You know when you go back to a film you love, especially one considered a classic, after a few years? Your memory tends to get fuzzy, and so you kind of wait for the moments that have settled in your mind. It’s often those ‘classic’ big moments, the bits you see talking heads remembering for you on endless Channel4 Top 100s. Ride of the Valkyries, napalm in the morning, the horror the horror, etc. But I was surprised to find what’d truly stuck from Apocalypse Now was something else entirely; an unusual moment three-quarters into the film.
It comes as the boat carrying Captain Willard reaches Do Lung Bridge. Night has fallen, and the bridge is chaos, smoke and sparks everywhere. Like the rest of the film, it makes beautiful use of light and dark, silhouettes and explosions of blurry colour. Flares fall lazily from the sky, leaving trails that are reflected in the ripples of the water. It’s probably the single biggest bit of spectacle in the film.
As the boat pulls up to the bridge, Lance announces he’s just dropped his final tab of acid. “It’s beautiful … far out”. And it is – the whole scene is a light show – but it’s hellish too. “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain!” The soundtrack is broken circus music and the incoherence of dying soldiers. The space between flashes of light gets longer, and we’re left in darkness between moments of piercing brightness. Just to underscore all that, into the most dangerous space we’ve been yet, Lance brings his newly-acquired puppy.
The scene signifies a crossing into the out-and-out strangeness of the last half an hour, which is fitting given it’s a gate, a threshold between ‘here’ (Vietnam, warring against Charlie) and ‘there’ (Cambodia, hunting down one of your own). The film is one long stream of insanity, of various stripes and colours, but there’s a coolness to what comes before, that doesn’t have much place in the uneasy remainder. This is the bit where the film starts to turn nasty.
On top of all that, above everything else, it’s presented like another world; more sci-fi than war film. Willard and Lance moving through the trenches in silhouette could be men on the moon. Among the churning soundtrack, I swear I can hear laser fire.
That’s Apocalypse Now: an exploration of a world outside of our laws. It might as well be a fantasy world: it’s certainly far richer than the world of any fantasy film I could name. The Lord of The Rings? Pfft, this comes with its own language too – equal parts acronym (FNGs, ETAs, LZs), French, and insults – one which filled me like asbestos when first I saw it as a teenager, coloured my vision of festival fields, and is still with me today, laughing uncontrollably in the backseat as Dom throws his car round a sharp corner while Ride of the Valkyries blasts in my ears.