The Best Moments in Film History: The horror of war, “Apocalypse Now”

Today I return to my blog to continue with my series on “The Best Moments in Film History”.

After my first post touching upon the magnificent performance of Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en, I switch gears to a touching moment in film personified by the timeless Marlon Brando.

By the way Apocalypse Now is constructed, the screen required someone with the presence and emotional power of Brando, Hollywood’s ultimate acting virtuoso, to bring the story arch to a satisfying close. The film had traveled, in a metaphorical and literal level, to a point in which it could have collapsed under the weight of its own expectations. Brando did not only bring the excellence of his craft to the fore, but all the mystery of his persona and the aura of greatness that accompanied him from early on in his career.

The success of a performance, as actors themselves would tell you, comes also from listening to other actors. In this film, Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard in a performance that is powerful because it is restrained. In the more of two hours of film, the Captain does a lot of listening and observing, acting as a small pawn thrown into the middle of the Lion’s den. When Willard becomes Kurtz’ prisoner, the Captain acts in reaction to the madness that surrounds him, in an attempt to stay alive and gain the trust of Kurtz until he can achieve his mission: killing him.

Marlon plays Colonel Kurtz as a man that has lost his mind but who, at the same time, can be rational enough to eloquently reveal part of the torment that haunts him.
When Colonel Kurtz decides to open up to his prisoner, the movie reaches its climax. Marlon lurks in the shadows, his face only revealed by strings of light as he’s sitting down eating a fruit. Slowly the Colonel speaks to reveal the horror that consumes him. The emptiness in his eyes is remarkable and we believe this is a man that has lost himself completely in the carnage of the conflict. There is no glimpse of hope, he is but a mere shadow of his former self and his words are poignant and bizarre enough to make anyone cringe:

I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us

It can be argued that Apocalypse Now does have other moments that are indelible and helped make the movie what it is. However, if it had not been for the great Marlon and his hopeless words that summarized the goal of the film, there would not be an Apocalypse Now in any list comprising the best films of all time. For Brando it was perhaps the last great role of his incredible carreer, one that changed the concept of acting forever.

Niels

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