I was disappointed to see that this book doesn't contain the original version of the Apocalypse Now script, by John Milius. It could have at least contained one of the later Milius/Coppola rewrites, such as the final revised 1975 version, which is easily found online. The simple fact is, those scripts provide a better reading experience; you're better off just watching the movie than reading this one. And, if you're a fledgling screenwriter, you're certainly not going to learn anything about the craft of scriptwriting from this book.
The reason being, as any viewer of the excellent documentary "Hearts of Darkness" knows, is that Coppola basically gave his actors free reign in expanding and ad-libbing their dialog on the set. Having read the earlier Milius/Coppola rewrites, I know that a lot of the lines in Apocalypse Now were in fact from the script. But many more of them (particularly Brando and Hopper's dialog) were in fact made up by the actors themselves. So to publish this book and say that it's a pure creation of Milius and Coppola is a bit misleading (something which Coppola himself vaguely asserts in his introduction).
A straight-up publication of an earlier version would have been preferable, if for the simple fact that it would give amazing insight into the twisted path this film took, from script to celluloid. For example, the '75 version mentioned above (the script Coppola started with on the set, but eventually rewrote day by day) not only opened with a psychedelic action scene, it also ended with one: a surreal, apocalyptic (of course) set-piece that involved untold VC, rampant destruction, and drugged-out GI's, with "Light My Fire" blaring over humongous stereos. It's interesting to imagine what the movie would've been like, had Coppola stuck with this ending, though from the beginning he claimed he had a problem with it; he found it too much like a comic book. Still, many have complained that the ending of Coppola's actual film is a bit underwhelming; there are many who would have in fact preferred the climactic sequence Milius envisioned. As for myself, I like both.
There are other interesting differences in the early Milius/Coppola drafts. For example, Willard is more of a devil-may-care super-soldier; he shares his joints with the PBR crew, and takes easily to murder: in one well-written sequence, Willard, realizing the French Plantation owners are attempting to trick him out of crucial fuel and ammo supplies, fools them by murdering some Vietnamese guards and planting their bodies in empty supply crates - crates which the French believe contain fuel and ammo. Kurtz as well is different, a blond-haired he-man who kills hundreds of VC single-handedly. Hardly the character Marlon Brando played in the film!
Actually, it's unfair of me to review these earlier incarnations of the script. The fact is, the version published here is far removed from them. But even though I'm unimpressed with this book, I still can't give it a poor review; even though it's mostly just a transcription, still, it's a transcription of my favorite movie, so that means it can't be ALL bad.
"Apocalypse Now! Redux" is celebrated as one of the most powerful anti-war manifestos. One of the reasons for its long-term success is, without a doubt, its precocious post-modernism. The Air Cavalry scene, in particular, conveys a message that will become part of the post-modern intellectual credo. Most core Western cultural symbols, old and new, are intrinsically violent, "barbaric." "Apocalypse Now!" is not only a harbinger of this vision, it takes it to the extreme. In it, even the counterculture, in other contexts celebrated as a "liberating force," is intertwined with the lethal vines of death. In the new release of the movie the Playboy culture and the untrammeled eroticism of the sixties become central driving forces of the Vietnam war. In Coppola's own words "This is an L.A. war." His synopsis of the movie sums it up: "The American War 'to bring civilization to the ignorant millions' is merely the extension of mercantile colonialism[;] the horror and savagery lie not in the jungle, but in the American culture itself, with its powerless [sic] technology and pop culture."
Although not very original-the idea goes all the way back to Marx-this vision, combined with a daring cinematography and paranoid atmosphere, made the movie into a landmark cinematic event. At the time (1979) it sent shivers down, for different reasons, obviously, many liberal and conservative spines.
When I first saw "Apocalypse Now!, behind the Iron Curtain, I found it an exhilarating visual experience. It gave me a glimpse into, I thought, a new world of meanings. Particularly intriguing was the idea that one can talk about war, usually associated with the "shoot 'em up" clichés of the "Dirty Dozen"-kind, without using grandiloquent musical scores and images. War can be "modern." Soldiers can smoke weed and listen to rock-and-roll. The Rolling Stones and the Doors had to shape a war that took place in the middle of the Aquarian era. This could be accurate and honest in its intents, if not in details, I told myself until recently, since we are talking about an expressive work of art. I never gave a lot of thought to how much this really fit the ways of the American military or its war in Vietnam. Up to a point it sounded quite realistic to me that crazy American colonels could be surfing aficionados and that their use of technology would be as reckless as their military machinery would allow them. Why, I could not precisely tell, probably ignorance about the ways of American military would be the best explanation.
But, then, I had yet to hear about the Ia Drang battle. The eye openers were the movie "We were solidiers," released in March, 2002 and the book with the same title. They recount the 3-day battle of November 16-19, 1965 between units of the same 1st Air Cavalry Division that appears in Coppola's movie and the 33rd, 66th and 302nd North Vietnamese Army regiments, infiltrated in South Vietnam from Cambodia. The movie, far less esthetically ambitious than "Apocalypse Now!," is however painstakingly accurate. It helps you understand not only the Vietnam War but where Coppola's "Apocalypse Now!" fails the test of a truly great work of art.
Coppola fails to penetrate to the raw reality of the Vietnam war. This is because he utilizes and refines in his movie derivative material. His characters and icons-human, intellectual and historical-come from a large repository of artistically already transfigured-with a political-radial agenda-materials.
The movie draws on journalistic work directly influenced by the counter-culture. Some of them seem lifted directly from the famous, for its partisanship, photo-essay "Vietnam, Inc" by Philip Jones Griffith and prefaced by Noam Chomsky. The scene in which Kilgore offers water from his canteen to a Viet Cong fighter wounded in the gut, saying "Any man brave enough to fight with his guts strapped on him can drink from my canteen any day," it's obviously inspired from a similar episode depicted in Griffith's book. There, a young Vietcong, although wounded in the abdomen and keeping his intestines inside with a wash bowl, was taken prisoner only after three days of fight, winning the respect of the American soldiers, who offered him water with approximately the same words used by Kilgore.
In another scene, Kilgore is shown flicking "death cards" atop of Vietcong corpses. This is a "creative" reinterpretation of a war folklore theme. Peter Cowie, the author of the companion book launched with the new version of "Apocalypse Now!," explains that this is "a slight [sic] perversion of what occurred during the toughest phase of the war." The sic refers to the fact that in the real incident, presented in Michael Herr's "Dispatches," the Americans are the victims. "Once after an ambush that killed a lot of Americans," cites Cowie the "Dispatches" passage that inspired Coppola, "the NVA covered the field with copies of a photograph showing yet another young, dead American, and on its flipside a mimeographed message: 'Your x-ray have just come back from the lab and we think we know what your problem is.'" This is a quite surprising act of "artistic license" since Herr was directly involved in the movie.
In consequence, the themes and people presented in "Apocalypse Now!" spring not from reality but from the meta-reality of the anti-war movement. Nothing betrays more the fundamental shortcoming of "Apocalypse Now!" than Coppola's inability to put in perspective the fact that the officers who lead the American troops in Vietnam were, by and large, the same people who saved America and the world from the Nazi and Japanese totalitarianisms. They had little in common with the sixties and with the counterculture. Their personal cultural style was influenced much more by Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogard than by Elvis or the Rolling Stones.
Everything I read in "We Were Soldiers" convinced me that, for example, Lt.-Col. William Kilgore is a very distorted representation of reality. He has very little to do with history and everything to do with the "post-colonial" caricature of the Vietnam War. The average battalion commander in the 1st Air Cavalry Division is much more like the author of "We were soldiers" himself, lieutenant general (ret.) Harold (Hal) Moore.
In 1965 a Lieutenant Colonel himself, commander of the 1st battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1 Air Cav. Division, his career and lifestyle do not betray any shadow of frivolity. Originally from Kentucky, father of 5 children in 1965, a West Point graduate, he commanded two companies in the Korean War and had spent many years abroad, in Europe and Asia, before returning to Fort Benning, in Georgia, to join the 1st Air Cav. An accomplished aviator and master parachutist he was a "straight and narrow" soldier, remembered for shaving, and demanding his troops and the occasional war correspondent attached to his unit to shave, too, every day, even when on the frontlines.
Moore's 1st Air Cav. commanding officers were made of the same stuff. Some of them were recruited from the heroes of the "greatest generation:" the battalion and company commanders of Salerno, Normandy and Bastogne. As Moore describes him in his book, the division commander of 1st Air Cav., "Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard, a native Texan [...] was West Point, class of 1939, and Airborne qualified in 1942. Kinnard was one of the shooting starts of the 101st Airborne in World War II. He was Brigadier General's Tony McAuliffe's operations officer, G-3, at the Battle of Bastogne in the Bulge, and the man who suggested that General McAuliffe specifically respond to German surrender demand with one historic word: "Nuts!"