Mistah Kurtz: he dead

I first saw Apocalypse Now, the best film ever made, on Tuesday April 6, 1982. I had just turned 17, and saw it at the Northampton College of Further Education Film Society, of which I was a member (as anyone who’s read this month’s Word will already know). It “blew my mind,” and I am quoting my 1982 diary here. I was already a mini-cineaste, as evinced by my membership of film club – for £6 membership, you got to see 36 films, many of them forbidden “X” certificates – but I’m still retrospectively proud of  me for getting it from the word go. My friend Craig, and his girlfriend Rebecca, who accompanied me that night, did not like it. Again, according to the account in my diary, Craig said it was “Boring crap!” and Rebecca said it was “Rubbish.” There is no accounting for taste, but I was baffled at their bafflement. I wrote: “I’m so frustrated about everyone hating it. I’ve just seen a cinematic masterpiece.”

Francis Coppola’s masterwork was already a couple of years old in 1982, having been released in 1979, but it was as good as new to me. Of his oeuvre, I had, at that stage, only seen The Godfather Part II, so was not exactly his biggest fan, but over the next year or so, I caught up with The Conversation, The Rain People, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and, well, The Godfather, and it started to fall into place: he was my main man. The more I read about him, the more I realised that this was the classic case of an American auteur channelling European influence, indicative of a much wider movement in Hollywood in the 70s, but I was coming at Apocalypse Now without intellectual baggage. I just knew it was a Vietnam war movie that had been a nightmare to shoot. My reaction to it was pretty organic and raw. I loved it because I loved it.

The next time I saw it was in 1983, when my friend Paul and I rented the video, and we not only watched it more than once, we taped it onto audio cassette, all the better to immerse ourselves in it, and learn it. In 1984 – the same year we experienced it on the big screen for the first time on a Nene College excursion to London, during which it happened to be playing at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square – we purchased the gatefold soundtrack album, which including huge swaths of dialogue. A bigger boy at Nene, a punk called Jon, claimed to have dropped acid and listened to the LP on headphones, and said it was like “going to Vietnam.” It wasn’t certain that Jon had even come back. (Neither Paul nor I were going to be dropping acid to find out.) By now, you can sense, Apocalypse Now was my life.

I’m often asked what is my favourite film of all time, and if I’m honest, I should say The Poseidon Adventure, as it is my favourite. But the best film of all time? That can’t be The Poseidon Adventure. It has to be Apocalypse Now. It must be the film I have seen the most times, in full. I really can recite it. That may sound a bit childish, but seeing it is like listening to a favourite album, whose lyrics I have learned by heart. It never lets me down. I’ve seen it on tape, at the cinema, remastered and in Redux; I’ve listened to it; at one feverish, teenage stage in 1983, Paul and I acted out a full-length parody of it! (The cassette may even still exist somewhere. Don’t ask me to dig it out. Oh, you weren’t going to.) For the release of Redux, while at Radio 4, I got to interview cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound editor Walter Murch. A great day, even though Murch was a grumpy bastard, and didn’t even get up out of his chair to shake my hand. By the way I’ve never seen the bootleg 289-minute cut.

Anyway, with the film out in a “restored” Anniversary Edition – which is the 2000 edition – at selected cinemas, and on 3-disc Blu-Ray for the first time (which would be exciting news if I had a Blu-Ray player), I allowed myself the adult treat of going to see Apocalypse Now at the reasonably new Curzon Millbank in London.

Plenty of people in, considering it was a Sunday morning 11.30am showing, and tremendous to see it digitally projected, and with digital sound, although don’t get any funny ideas about the remastering turning it miraculously into an HD picture: it still looks satisfyingly like a film made in 1979 – indeed, some of the murk and the desaturated greys indicative of the late 70s are precisely the kind of effect all sorts of modern filmmakers thrive to achieve through digital fiddling. You don’t really need me to review the film, but I will review my latest viewing of it.

I suppose it’s no weirder going out to the cinema to see a film you know than paying to go and see a band whose back catalogue you can sing, but Apocalypse Now conceals no more secrets for me now: I know where you can spy the title of the film; I know which of the crew of the PBR dies and when; I know what’s in the jungle when Chef and Willard get out of the boat; I know what type of board Lance prefers; I know what happens when the Vietnamese woman chucks a hat into the helicopter; I know what happens when the Playboy bunnies are helicoptered off the stage; I know how Clean’s mom’s recorded message plays out; I know what books Kurtz has in his hut (spoiler alert: From Ritual To Romance by Jessie L Weston; The Golden Bough by James Frazer; The Bible – much of which fed into what I was studying at A-level in 1982 ie. The Waste Land by TS Eliot); I know how it ends, with a whimper and not a bang. None of this reduces my awe.

The 2000 version is true to the original, in that it has no end credits, and just ends. A later version instated credits, which played over footage of the sets being burned, which audiences – me included – mistakenly took to be an air strike on Kurtz’s compound, when in fact the footage had no connection to the film itself. It’s weird to see a film at the cinema with no end credits, I’ll tell you that much. No time to decompress. Just “the horror, the horror” and it’s house lights up.

I’m so glad I made the effort to see it again. I have it on DVD – I could watch it any time I liked – but there’s still something magical about seeing a film you love on the big screen. Oh, and if you think the headline displays casual racism, it’s mah favourite quote from Eliot’s The Hollow Men, itself a quote from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Aren’t we all clever? I realise now that I loved Apocalypse Now as a teenager in the same way that I loved Monty Python and the NME as a teenager – because they taught me about things that I knew not of. If ever a film required footnotes, it’s this one. Here’s to the next time!

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8 thoughts on “Mistah Kurtz: he dead

  1. I’m right with you on this one. I have a small cache of films which I feel I know every frame and line of, and Apocalypse Now probably heads the bunch. Its familiarity has never lessened its impact. I doubt whether any film yet made will ever supersede it for me.

  2. Well, if we’re using number of times to see a film in full as a criteria, that must make Con Air the best film of all time in my estimation. Hmmm, let me think about that for a second. Nope, that’s right.

  3. Off to see this at the cinema next week – when it reaches the sticks.

    I have to admit that when we saw and advert for the DVD reissue me and my girlfriend almost simultaneously blurted out: “I think we should get a Blu-Ray player.” Her reasoning is that is one of her favourite films. Mine is that I have never seen the documentary Heart of Darkness.

    So a quick question, is Heart of Darkness worth seeking out?

    • Heart Of Darkness one of the greatest documentaries about filmmaking I’ve seen. Right up there with the Gilliam/La Mancha one. (And an essential companion to Apocalypse Now, unless you don’t like making-of documentaries.)

  4. Heart Of Darkness is an excellent documentary. You’ll come out of it wondering how the hell a film got made at all. Hell of a book too (the Conrad I mean, not the book of the documentary, should such a thing exist) – very interesting to read it after knowing the film.

  5. ‘The 2000 version is true to the original, in that it has no end credits, and just ends. A later version instated credits, which played over footage of the sets being burned..’

    I saw it when it first came out in ’79 (two Sunday’s in a row in Oxford – I had to go back and see it again!) and I’m sure it had the credits + burning sets which, like others it seems, I always thought was an air-strike – called in by Willard partly in response to some of the notes written by Kurtz.

    I was 18 at the time and it ‘blew my mind’ as well!

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