Francis Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, but for six minutes or so here, it’s Marlon Brando’s show. The movie is going to sink or swim on Brando’s portrayal of, as Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness,
A character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul — and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it — and is destroyed by them.
This is a tall order for an actor. Although in some respects Brando presented an obstacle that Coppola had to overcome to finish the movie, in another way Coppola was relying on Brando to get him out of the corner he’d painted himself into. Apocalypse Now had no real structured ending at this point, and after flailing about for awhile Coppola decided to just wing it, hoping that Brando would be so brilliant and charismatic that audiences would buy him as this grand, tragic figure.
Marlon Brando as photographed by Dennis Hopper, looking very Dr. Evil-ish
This Colonel Kurtz sure runs hot and cold. Yesterday he put Willard in a cage and dropped a severed head in his lap (several “giving head“ jokes suggest themselves, but I am above that). Today he has the captain brought inside and given rice and cigarettes, then reads aloud to him from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” (Though given the way it is staged, you might more accurately say that Kurtz is reading aloud to no one in particular, and Willard just happens to be there.)
Not much really happens in this scene, but it is noteworthy as the only time, I think ever, that Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper acted together…and even at that, they’re not exactly in the same room. According to one commentary track I listened to, their interaction here is not unlike their real relationship — Brando did not care for Hopper, actually did call him a “mutt” and throw things at him. This makes sense, because while they were both nuts, Brando was crazy in a much quieter and more elegant way, while Hopper was speedy and flamboyant. Also, I think Brando needed all the attention all the time, and having Hopper around would tend to detract from that. (However: When looking for images to accompany this post, I discovered that Brando had let Hopper photograph him, so maybe the preceding is all bullshit. Maybe at the end of the day they hung out together, like the wolf and the sheepdog in the cartoons.)
Hopper’s spiel here about fractions, dialectics, and Venus is a minor classic. It is completely loopy and yet makes perfect sense, and I have to believe it is mostly improvised — no one could write that, I don’t think. Having delivered it, he disappears, not to be seen or heard from again in this movie.
As I mentioned previously, a scene where the photojournalist is killed by Captain Colby was shot but not used in the movie, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think many people who saw Apocalypse Now sat around scratching their heads going “Gee, I wonder what happened to the Dennis Hopper character?”, just like no one asks what the hell Lance has been up to all this time. The whole ending is so dreamlike and bizarre that people can appear and disappear and it seems natural.
The Hopper character’s last words seem apropos here:
This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, jack!