In Brief

Apocalypse Now: the original 1979 reviews

Film of the week: The iconic Vietnam War movie was far from universally acclaimed when it was first released thirty years ago

Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now, which tells the story of Captain Willard's journey up river to hunt down and kill the AWOL Colonel Kurtz, has joined the ranks of the best films of all time, heralded for its beauty, vision and scope.

In short, it's deemed a classic, hence its re-release this week with extensive restoration by the director himself.

It wasn't always so.

Back in 1979, when Apocalypse Now premiered as a 'work in progress' at the Cannes film festival, Coppola was alternately lambasted and adored for his four-year-long project. With a total budget of $31m - unheard of for movies at the time - and notorious production problems, critics had plenty of reasons to hate it.

Writing in Time magazine when it first came out, Frank Rich derided the film as "not so much an epic account of a gruelling war as an incongruous, extravagant monument to artistic self-defeat".

He went on: "The Vietnam War was a tragedy. Apocalypse Now is but this decade's most extraordinary Hollywood folly."

Reviewers took issue with Coppola as well as his film, pedalling his numerous, now legendary, comments on the filming process. "This isn't a film about Vietnam, this film is Vietnam," he said at the time. "It struck me like a diamond bullet in my head that I wasn't making the film, the jungle was".

Vincent Canby in the New York Times admitted when he first saw the movie that Apocalypse Now was a "stunning work". However, he maintained that even its technical complexity and mastery could not save it from its "delusions of grandeur", which ultimately resulted in a "profoundly anticlimactic intellectual muddle".

• In pictures: the best scenes from Apocalypse Now

While the film's parallels with Joseph Conrad's masterpiece The Heart of Darkness are increasingly subtle to modern-day audiences, and the quotes from TS Eliot's poetry all but unnoticeable, at the time such literary references were seen as laboured and overbearing.

Richard Roud, writing in the Guardian, dismissed the "literary luggage" as "cultural overkill". Dale Pollock in Variety agreed that the final third of the film, which is peppered with lines from Conrad and Eliot, is "when [John] Milius [the film's writer] and Coppola take a back seat to a literary homage [and] Apocalypse Now runs aground".

But while some critics, like Roud, were unequivocal in their conclusion that "Apocalypse Now is not the greatest film of the decade, or even of the year", others saw glints of something more.

"It's a complex, demanding, highly intelligent piece of work," admitted Pollock, "but it's coming into a marketplace that does not always embrace those qualities."

Overall, Apocalypse Now got a mixed reception in 1979. As the first film to treat a controversial subject that had dogged the American psyche for over a decade, many viewed it as too philosophical, lacking in answers, and without a clear message. Coppola was completely unable to decide on an ending, and wound up showing two different versions around the world to gauge people's reactions. If he doesn't even know how it ends, people complained, how are we supposed to know what to take from it?

Derek Malcolm, the former Guardian film critic, said that the film "hasn't got much to do with Conrad's Heart of Darkness... nor with the Vietnam War", although he suggested "it says a lot about America and Americans".

What it is, he wrote, is "an epic about war itself" with "a hallucinatory dramatic power that is almost palpable".

It is this power that stills holds itself over audiences today. Not the power of an accurate or definitive account of a troubling period in modern history, nor that of a movie that has a moral message to draw from the hell that is war.

It is the power, wrote Roger Ebert in his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun-Times, of cinema and those "moments of agony and joy in making [it]".

"Those moments, as common in life as art, when the whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance."

"Years and years from now," Ebert wrote, "when Coppola's budget and his problems have long been forgotten, Apocalypse will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking."

How right he was.

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