Director: Francis Coppola
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Runtime: 153 Minutes
Original UK Release: 1979
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a bleak, harrowing and often indecipherable story that follows a man’s journey down the Congo River. It explores what happens to man when pushed beyond limitation, probing into themes of imperialism and colonial conquest, as well as questioning the inhumanity of what we may define as civilized peoples.
Apocalypse Now takes this concept and applies it to one of the most savage/recent conflicts in history; the Vietnam War.
It enters the mind of the soldier, Willard, tasked with the distressing mission of “terminating” a decorated Colonel gone AWOL. Following his journey, the moral greyness and twisted self-righteousness of the situation unravels with pace, witnessing and empathising with multiple attitudes to war in an assaulting manner that will leave you sensing a similar disorder to that of Willard himself, pondering the futility of everything around them and insinuating empathy for the supposed enemy of the piece.
Col. Kilgore’s mercury-like attitudes towards his fellow recruits are terrifying, portraying madness as an affliction that affects all involved in the act of warfare. Infesting the minds of its subjects and distorting their worldview, from their treatment of women to their ambivalence towards the Vietnamese people.
Martin Sheen delivers with underplay as the war-torn and cryptic lead, while Denis Hopper goes beyond reasonable limits as the emotionally ruptured photographer enthralled with Kurtz’s vision. Marlon Brando works with such ferocity and moderation that his character's presence hangs over the entire film with amplified alarm before his haunting visual reveal in the final act.
It’s phenomenally well-staged and shot by Francis Ford Coppola, showing the professionalism of a seasoned master of the form respected by audiences and academics alike. His slow unpeeling of the story, location, themes and the characters themselves leave it a wallowing but deeply unsettling and profound effort of epic filmmaking that lives up to the prestige and power behind it, with a memorable score and soundtrack and even better performances to boast.
It’s a film of such heavy influence that it bleeds over into nearly every cultural facet imaginable, and it stands nothing short of being the greatest interpretation of war film ever put onscreen.