The universe did not want Apocalypse Now to happen. To stop the film's production, the cosmos threw any number of roadblocks in producer/director/cowriter Francis Ford Coppola's way.
There were set-destroying storms. An out-of-control budget threatened to personally bankrupt Coppola. Its star suffered a massive heart attack. And Marlon Brando showed up to the film so fat that Coppola had to hire additional helicopters to keep Brando moistened with regular drops of refreshing sea water.
After 3 1/2 years of shooting and post-production, millions of feet of footage, and millions of dollars spent over budget, Apocalypse Now finally reached theaters in 1979.
During the Vietnam War, Col. Marlon Brando has gone mad, taking to the jungle to live as a tyrant-king. Martin Sheen is dispatched to track him down and assassinate him, but it's a long trip upriver into enemy territory. Even if Sheen and crew hang onto their lives, they may not be able to cling to their sanity.
If Apocalypse Now had never made it out of the woods, we'd all be the poorer. Especially Coppola, who mortgaged himself to the hilt to get it made.
But I don't care about Coppola's fortunes. I care about awesome movies. And terrible ones, lest you see my next column on The Terror-Cows of Pluto-12 and assume I'm giving it the thumbs up. But Apocalypse Now is one of the good ones. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's one of the great ones. This limb is actually dangerous, since it's crowded with every other critic in history, but that just goes to show you how much I like Apocalypse Now.
It's one of the few movies that makes me feel insane. Coppola's storytelling is episodic, which can make a film drag, but it gives this one a dream logic that's downright nightmarish. The atmosphere and plotting add to the sense of the surreal. This is the movie that gives us Robert Duvall exclaiming, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" before surfing with his men during the middle of a bombing. Yet Duvall is at best the third-most crazy character in the movie.
As Sheen's boat delves deeper into the jungle, it delves deeper into the madness. A nightmare can't scare everyone. A dream that terrorizes some will strike others as dull and foolish.
For me, Apocalypse Now is one of the few movies that leaves me feeling haunted, lost in another world. One so real, I don't always want to come back.
* Contact Ed Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.