How Does The Greatest War Film Ever Hold Up?

United Artists

On Aug. 15, 1979 — exactly 40 years ago today — Apocalypse Now arrived in theaters.

It was more than three years after Coppola commenced filming in the Philippines. The production had been plagued famously by numerous problems: tropical storms, massive budget over-runs, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, Marlon Brando’s unwillingness to learn his lines, Dennis Hopper’s unwillingness to not be whacked-out on drugs, hit-or-miss access to helicopters due to an actual war being waged by the local government against revolutionaries, and other calamities. Before American audiences even saw the film, the behind-the-scenes drama had already been woven into the mythology of Apocalypse Now. At the time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic was dubbed “Apocalypse Never?” by the entertainment press. But that’s all forgotten now. While onlookers in 1979 expected to experience once-in-a-lifetime levels of schadenfreude upon finally seeing the film, Apocalypse Now actually pulled off the unthinkable — it was a masterpiece that (almost) justified all of the trouble it took to make.

Of course, all of this is already well known by anyone with even a casual knowledge of Apocalypse Now, as are the film’s most iconic moments. Even people who haven’t seen Apocalypse Now are probably aware of the “Ride Of The Valkyries” helicopter-attack sequence, or Robert Duvall barking, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” This is a movie so deeply embedded in pop culture that it’s been parodied by movies that are deeply embedded in other generations’ pop culture, like Rushmore and Tropic Thunder.

In terms of legacy, Coppola’s film is commonly regarded as the best Vietnam movie, as well one of the best war films of any kind ever made. It’s also heralded as one of the greatest films of the ’70s, arguably the greatest decade in cinema history. But more than the actual movie, Apocalypse Now is also celebrated for its incredible backstory, about how Coppola risked his personal fortune, his career, and even his very sanity in order to make his masterpiece in the jungle. Along with James Cameron’s Titanic, it’s the go-to example of a film overcoming toxic buzz due to a difficult production and proving all of the haters wrong.

This mythology, coupled with Coppola’s impulse to constantly tinker with his films, has created an idea that the ultimate version of Apocalypse Now might still be out there, lurking in the ether like a tiger creeping in the jungle foliage. Today, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut will play in select theaters — this new 183-minute version splits the difference between the 153-minute theatrical cut from 1979 and 2001’s 202-minute Apocalypse Now Redux.

I haven’t seen Final Cut yet, but I have watched the theatrical cut (pretty much perfect) many times and Redux (way too long) exactly once. I can’t imagine that Final Cut will be anything more than a curio, but I will still pay to see it in a theater, because I’ve never seen any version of Apocalypse Now in a theater. And Apocalypse Now is one of those “you MUST see this in a theater” movies.

I do wonder, however, how Apocalypse Now might look to someone who hasn’t seen it before. I still love it, but undoubtedly there are elements that might seem laughably bombastic or even offensive to contemporary audiences. This is a movie, after all, that opens with a ridiculous (and also mesmerizing) Doors song playing over footage of a jungle being set ablaze. These images set the tone for a film that rides a dangerous line between exposing the ugliness of war and, at times, making it look totally awesome.

Along with Coppola, the most important creative force behind Apocalypse Now was co-screenwriter John Milius, the infamous Hollywood maverick and proudly pro-war conservative who supposedly inspired the character Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. (Here’s just one Sobchak-like story from the making of Apocalypse Now: When Sheen was recording his voiceover narration, Milius handed him a loaded gun, to help put him in character. You could say he wanted Sheen to be … out of his element.)

Milius was an asthmatic who, as a film student at USC, had fantasized about dying in a war but was instead granted a deferment. In 1969, he took his first stab at adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, a book that Orson Welles had tried to turn into his debut film three decades earlier. (He made Citizen Kane instead.) Milius’ intention was to take the book and “increase its horsepower tremendously” by setting it in Vietnam, as he explains in the 2014 documentary Milius.

It was Milius who provided the most memorable, and hyperbolic, moments in Apocalypse Now. This is best personified in the character of Lt. Col. Kilgore, the guy who says “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” On one hand, Kilgore is a grotesque and satirical exaggeration of military bravado, in the vein of nearly character from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove, one of the key influences on Apocalypse Now. On the other hand, Kilgore is an idealized, superhuman manifestation of Milius’ id. (Like Milius, Kilgore loves surfing almost as much as he loves guns.)

Kilgore is the one who leads the helicopter raid, which remains the most incredible action sequence I’ve ever seen in a movie. Its power derives from the visceral excitement of seeing real helicopters set off real explosions in an incredibly complicated sequence, and the concurrent horror of what those helicopters do to a Vietnamese village filled with women and children.

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