My Favourite Film
Why I love… Apocalypse Now
Tom Wiggins, deputy editor of Stuff magazine, explains why he loves the smell of napalm in the morning
Apocalypse Now was the first film I ever bought on DVD. It was 2001 and Miramax had just released the Redux – a re-edited version of the film with extra scenes. I knew it was one of those films you’re supposed to see and I’d just treated myself to a PS2 (my first DVD player), so as I knocked off from a Saturday shift in Tesco I dropped by the DVD aisle to pick it up. “How different can it be?” I thought.
Feeling let down
The first time I watched it was in my halls at uni on a 14in CRT TV. It’s fair to say I wasn’t blown away. Having grown up on war films such as 633 Squadron and Saving Private Ryan, I was expecting heroics, helicopters and a healthy dollop of gunfire. Instead I got an over-long film that seemed to spend more time having posh tea with some French people than any gunfights. I put it back on the shelf and went back to playing Pro Evo.
It wasn’t until much later that I tried again, this time with a DVD of the original cut of the film, on a proper TV. There’s no doubt it’s a better version than the Redux but I think the extra years helped too. I’d since seen Full Metal Jacket and Platoon and war was no longer just about glory and bravery; it was about madness, boredom and normality, too.
Apocalypse Now is riddled with madness. In the mid-sixties millions of young American men went to Vietnam to fight in a war instead of going to college. It was a lad’s holiday with napalm – an inherently insane situation that bred insane behaviour. Behaviour like that of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, a man who’s more interested in surfing than staying alive. Or the troops who don’t even know who their commanding office is (“Ain’t it you?” one asks Willard). By the time we meet Dennis Hopper’s crazed photojournalist towards the end it’s like watching a fantasy. A stark contrast to the hero worship of mainstream war films.
Apocalypse Now is a cinematic force of nature. Not a single scene is out of place or outstays its welcome, almost every one now famous in its own right: Willard’s drunken meltdown in his hotel room, Kilgore’s fondness for a whiff of napalm, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, or the opening helicopter sequence perfectly soundtracked by The Doors (a scene which is dissected in gloriously nerdy detail on the 3-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, demonstrating how the sound of the rotor blades is mixed across a 5.1 surround sound system).
When you consider the troubled production the film had my struggle to get to grips with it is all the more appropriate. Brando arrived to shoot his scenes grossly overweight and completely underprepared, sets were destroyed by bad weather, Sheen had a heart attack and even after they’d finished shooting Coppola hadn’t decided how to end the movie. For a long time he never thought he would. And it wasn’t until last summer that I realised it was my favourite film.
I went to an outdoor screening of it at Somerset House, part of Film4’s Summer Screen season. As the light faded over London a helicopter flew overhead and the sound of its rotors merged with those on the screen. I sat for two and a half hours and watched (almost) the same film I’d been so underwhelmed by that first time in my university bedroom, and as Brando’s final words echoed around the courtyard and floated off into the night it seemed crazy that I hadn’t loved it all along.
Tom Wiggins is deputy editor of Stuff magazine
Experience Apocalypse Now in its full, Blu-ray glory, available on Amazon