When Apocalypse Now was originally released, I was a freshman at Towson State University. I already had ambitions to become a writer but not a screenwriter. Although I loved the movies from my earliest days, I viewed them merely as a diversion. I reveled mainly in comedies, horror and gangster films that didn't demand much from their audience. I had seen many of the classic European art films on my local PBS station, but I still never viewed film as art or particularly important. I was going to be a journalist. That was a noble and important profession.
Then I saw Apocalypse Now the first weekend it arrived in Baltimore. I saw it at the Timonium Cinemas with my college sweetheart Kathy Gardiner. Most of the press about the film hinted that it was a bloated, over-budget mess. The reviews were decidedly mixed. I didn't really know what to expect. I certainly didn't expect it to change my outlook on film itself, but it did precisely that.
I was absolutely blown away by the film. Every frame of Vittorio Storaro's Academy-Award-winning cinematography could have been a painting. It was so vivid and alive. The locations, costumes and equipment gave the film an aura of authenticity. It was visual storytelling at its best, enhanced by great writing and compelling performances. In a way, the film created its own compelling sense of realism that temporarily overwhelmed my own.
It was as if Francis Ford Coppola had grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into the screen to experience the world he created. I remember going out to eat afterwards feeling that my safe, middle-class existence was shallow in comparison. Not that I suddenly wanted to sign up and go to war. However, after seeing this film, I knew that people caught up in the madness of war experienced an emotional and psychological intensity that I would never know. This film was the first one that truly made me consider my place in the world.
I don't know why this tale of one man's journey into the heart of darkness touched me. I wasn't searching. I had everything I wanted. I wasn't questioning. I had all the answers. At the time, I would describe my mood as giddy contentment. That the film managed to break through that mindset made it all the more compelling.
Apocalypse Now was the first film that had that kind of affect on me. Few other films have. Certainly none of the "important" Vietnam films that followed. I found Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket too cold and cerebral, and Oliver Stone's Platoon too obvious and heavy-handed.
Before long, I grew disenchanted with journalism and I switched over to film. Francis Ford Coppola taught me by example it was a subject worthy of serious consideration. Still, I never expected to make a living in the film business. That seemed out of reach for a kid living in Baltimore. So I was also taking computer courses under the assumption I would end up working for the Social Security Administration as a computer programmer, like so many members of my family. But that was not to be the case. After college I ended up at the advertising agency Smith Burke & Azzam, where I learned the nuts and bolts of film making thirty seconds at a time. Eventually, I turned my attention to screenwriting and here I am.
I doubt I will ever make piece of pure cinema with the scope and power of Apocalypse Now. However, I can take comfort in the fact that I have been involved with films that changed people's lives in many other ways. It's been a good run so far.
Hopefully, I will never get off the boat.
I can't remember if I specifically mention Apocalypse Now in my memoir, but I think it is still worth reading:
The Legend of Hell House
Emperor of the North