From Marlon Brando’s extraordinary cameo to Dennis Hopper’s crazed photojournalist, Coppola’s epic ‘definitive’ cut of his brilliant 1979 war film is triumphant in restating the inhumanity of empire
‘Someday this war’s gonna end,” is the sage comment from surf-crazed Wagner enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, brusquely played by Robert Duvall. In fact, when Francis Ford Coppola’s grandiose epic masterpiece Apocalypse Now was first unveiled in 1979, the Vietnam war had only ended four years previously, and the succeeding Cambodian-Vietnamese war (where the film’s climax is set) was in full swing.
Coppola’s bad trip into south-east Asia was co-written by John Milius with narration written by Michael Herr. It was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Herr’s own Vietnam reportage-memoir Dispatches and maybe at one further remove by Rudyard Kipling’s lines about the US taking up the white man’s imperial burden. It was famously an ordeal for all concerned. The production involved a filming expedition in the Philippines that felt hardly less colossal and traumatic to the participants than the actual war, though it became commonplace in Hollywood’s Vietnam for the anguish of American soldiers, not that of the Vietnamese people themselves, to be seen as important. (The nearest that Vietnamese people get to actual importance in Apocalypse Now is the four South Vietnamese intelligence officers, executed by Col Kurtz as Communist spies, whose ID cards we briefly see.) Like Lawrence of Arabia, moreover, this is a film without women – or mostly.