“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Yeah…what he said.
...because – with apologies to Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick – this is the best film about the Vietnam War and probably one of the greatest films ever made. By adapting Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" to the American mission in Vietnam, Francis Coppola set out to show the disastrous results of forcing one culture’s values upon another. The film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro understood this idea, superimposing artificial shades onto natural colors and contrasting light with darkness. The film also enhances diegetic sound from inanimate objects in every location to immerse the audience in the utter confusion and chaos of the Vietnam War.
Apocalypse Now transfers the story of a great novel to a different time and setting, and the result is an equally great film. Joseph Conrad’s classic novella "Heart of Darkness" explored the psychological effects of European colonialism in Africa. Screenwriter John Milius took the basic premise and structure of Conrad’s novel as his starting point, then reworked it as a story about soldiers in Vietnam as a project for George Lucas to direct. When Francis Ford Coppola took over the film, he wanted to make the parallels between European subordination of African cultures and the American mission in Vietnam stand out even more. He revised the screenplay so that it held closer to Conrad’s story of an increasingly crazier river journey into the center of a misunderstood country. For Coppola, the aim was to express the true psychological nature of war as it was experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam. The final addition to the film’s screenplay added both additional structure and realism, with war journalist Michael Herr writing a narration in the style of soldiers he had known. The resulting voice-over creates a window into Willard’s mentality and also returns to the original source material’s first person narration. While updating classic novels into modern versions has been done to death at this point, Coppola’s film proves this can be a true artistic decision instead of a narrative gimmick.
The cinematography of "Apocalypse Now" is essential to telling the story. The iconic opening shot of napalm engulfing a forest in flames serves not only as a stunning image in its own right, but also a perfect visual metaphor for the insanity and destruction of the war. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro fully understood the themes that Coppola wanted to examine in this film. To express the domination of one culture over another, his shots show the imposition of dark images onto light, such as Kilgore’s helicopter in front of a sunrise, or unnatural colors onto natural settings, such as smoke fuming over a rice paddy. The camera’s placement and motion also heightens the increasing sense of chaos as the journey down the river moves along. "Apocalypse Now" shows that cinematography is about more than capturing actors while they deliver their lines.
Every sound or song in "Apocalypse Now" has an effect on the audience’s experience. To accompany the opening shot, Coppola chose The Doors’ “The End” to play over the napalm scorched forest. Along with being a song contemporary to the conflict, the psychedelic melody and apocalyptic lyrics perfectly fit the image. The second half of the song, in which the ordered structure breaks down into a frenetic riff of instruments, resumes playing over the film’s final scene, thus providing structural symmetry via the soundtrack while also synching up to Willard’s frenzy in the murder of Kurtz. Coppola intentionally used both sound and soundtrack throughout the film to enhance the effect of each scene or sequence. The swirling sound of helicopter blades, the drops of napalm or the low rumble of artillery in the background all attempt to provide the soldier’s auditory perception of the Vietnam War. Another scene cuts the sound out altogether in order to show a soldier’s disorientation in the middle of a raging battle. However, the film’s most famous sound is the use of Wagner’s "The Ride of the Valkyries" during a helicopter attack, an example of a soundtrack that doubles as diegetic sound within a scene. The appropriation of a German opera provides a comic counterpoint to the brash American character of Colonel Kilgore, who uses it as a battle anthem. However, it ultimately brings the audiences and the onscreen soldiers closer together, as they both experience the battle through the movement of the song.
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