Sunday, 16 June 2013
Harbour Lights were screening this on a one-off showing today and I decided to bite the bullet and see it for the first time on the big screen. Amazing in so many ways. I grew up with reports of the Vietnam war on daily evening news and have charted the films about the war over the past 40 plus years. There is an interesting list of someone's top 30 here on iMDB. This ranks alongside Platoon and The Deer Hunter.
This film ably shows the absurdity of war - and in particular the absurd way America fought this war. On one hand I'd like to say that the leader of every nation should watch it before they commit their people to war - but I guess those who have fought to get to the top of the political ladder won't be swayed by the affective response this film must inevitably invoke in any person who is wired in a normal sort of way.
I'm not sure the US psyche has yet resolved its demons in relation to the guilt and regret that surrounds the collective memory of Vietnam. Right at the beginning the central character, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) tells us in narration "There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.". The Confessional still sees plenty of business as a result of this war - and rightly so. Hollywood still tries to provide a cathartic and penitential experience by administering salve on the wounds of the after-effects of Vietnam and increasingly Iraq and Afghanistan. Absolution can be an elusive thing to nail down.
This film has left a massive and enduring legacy. It won two Oscars, the Palme D'Or at Cannes, three Golden Globes and two Baftas along with a host of other awards. The film was also considered to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and was chosen for preservation by the US National Film Registry in 2000. It regularly appears at or near the top of many movie polls - check out the wikipedia article for the references.
This film was made pre-CGI and the special effects are consistently amazing. The film starts at an okay pace and then quickens - and never lets up for the entire 2.5 hour ride. The cast is an amazing group of top names led by Michael Sheen in the lead role. He plays a Special Forces Captain who is sent deep into enemy territory and then into Cambodia to terminate (with "extreme prejudice") a US Colonel whom the hierarchy deem to have gone insane and who is operating outside the normal command and control channels of the military. Three quarters of the film is about the journey to get there, the last part explores deep and dark themes about the insanity of war and what it does to people. The story doesn't end neatly - it leaves the viewer having to analyse what they have just witnessed and what they are going to do with it.
There would be many ways of exploring this film and many fine words have been written about it over the past nearly 35 years. The film is littered with literary references but for me, one of the most insightful ways would be thorough the poetry of T.S. Eliot that plays such an important part. Willard's target is Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who spouts philosophical and literary riddles as he talks almost exclusively in metaphors:
Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?
Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
Kurtz: It's no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.
Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
Willard: I'm a soldier.
Kurtz: You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill
Clearly Director Francis Ford Coppola has a message for the viewer and it is one that will make him/her very uncomfortable. After some digging around I found out that the film is based on the novello Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In poetry books Eliot's poem The Waste Land is preceded by a quotation from Heart of Darkness: "Mistah Kurtz – he dead". So here we have Colonel Kurtz quoting Eliot and saying as his final words 'Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – "The horror! The horror!"' This can be seen as a commentary on what waging war had done to Kurtz - the agony and emotion etched on the face of Willard as he fulfils his orders. On Kurtz's desk we see a copy of From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer - the two texts which Eliot says inspired his poem The Waste Land.
There are many memorable passages in this film that have gone down in cinematic history - and rightly so. This is an intelligent, creative and courageous piece of cinema which seeks not to offer an analysis but to recreate through it's dialogue and characters an opportunity for the modern-day voyeur to catch the faintest of glimpses of what the horror of war can lead people to - good people - when ideologies clash. The action is so intense and immediate, and the soundtrack so rich and detailed, that you can you almost smell the napalm - even if it's not the morning!
I have no choice other than to give this film 9/10. Great cinema.