Before we start, it's fairly important that you know that Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, not because the film follows the book particularly closely (it doesn't), but because I dislike Conrad quite substantially. It's hard to explain, but think of his writing style like this: you've just sat down on an overnight train and the stranger sitting next to you begins to lecture you on the deeper meanings of life and death, civilization and the human experience generally, in a hard to place and annoying accent. He gets carried away with his insights, it all gets a bit too psychologically intimate, and you feel bad because you're intensely bored while he's pouring out... well, everything. That's what reading Conrad is like for me. Fortunately, whilst Apocalypse Now maintains the more prominent themes of Conrad's novel, it differentiates itself tonally in not rendering life's big questions excruciatingly dull. Instead, director Francis Ford Coppola brings a sense of spectacle to the proceedings, not least igniting acres of jungle to recreate the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. At times I was overawed by the sheer scale of the production, and even smaller, more reserved moments are visually impressive.
John Milius' script was huge in its original scope, and even cut down from its thousand-page draft the length stands at around 150 minutes. It was Milius' idea to transplant the major plot lines and ideas of Conrad's novel into a Vietnam War context, the main character Marlow becoming Captain Willard (an unnervingly passive Martin Sheen) and the crazed Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) claims lordship over the indigenous peoples not in the Belgian Congo, but on the borders between Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s. As such, Milius explores the similarities between 19th-century European colonialism and 20th-century American interventionism, but this is not a check list of similarities/differences followed by definitive conclusion.What really gets under my skin is how much of this movie is just beyond me. I could list you off the themes - just add war, racism and (in)sanity onto the ones I listed in the train scenario above - but the point isn't in merely identifying them. In this way we come back to my frustration with Conrad, a smug determination to not answer the questions posed, but with Apocalypse Now I feel more willing to accept that this is the overall point. Still, I'm fidgety with the need to watch this film again and again until I get everything it's saying. I think the problem was that I didn't realise at first just how long and draining an experience it would be. Next time I'll fill up the thermos and biscuit tin. Maybe I'll bring a notepad along too.
If you're in the mood to think, then you absolutely have to sit down, get comfortable, and grapple with Apocalypse Now. To give it any less of your attention is a crime, plain and simple. Sure, it can be enjoyable just as a viewing experience, but to fully appreciate Milius' script and Coppola's vision, you need to engage.