I grew up with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s iconic film of crime family life. I would recite the lines like they were the math times tables - I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse; Leave the gun, take the cannoli; It’s not personal, it’s strictly business . I loved these movies, but I didn’t really think about them. This is a family that eats well, lives in gorgeous houses, has amazing weddings and great suits. The killing and the stealing and the lying - well, those are all a part of the package. It was only a couple of years ago, at least three decades after I started watching and re-watching the Corleone Family saga, that my mind changed.
On a snowed-in weekend, I watched the entire Godfather series, re-edited by the director to run in chronological order. Going from the 1901 opening, when young Vito Corleone witnesses the terrible act that stimulates his adult revenge, to almost a century later, when Vito’s son Michael dies broken and alone, a victim of the choices that ensued from that original act of vengeance. When you watch all three Godfathers in one sitting, the moral force of the movies is absolutely clear: the surfaces may be shiny (beautiful decor, lakeside pavilions, elegant music, and fine cigars), but the heart is diseased. Watching the full sweep of Vito and Michael Corleone’s life in the space of one weekend, it’s not the weddings or the meatballs or the costumes that you remember, it’s the tragedy of a life begun in horror, traversing through retribution, and finished through violence.
The Godfather trilogy isn’t really about Italian-American crime families. It’s about power, how some people think you get it, and how some people use it. And everyone has been on at least one side of that equation. Believing that exploitative power over others is what matters in life is its own reward. But it will corrode the soul, isolate the person, destroy the family, and leave you dying inside. When looked at that way, the role The Godfather has in our shared culture is paradoxical - instead of its invitation being heard, it has become a shiny object valued more for its aesthetic pleasures than its blindingly important invitation.
Coppola followed the first two Godfather movies (and his sinister conspiracy thriller The Conversation, also about power and money), with Apocalypse Now, his film set in Vietnam and Cambodia during the U.S. military endeavor there. A notoriously challenging production, Coppola overstated “[My film] is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Coppola is a big man known for grand gestures. An appropriate response would have to include asking Vietnamese people about that - for their presence in the movie is only as victims or perpetrators; the objects of American wrath or condescension. That may be part of the point Coppola is trying to make, that the war was not exactly fought on behalf of the people of Vietnam.
In The Deer Hunter, the other late 1970s film most often compared to Apocalypse Now, pretty much every Vietnamese character is a monster, and every American a wounded warrior or innocent woman. The Deer Hunter could benefit from a new cut in which every Vietnam scene is excised. An hour of building a portrait of blue collar life in Steel Country, a fade to black when the guys depart for Southeast Asia, and forty minutes on their return showing how the war damaged them would be both a more meaningful treatment of the horror of mass killing as an instrument of exploitative power or foreign policy, and more respectful of the people who did not ask for the war. But while its director Michael Cimino is no longer with us to create such a cut, Coppola has recently re-edited Apocalypse Now, and what he’s calling Final Cut has just arrived in theaters before a home video release next week.
Seeing Apocalypse Now: Final Cut on an IMAX screen is one of the extraordinary cinematic experiences of a lifetime. It’s clearly a unique and towering work of art, with astonishing images and sound design, performances that appear so real as to suggest it’s a documentary mingling with an atmosphere that fully earns the overused term immersive. I know this film well but seeing it this way was proof that certain movies can only be experienced on a screen large enough to envelop the field of vision, and preferably with lots of people too. There’s a communal dimension, and a larger-than-life one that cannot be satisfied by watching on a personal screen. And beyond the pure technical and aesthetic craft, there was a revelation: I’ve never been as struck by how my reaction to a film has changed over time.
I used to be provoked by the film, even thrilled by it, but this time around, it wasn’t entertainment. It’s horrifying from start to finish, as it should be. Part of the reason is that I am, of course, older now, with more responsibilities, and more uncertainty about the future (or at least that’s the story I’m too often living in); but maybe it’s also that globalization, technological developments, and the evolution of interdependent human sympathy since the film’s release in 1979 make us all feel so close together, so pained by the suffering of others, and so implicated in causing it, that Apocalypse Now is ready to be understood on its own terms.
To recap the story, it’s 1969 and the war in Vietnam is raging. Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has “gone rogue,” and built a jungle cult of adoration based on the willingness to kill without judgement. The powers that be want him dead, so they task Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) with his assassination. The bulk of the three-hour film charts the boat journey upriver, taking in the airborne destruction of a village, another psychopathic colonel, surfing, an interlude for dinner with French Plantation colonists, a surreal USO dance party, and a lot of killing. When Willard finally makes it to Kurtz’s compound, he receives a lesson in the philosophy of war, and then the myth of redemptive violence is enacted, literally paralleled with a sacred ritual.
What lingers most from this viewing is the weight of the thing. The documentary Hearts of Darkness, crafted from footage shot by Coppola’s spouse Eleanor reveals the director’s ambition to be breathtaking; but it’s also ironic, given how its theme is that the war in Vietnam only occurred because some people thought they were God. Making a film is a more benign act than making a war but Coppola has said that Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film. For him, a truly anti-war film would be one in which we celebrate life and don’t talk about war at all.
I think a clear-eyed viewing of Apocalypse Now demands lament for the suffering caused by war, and a serious rethink of leadership, and the use of power between groups and nations. The problem is that clear-eyed viewing isn’t automatic. The helicopter sequence can be seen as a condemnation of the use of terror, or an astonishing visual spectacle. It has been used to generate the emotional fuel required to kill; and for some of us, just a way to test the speakers connected to our televisions. Kurtz’s speech about what it takes to win wars contains the most demanding idea: that for total destruction of the enemy, what is required is ten divisions of men willing to murder without judgement. This has always been true in war. What’s just as true is that to transform the world, it takes people willing to face the reality of their own deaths, put their swords away, and serve the common good from a place of love. That takes more courage than blowing things up from the sky.
Kurtz’s last words are often quoted as simply “The horror…the horror.” He is a character whose sanity has been undone by what he has witnessed and participated in: the indiscriminate taking of human life to serve ideological goals without anything even approaching accountability. That makes him at some levels more sane than those who hold the ideology. But what precedes his horror at “the horror” is even more profound: “We train our young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write “f***” on their airplanes because it's obscene.”
Coppola recently said that “the story of Hollywood has to do with who owns it.” The story of war has to do with who thinks they own the world. Who gets to play God? What Coppola says about his creative method could easily apply to the danger of thinking that order can be brought out of chaos through force: “I never let not knowing how to do something stop me from trying to do it.” Sometimes such an ethic leads to great works of art that can provoke audiences to face difficult truths - like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. But sometimes it can lead to war, just for the hell of it.