Full of sound and fury, Francis Coppola's folie de grandeur gets a spanking digital brush-up and gives filmgoers a third chance – the second came with Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001 – to revaluate its big-screen achievement.
A legend even before its own lifetime, the film battled almost impossible odds (typhoons, endless delays, Martin Sheen's heart attack) to be finished, by which time everybody, including Coppola, thought it would bankrupt him. But he escaped – it was his next film, One from the Heart, in 1982, that tipped him over the edge. Thirty-odd years later, Apocalypse Now remains an awesome feat of film-making, sprawling and self-indulgent for sure, and set afloat on some ridiculous hyperbole (Coppola said at the time, "This isn't a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam").
Yet the best of it is grand, mysterious and oddly possessed. The story, famously borrowed from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, involves US Captain Willard (Sheen) travelling upriver in Cambodia on a covert mission to terminate the command of decorated war hero-turned-renegade Colonel Kurtz, played, appropriately, by another rebarbative icon, Marlon Brando. It is built on a series of set-pieces, the most famous of them the helicopter assault on the village, soundtracked to the grandiose strains of Wagner and the battle cries of Robert Duvall's nutso Kilgore ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning...").
The ritual slaughter at the end intercut with Kurtz's murder has an hallucinatory charge that's still undimmed. Much of it is about madness, and madmen – Willard, his crew, Kilgore, Dennis Hopper playing the Fool to Kurtz's Lear, Coppola himself – which is surely a comment on what America was doing in Vietnam. It stands up, this Ozymandias of a movie, and must be watched on a huge cinema screen, or not at all.