Friday, June 4, 2010

They Were Apocalypsed

By Eric Jessen 6/4/2010

Florida Keys and the Philippines: They Were Expendable (1945) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

Emotions run high during war time, and so too does sentimentality. So it's no surprise that apart from admitting John Ford's They Were Expendable offered “nothing much new, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea” and was “otherwise uninteresting,” James Agee called it “beautiful” several times, “Ford's finest movie” and Robert Montgomery's performance as the dependable Lieutenant Brickley, “unimprovable” and “the one perfection to turn up in movies during the year.”
“Evidently [Ford and Montgomery] learned a tremendous amount through the war” was Agee's only explanation for They Were Expendable being such a revelation and for the rush of feeling he got watching as he described, “nothing but men getting on or off PT boats and other men watching them.” But then again it was 1945. So Agee's reaction was understandable if inherently contradictory. And Ford's movie was understandable too for war time. Although he was always one to mythologize the soldier.
It was another one in the bag for John Wayne playing Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan. Donna Reed played the nurse who falls in love with “Rusty” and very charmingly. And as for Robert Montgomery, he fit well too. (He just looks like a swell guy.)
MGM supplied the money for some very impressive battle scenes shot in Florida, and the Navy supplied the PT boats. One could really mistake it for the South Pacific and that was crucial to stirring up Agee's emotions. Ford really knew how it should look having spent time overseas. (And Robert Montgomery had served as well as none other than a PT boat commander.)
It all went over really nice and easy in 1945 but in fact making They Were Expendable was in the early stages touch and go. Ford thought it was really hot and sticky in the Florida Keys. And too buggy.
But what Ford and his crew experienced in Florida on the set of They Were Expendable is nothing compared to what Francis Ford Coppola and company experienced in the Philippines making Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now certainly didn't go over nice and easy. It was a hell according to Coppola and it nearly destroyed his career. It was a complete disaster from the very beginning. Horrible weather destroyed sets. Marlon Brando arrived on set fat and unprepared. Production was delayed months and the budget soared. Word got out early that Apocalypse Now wouldn't be Coppola's next masterpiece. Upon its release the reaction was mixed. Although it did share the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes film festival with The Tin Drum.
Today it remains a puzzling, if still very interesting, mess. One wonders if the jungle was ever meant for the screen. At least the debacle that was the production of Apocalypse Now made for a good warning.
Maybe for that reason Coppola's film is the essential Vietnam War movie. Brando's enormous belly and incoherent rambling dialogue and those numerous horror stories of production give the film a nightmarish aura that does the jungle justice.
There's no doubt Coppola could have made an adequate war movie off the coast of Florida – nice and easy. But it would have never been fitting of the Vietnam war. The war that was destined to be a disaster deserved a disaster of a movie.

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