Apoc­a­lypse Now

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - Ian Freer

If “I love the smell of na­palm in the morn­ing” is Apoc­a­lypse Now’s most mem­o­rable line, the defin­ing im­age of fran­cis ford Cop­pola’s war epic is Cap­tain Ben­jamin Wil­lard (Martin Sheen), face cam­ou­flaged, hair slicked back, emerg­ing from misty, murky water in the rain to the gui­tar noodlings of The Doors’ ‘The end’. Sur­real and hyp­notic, it crys­tallises many of the film’s con­cerns: war is hell, the psy­che­delic na­ture of the viet­nam con­flict, the blur­ring of civilised and an­i­mal­is­tic be­hav­iours, the sub­sum­ing qual­ity of na­ture. It also seems to stand in for the di­rec­tor him­self, emerg­ing from chaos to im­pose or­der.

The ori­gin of the shot lay in John Mil­ius’ first draft screen­play, tin­kered with by Cop­pola in a ver­sion dated De­cem­ber 1975. The script opens on a primeval swamp with the cam­era mov­ing to­ward turgid water: “Sud­denly, but qui­etly, a form be­gins to emerge: a hel­met. Water and mud pour off re­veal­ing a set of beady eyes just above the mud. Printed on a hel­met in a psy­che­delic hand are the words: ‘Gook Killer’.” As the film evolved on lo­ca­tion in the Philip­pines — Apoc­a­lypse Now ul­ti­mately be­gan with images of ex­plod­ing na­palm — the im­age got left be­hind un­til Cop­pola de­cided to res­ur­rect the mo­ment.

on 10 Novem­ber 1976, shoot­ing on Kurtz’s com­pound set in Pagsan­jan, Cop­pola was fran­ti­cally im­pro­vis­ing Wil­lard’s as­sas­si­na­tion of rene­gade Colonel Kurtz (Mar­lon Brando) and de­cided on the spot Wil­lard should emerge from pri­mor­dial water. Pro­duc­tion de­signer Dean Tavoularis pulled 25 labour­ers to­gether to dig out a pond, dress­ing the set with shrubs and plants. The makeshift pool was ready to shoot in three hours.

If Sheen de­serves ku­dos for his steely gaze un­der un­com­fort­able con­di­tions — the set stank of rot­ting meat and was crawl­ing with mag­gots— the hero of the shot is cin­e­matog­ra­pher vit­to­rio Storaro. At once ex­pres­sion­is­tic and real, dream-like and night­mar­ish, it em­bod­ies Wil­lard’s frame of mind — and his re­solve to kill Kurtz — with more lu­cid­ity than reams of nar­ra­tion.

“He has to put on the colours of na­ture in or­der to be­come na­ture in or­der to en­ter na­ture and be­come Kurtz,” Storaro told Em­pire in 2001. “When he emerges from the water as a new hu­man be­ing, he has re­verted to the bar­bar­ian level. The en­ergy of the mo­ment comes from this process of re­ver­sion.”

The im­age has be­come a short­hand for a re­turn to na­ture, sav­agery and a form of pri­mal mad­ness. As such it has been co-opted by the di­verse likes of Du­ran Du­ran’s ‘Hun­gry like The Wolf’ promo, Duck­man (in an episode en­ti­tled ‘In The Nam of The fa­ther’), Xena: War­rior Princess, In­de­pen­dence Day, The De­scent and most re­cently The Shape Of Water. But if you want to main­line the ‘hor­ror, the hor­ror’ of con­flict, ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal, the orig­i­nal is im­pos­si­ble to beat.

Apoc­a­lypse Now Is out now on DVD, blu-ray and Down­load.

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