The Essential Movie Library #41: Apocalypse Now (1979)

As definitive a document of the American experience in Vietnam as any picture can be

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Usurping the dramatic logic as much as the actual narrative of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and feeling no small influence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Essential Movie Library #36), this follows the odyssey of a special-ops officer—assigned to execute wayward general Marlon Brando—into the dark heart of the Vietnam War. Director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to have his other Godfather alumnus, Al Pacino, play the predatory assassin (Michael Corleone thus dispatched to slay the father Vito), to which Pacino responded, “I know what this is going to be like. You’re going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do and I’m going to be down in a swamp for five months,” but Pacino’s math was off; the shoot was nearly a year and a half. The most acclaimed filmmaker in America, Coppola was warned off the project by everyone including Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, and Jack Nicholson who, like Pacino, all turned down the lead role before it was given to Harvey Keitel, who then quit or was fired leaving the part to Martin Sheen, who celebrated his breakthrough with a heart attack. Originally slated to direct, cooler head George Lucas reconsidered, sparing us the spectacle of Luke Skywalker stalking Darth Vader though the Southeastern Asian jungle (as here portrayed by the Philippines). 

In the same way Coppola famously declared that this movie wasn’t about Vietnam but was Vietnam, for a while the legend surrounding the filming consumed the film itself. The madness of the result became interchangeable with the madness of the creation, and for all the movie’s indulgences and all the ways it’s the expression of its director’s outsized personality—and not despite its willful surrealism but because of it, in the form of massacres, real-life typhoons, Baudelairean French plantations, frolicking Playboy bunnies, and the Doors singing “The End”—more than Platoon and Full Metal Jacket this became, according to soldiers who had been there, as definitive a document of the American experience in Vietnam as any picture can be that itself doesn’t exist in a definitive form, the 2001 Redux edition probably coming closest. In whatever version, and in all its flawed glory, Apocalypse Now has survived its controversy to become the great war movie of its time.

Read them all:
The Essential Movie Library #40: Out of the Past
The Essential Movie Library #39: Branded to Kill
The Essential Movie Library #38: The General
The Essential Movie Library #37: Lord of the Rings
The Essential Movie Library #36: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
The Essential Movie Library #35: Raging Bull
The Essential Movie Library #34: The Rules of the Game
The Essential Movie Library #33: Chinatown 
The Essential Movie Library #32: Stalker
The Essential Movie Library #31: Weekend
The Essential Movie Library #30: Some Like It Hot 
The Essential Movie Library #29: Red River
The Essential Movie Library #28: The Passenger
The Essential Movie Library #27: Singin’ in the Rain
The Essential Movie Library #26: Heat
The Essential Movie Library #25: L’Atalante
The Essential Movie Library #24: Sunrise
The Essential Movie Library #23: His Girl Friday
The Essential Movie Library #22: Black Narcissus
The Essential Movie Library #21: Blade Runner
The Essential Movie Library #20: Persona
The Essential Movie Library #19: The Shop Around the Corner
The Essential Movie Library #18: Lost Highway
The Essential Movie Library #17: Tokyo Story
The Essential Movie Library #16: 8 1/2

The Essential Movie Library #15: City Lights
The Essential Movie Library #14: Seven Samurai
The Essential Movie Library #13: Lawrence of Arabia
The Essential Movie Library #12: Citizen Kane
The Essential Movie Library #11: Jules and Jim
The Essential Movie Library #10: My Darling Clementine 
The Essential Movie Library #9: Double Indemnity 
The Essential Movie Library #8: That Obscure Object of Desire 
The Essential Movie Library #7: 2001: A Space Odyssey 
The Essential Movie Library #6: Casablanca
The Essential Movie Library #5: The Lady Eve
The Essential Movie Library #4: The Third Man 
The Essential Movie Library #3: The Passion of Joan of Arc 
The Essential Movie Library #2: Vertigo 
The Essential Movie Library #1: The Godfather Trilogy

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