity of generations that have grown inured to the atrocities of war. An apocalyptic vision of an apocalypse that continues.
One could watch this film for all the meanings that could be mined out of it. But its beauty transcends all those meanings. It remains Coppola’s most artistic work, a grand opus impossible to repeat. Memorable for the visuals with which he chose to express his vision, the surrealism he imbues in the scenes comprehends the unreal and fantastic quality of the actual war. Apocalypse is operatic as well—in the way Coppola molded and etched the characters and in the music (both classic and modern) that he chose with which to sensitize his audience to his vision.
The final chapter of the film includes some of the most magical moments of movie-making. Drawn in a tenebrist palette straight out of Caravaggio, it begins with a monologue by Kurtz on horror and moral terror addressed to Willard, and ends with Willard, lost in a trance, sailing away in the tugboat. It is in this segment that the images are most haunting, most dream-like, and most devastating.
There are probably flaws that I have not deigned to look closely at in this film. Not everyone would see this film as I do but it is probably just as well. If we all agreed on what makes a work of art great, then we would stop talking about it and it might fade away.
Film: Watch This: Hearts Of Darkness goes downriver with the creators of Apocalypse Now (avclub.com)
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979): A review (moeatthemovies.com)