“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” ~~Chef
There’s a moment lurking in the soul-deadening “Apocalypse Now,” a moment nearly muted by the hum of machine gun fire, that seems thoroughly unremarkable: In the chaotic trenches outside the deep Vietnamese jungle, Cpt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), crawling on hands and knees in the dirt, asks who’s in charge. Wild-eyed, the closest soldier, reloading his gun, spits out: “Ain’t you?”
That’s it, right there: the point of no return, the panicked realization that order and purpose have gone belly-up and taken hope right along with them. For in Francis Ford Coppola’s somber, haunting epic exploration of war and the shadowy places it drives men to, there is no hope. There’s just sweat mixed with the smell of napalm and dirty jungle water gone crimson with blood. Hope, Coppola informs us, left Vietnam long ago.
That abject despair — the kind that seeps down into your bones and slopes your shoulders — is what makes “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece, a fearless and complex work of art that demands to be remembered as one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid. Coppola’s masterwork is something that must be looked at and felt simultaneously, but the experience takes a piece out of us every time.
The way Sheen looks through the camera, though, it’s not hard to see “Apocalypse Now” demanded that same kind of intense emotional commitment from everyone involved in the production. Sheen, in particular, fills the screen with Cpt. Willard’s weariness. He’s been worn down by the violence, pared down from a whole person into a shell who hates war but can’t stomach peace, either. His decision to accept an odd mission — hunt down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an A.W.O.L. Army Special Forces soldier who’s playing God somewhere deep in the jungles of Vietnam — changes not only his life but the lives of the men, who are mostly young and stupid and wholly unprepared, unfortunate enough to be part of the crew ferrying him up the Nung River. Willard knows what he’s in for but has no interest in playing father to a bunch of kids who treat the war as some kind of grand adventure. They’re in for a hell of a lesson, but Willard’s not exactly the sort to savor teaching moments.
In fact, part of the dark beauty of “Apocalypse Now” is the way Coppola showscases what warfare does to the human spirit. There’s a wrenching scene — one of the most unnerving in the entire movie — where Chef (Frederick Forrest) boards a civilian boat to search for supplies, and one false move leads Clean (Laurence Fishburne), the definition of green around the gills, to blow apart every unarmed person. Willard’s matter-of-fact dispatchment of the only survivor is most chilling, and that moment shifts the balance of emotion; it’s a loud, clear move from the bliss of ignorance to the weighty horror of realization. By the time Willard makes it to Kurtz’s outpost, the remaining soldiers can scarcely function as human beings, let alone killers. They stumble about with eyes that can’t focus because they don’t want to see anything anymore.
And here is where “Apocalypse Now,” so dynamic and huge in scope, succeeds on a surprisingly intimate level: There are characters we get to know, not anonymous faces bound for body bags. Forrest’s Chef is particularly frightening as we watch madness descend on him like a bell jar, while the fear behind Clean’s shoot-anything-that-moves approach gnaws at us. We get the sense that Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s has hardened his disbelief into an ardent belief that victory is possible (or maybe he’s just that crazy). And though Brando does fine work creating a man driven purely mad by what he’s seen, it’s Sheen who perfectly captures how war mutes the spirit and deadens the mind, how it shines unwelcome light on the dark corners of the soul.
This, I believe, is where Coppola succeeds: He understands that war wastes all men, and he creates a movie that does the same to us.