Apocalypse Now Redux: review

Walter Murch, yes the Walter Murch, travelled all the way to Aberystwyth to take questions on his film, Apocalypse Now.

Okay, so Murch was only the sound stylist, right? An editor, not a director, star, screenwriter or even a producer. Producers take home the best picture award, directors get to be thought of the auteur, actors get famous, screenwriters can say they thought it all up, but without people working below the line there’s only so much you can do.

Watch any student film from NYU, USC or UCLA, the three film schools Murch applied to when he decided to become a filmmaker, and you’ll see that even short films require a large team of people to make them work.

With Apocalypse now, Murch came onto a picture that had seven tones of footage.  That’s about the weight of the largest adult male elephants, or of about two average female elephants.  Considering that a minute of footage weighs a pound, a ton is a lot to sift through.  At 24 frames a second, physically handling that much film meant a lot of assistants in the editing room.   His job was to take that oversized elephant and find inside it an average human.

Murch compared editing on film to the age of sailing ships.  He now edits on computer.  He has edited films in Final Cut Pro, Avid and Adobe Premiere, learning a new work flow each time.  But, even on physical filmstock, using a method that remained largely unchanged from the 1930s to the 1980s (which some filmmakers are still using today), each film brings its own challenges.

Someone asked questions about Marlon Brando being overweight and being uncooperative about the script, causing delays.  Murch revealed that the script was written for someone who weighed 180 pounds, and Brando weighed more than that at the time.

Murch then went on to outline how the script evolved because of this, and how the director and the team adapted to changing situations.  His story was informative, non-judgemental, and turned a question that sounded like an attack on Brando into an opportunity to illustrate the skills and patience of the entire team, including the director Francis Ford Coppola.

Someone else asked a question about the opening scene being unplanned.  Murch revealed that it was in reaction to finding a few happy accidents, and told the story behind it.  But, even though the unfortunate circumstances of the lead actor initially provoked a laugh, Murch continued with a sympathetic, fact based story about what happened, without judgement or condemnation of any kind.

That’s why people like Murch, he has something nice to say about everyone he speaks about.  You never feel a hint of malice in his voice, he just tells stories with the facts.

He doesn’t dodge questions, but he doesn’t try and provoke either.  He doesn’t beat a stick with politics or religion, despite the fact that his mother was a secretary in a church and his most famous film is seen as the first critical film about the Vietnam War.  These facts are only mentioned when they are relevant to his stories, which for the most parts are answers to questions.

I think that’s a sign of a truly successful person, they don’t have time to criticise others.  No amount of awards, titles, degrees, money, or other external recognition are worth the attitude of a focused problem solver.  While there were some corny, irrelevant jokes made by the academic announcing Murch, he didn’t sway off the topic.

He’s so instantly likeable that you want to identify with him.  As Murch told his stories, I couldn’t help but think about the things I have in common with him, the things that my tiny films had in common with his big ones, and to consider how I will use his experiences in my next film.

What about the film itself?  It’s long.  It’s violent, and there are nude, hanging dead bodies, severed heads, and lots of blood in death scenes.

The film has swearing, obscene gestures, characters who seek out questionable entertainment, and so on, but there’s one line which kind of outlines its philosophy.  “Why can someone violate a country and be called a hero, while you can’t write the word ****  on the side of an airplane because it’s considered obscene.”  I’m paraphrasing there, but that seems to be the philosophy that drives many of the characters, as well as the theme of the story.

If we watch the film, we hear bad language, but what’s more obscene is the callous disregard for the rights of others.  We see blood, but what’s more obscene is seeing people enjoy killing.  Sure, it’s preferable not to use that kind of language, but in an the environment where much worse is tolerated, you stop noticing it.

Murch did not use that kind of language when answering questions afterwards, nor did he violently attack any member of the audience, light a cigarette, or moon people as the characters did.  Fortunately, life did not imitate art too much last night.  (He could theoretically have had a cigarette in the break, but he seems way too fit to be a regular smoker.)

I wouldn’t normally review a film by reviewing the editor, but, these days, this particular film cannot be separated from the creation of it.  Most people who watch Apolcalypse Now do so in an educational context, with an interest in learning more about the past or about filmmaking, or perhaps both.

The film doesn’t seem to have many instances where two shots of the same subject follow each other.  It is said that one editor, fired from the film, claimed that the director didn’t know anything about continuity. Murch never seems to have said that.  What he has written is that films that are storyboarded tend to cut better.

I don’t know how much Apocalypse Now adhered to any  storyboards which were drawn, or how involved the director and cinematographer were in the storyboarding process. Perhaps I could have asked that question.  (What I first thought I should have asked was how Murch kept fit as an digital editor.  Editing is a very sedentary profession, especially after large film reels were replaced by computers. I tend to gain weight every time I edit a video.)

The end of the film met with cheers.  I was in the front row, and as I went alone, the seats on either side of me were free.  But, after the film ended, people sat on all the available seats in the front row.  Had they been there to see the film?   Did they move up closer to be nearer the speaker?  Or, had they skipped the movie, and just showed up for the famous person?  I don’t know.

What got the loudest cheers, however, was a story of how Murch got into film editing.  It included him going to England, where he met an English women, who he married in, I believe it was 1972.  He didn’t say much about his personal life at all, but he said that they’ve been together ever since.  Spontaneous applause filled the auditorium.  As much as people claim that commitment is dead, millennial film students still love the story of a happily ever after.

The film itself tells about failed relationships.  The main character starts off being isolated, talking about his divorce, about not wanting to go back home.  He has a pessimistic view about any veteran being able to settle back into normal life.   Apocalypse Now is no happily ever after story, it’s a story of death, failure, and secret objectives.

But, watching it now is very different from what it must have been like then.  Seeing iconic actors like Harrison Ford, not as Han Solo or Indiana Jones but a nervous soldier who is carefully mumbling his words, is almost as disconcerting as the images of violence.

Some of the shots and lines have become repeated elsewhere to the point of becoming cliches, almost improved upon by other filmmakers.  It’s actually disappointing to hear someone less energetic than Spongebob’s Plankton enthuse about “the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

As the questions and answers revealed, a lot of the most difficult shots and edits would be much easier today, if done digitally.  And, to the detriment of the original, many have been copied.

Yet, despite all the inspired imitations, and continued careers of now recognisable faces, there’s still something fresh and original about watching the film today.  Perhaps it’s the way the filmmakers really were in the jungle (yes, it was another jungle), creating a reality to the acting that CGI can’t duplicate.  Maybe it’s the cinematography, the directing, the lack of certainty that forced all those involved to constantly improvise on a well planned film.  The money was not spent on big names, but on making the film big by using real helicopters and record breaking actual explosions.  The jungle might have been in another country, but it was still real.

The storyline wasn’t meant to be funny but there were bits of humour, and the cinema audience laughed more than they do at many comedies.

If you’re looking for a more in depth review, you’ll no doubt find one.  Academics have written extensively about the Apocalypse Now, and it appeared in almost every filmmaking course I’ve taken (apart from those on screenwriting, for some reason.)  Despite the fact that it wasn’t broadly advertised, people came from miles around to see it (one said he travelled 300 miles to ask Walter Murch a question.)

I personally only knew about it because of a placard (not even a trailer, but a still image) that appeared before watching Hidden Figures.  Hidden Figures, by the way, was worth watching, a PG movie that perhaps will get its own review.