Picks and Pans Review: Apocalypse Now

UPDATED 10/08/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/08/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

"I tell you," says a character in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "this man has enlarged my mind." Such was surely one of Francis Coppola's goals when he set out to make this vast movie—loosely adapted from Conrad's novella—four years and $31 million ago. The director delivers in spite of occasional pretensions and a disappointing denouement. From the haunting opening shots of wraithlike helicopters gliding past a hazy sun to the incongruity of a Gl waterskiing from a patrol boat to a beautifully choreographed napalm attack on a village, Coppola evokes the frightening, confusing, wrenching tragedy of Vietnam. There is a superb performance by Martin Sheen, an Army captain assigned to "terminate with extreme prejudice" a renegade Green Beret colonel (Marlon Brando, more eccentric than ever) who has taken a private army of Montagnards into Cambodia and established his own kingdom. Among all the capably handled supporting roles, one stands out: Robert Duvall as an officer who says he loves "the smell of napalm in the morning." As Sheen travels upriver, the war unfolds before him with almost hallucinogenic clarity. Yet the film falters just when it reaches the moment of greatest dramatic potential—Sheen's confrontation with Brando. Photographed in distracting half-light and shadows, Brando becomes, in Conrad's words, "very little more than a voice." The voice mumbles poetry, spouts philosophy and explains nothing. Unsatisfying as the end may be—and Coppola admits he shot three versions of it—there is so much sustained brilliance in the film that one cannot help but applaud the director's ambition, daring and perseverance. (R)

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