Sergio Toffetti (CSC – Cineteca Nazionale)
Like much of Coppola’s best work – The Conversation, the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Apocalypse Now teeters on the edge of greatness, and perhaps it wouldn’t teeter at all if greatness weren’t so palpably what it was lusting after. To my mind it functions best as a series of superbly realized set pieces bracketed by a certain amount of pretentious guff, some of which could be traced back to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the movie’s point of departure, as well as some powerful voiceover narration written by Michael Herr, whose book Dispatches offered some authentic glimpses of the war from the American side. Much of the guff, I would argue, stems from the fact that Coppola never quite worked out what he wanted to say, a fact he often acknowledged at the time. Indeed, Coppola’s continuing doubt is a major element of the saga being celebrated here: the Passion of the Artist writ large, made to seem far more important than the mere suffering and deaths of a few hundred thousand nameless and faceless peasants (and American soldiers) across the South China Sea.
Coppola’s movie is nevertheless an authentic late-70s liberal statement about U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the excess it entailed. For all its shortcomings, Apocalypse Now was probably the best big-budget, bigstatement American movie about the Vietnam war in the 1970s, and it’s questionable whether we’ve seen much improvement in this subgenre since. Platoon clearly is more authentic, and Full Metal Jacket at its best may conjure up more profound ideas about warfare, but neither film comes close to the total experience of insanity and sensory overload that Coppola’s movie amply furnishes. Consider the synesthesia of the opening sequence, a fever-dream of superimpositions of color and sound, where the putter of helicopters and a ceiling fan mix with sputters and splashes of yellow, orange, and red over the duller jungle tones of green and brown to compose the nightmare visions of the protagonist.
Brando’s interpretation became almost abstract: a bare skull, diseased eyes that pierce the screen, “the body of a bull, but a bull who knows his days are numbered”, slow and laboured movements, a voice. That voice, which was an obsession throughout the voyage and now speaks his most ambiguous and crazed words – his philosophy of man and evil, beyond time and historical epoch – slowly, implacably, monotonously, in his characteristic whisper. Often framed in close-up or extreme close-up, in the darkness his shaved head reflects the light and brings to mind a grotesque sculpture of a cave god; only rarely do we see his full figure, and this too is an obscure, massive, disturbing, menacing presence, ‘elegant’ in a way. Nevertheless, it is on his voice that Coppola concentrates our attention, and on the mouth that emits it – an obscure, primal oracle.
The generals have shown Willard some photos of Kurtz in uniform. They look like stills from The Men or Reflections in a Golden Eye (and perhaps they are). They do not resemble the Kurtz that we will encounter later on. The metamorphosis is complete: from a naïve faith in history, to the discovery of the hidden depths of his own being, and then on to the diseased awareness of evil and horror. “The horror!” are the last words Kurtz pronounces in the book and in the film. However we judge the film and the actor, who else but Brando, with the weight of his past appearances, could have brought Kurtz to the screen?
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo Cuore di tenebra di Joseph Conrad. Scen.: John Milius, Francis Coppola. F.: Vittorio Storaro. M.: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Richard Marks, Walter Murch. Scgf.: Dean Tavoularis. Angelo Graham. Mus.: Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola. Int.: Marlon Brando (colonnello Kurtz), Robert Duvall (tenente colonnello Kilgore), Martin Sheen (capitano Willard), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Sam Bottoms (Lance), Laurence Fishburne (Clean), Dennis Hopper (fotoreporter), G.D. Spradlin (generale Corman), Harrison Ford (colonnello Lucas), Scott Glenn (tenente Colby). Prod.: Francis Ford Coppola per Omni Zoetrope. 35mm. D.: 195’.
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