Sunday, April 03, 2005

Apocalypse Then and Now

Apocalypse Then and Now

"I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends...

You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."

- Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now, played by Marlon Brandon

Surprisingly, I managed to find time to watch two of my all-time favourite movies again over the weekends: Apocalypse Now (Redux) and Havana. I really should be doing this more often for watching movies is such a wonderful way to relax (not to mention educational too) and one never gets tired of watching some of these classics again and again.

Perhaps among the two, only Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now can be considered a cinematic classic. The other one, Havana--a Casablanca-like romantic love story starring Robert Redford and Lena Olin--was universally panned by critics. But that doesn't deter me from enjoying it. I love the soundtrack and Redford remains on of my favourite actors. But let me blog about Havana next time, because today I'm in the mood for Apocalypse Now.

I first watched Apocalypse Now (released in 1979) as a kid at the old Rex cinema in KL. It was during the school holidays and the only reason why I watched it was because I had expected it to be an action-packed war movie. How wrong was I! I didn't know then it was to be one long, winding riverboat journey into the Heart of Darkness--a three hour surrealistic meditation on the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam war. At that time I didn't know anything about Francis Ford Coppola's reputation as an auteur nor Joseph Conrad's novella from which the movie was based on.

But even then I was impressed by the cinematography, especially the first appearance of Marlon Brandon--playing the renegade Colonel Kurtz--with that awesome bald head of his bobbing in and out from the shadowy darkness and the stunning sequence of a helicopter attack on a Vietcong village, accompanied by the stirring strains of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (where Robert Duvall uttered the now famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning").

At that time, I only understood the plot very vaguely--Martin Sheen's character, Captain Willard is supposed to terminate Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz "with extreme prejudice" because he is already deemed insane by the US army. The movie was long, dark and meandering--like the river journey undertaken by Captain Willard deep into the the jungles of Cambodia to find Kurtz. I remember many in the audience left before the movie ended--it was definitely not your typical flag-waving WW2 afternoon matinee.

Despite my difficulty then in following the story, I laboured through the three hours, because what I saw was sheer visual poetry--it was a cinematic experience at its most sublime. The "understanding" comes initially at the subconsciously level and only later through reflection, over many years, was I able to slowly comprehend its intricate themes and messages.

During my university days, I spend a lot time in the library reading about the films of Francis Ford Coppola. And I learnt to understand some of the more subtle nuances of the film and gained a healthy respect for the laborious art of film-making. I read how the making of the movie itself on location in the Philippines was one mad massive undertaking, not unlike the Vietnam war itself.

Coppola himself had to self-finance part of the movie because it was way over-budget; he shot almost 200 hours of film footage and the massive project almost drove him to a nervous breakdown. There were other setbacks too: Martin Sheen, the lead actor, suffered a heart attack during shooting and the set built in the Phillipines jungle was at one point, destroyed by a tropical typhoon.

When the movie was released on video-tape, I bought a copy and watched the movie countless times over the years. I still have that moldy tape with me but I've since progressed to DVD--the so-called "Redux" version, which was released in 2001 with an additional 49 minutes of unseen footage. In this version, Coppola has completely reedited and digitally remastered his original masterpiece. I bought the DVD a couple of years back as a collector's item and didn't watch it until yesterday when I dug it out quite by accident from one of my storage boxes.

Viewing Apocalypse Now Redux makes me miss those student days of mine when I was quite fanatical about movies. And even now I continue to discover things from the film that I've never noticed before. The proof of a good film is that it gets better with each viewing.

Apocalypse Now definitely ranks up there among the best films ever made. It sets the benchmark for subsequent movies about the Vietnam war (some of which have become my favourites too like Oliver Stone's Platoon and Kubrick's Steel Metal Jacket). Its powerful images have remained with me all these 25 years, ever since I first watched it as a schoolboy one fine afternoon at the Rex cinema on Jalan Sultan, KL.

"The horror...the horror..."

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