Is Apocalypse Now the last great movie?

apocalypse cover

Apocalypse Now had its first public release in 1979. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of a golden age for movies. Only a few years before there had been a splurge of movies that still stand up to a good viewing on the big screen.

I’m talking about movies such as: Taxi Driver (1976) Star Wars (1977) The Godfather 1 (1972) & Godfather 2 (1974) Chinatown (1974) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Clockwork Orange (1971).

They had followed big screen movies of the previous decade that are now starting to show their age. David Lean had directed Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Plus, there had been 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Dr Strangelove (1964), by the great Stanley Kubrick. Apocalypse Now was released too late to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1979, which went to Kramer vs Kramer.

The following year, it won 2 Oscars from 6 nominations, won 2 BAFTAs, the Cannes Golden Palm, 3 Golden Globes, 2 Grammy’s for music. But it still didn’t receive the Oscar for Best Picture in 1980. That went to Ordinary People.

Don’t get me wrong, Ordinary People (directed by Robert Redford) is a stunning film. Beautifully written, well paced and acted by a great cast. But, and here’s the difference between a great movie and great film, Ordinary People could be easily viewed on a TV or even smaller. It could be played out on a stage and still retain it’s power. Apocalypse Now needs the expanse of a large screen. It eats up every inch of cinema space.


I still recall the helicopter scene as the low vibrating scream of chopper blades rumbled over me.

As a kid who had sneaked into the movie, the rumble accompanied by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is still one of my most memorable cinema moments. And I know I’m not the only one who loves “the smell of napalm in the morning”.

What has happened since 1979? Since Apocalypse Now.

The wonder is that Apocalypse Now opened in just ONE theatre. It has built a reputation from that ONE starting point. In contrast, the behemoth of all Movies, Titanic, opened in 3,265 theatres. US gross for Apocalypse was $83, 471,511. Titanic went mega at a staggering 1.8 billion worldwide.

In 1977 Star Wars started something that took Movies to another level, but not quite for the best. Lucas introduced merchandising, and suddenly movies became about something else. It became all about “revenue opportunities”. And the big screen would never be the same again.

What followed and what happened to …?

Francis Ford Coppola made Rumble Fish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983), both very good films. But then he just created stinkers like Jack (1996) with Robin Williams. Marlon Brando, who should have won an Oscar for his role as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse, just became a fat, ridiculous icon, rather than the most gifted film actor ever. His legacy became The Formula (1980), The Freshman (1990), Free Money (1998). Free What? Exactly.

These are a long way from great Movies such as The Missouri Breaks (1976), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), A Streetcar Named Desire (1955), or my favourite On the Waterfront (1954).

Martin Sheen, conveyed how good an actor he was. And never showed that again until the TV series, The West Wing. Robert Duvall says one the most memorable lines in Motion Picture history. Yes, that’s right he played Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore and gave “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, its perfect ring. But no film he has been a part of has rung as loud.

Dennis Hopper is a true legend. In fact, Apocalypse is not even his best movie. Easy Rider (1969) makes him; Blue Velvet (1986) completely defines him. There are some close contenders, but they fall short because they are either a little too indie in their appeal, or just don’t have the incredible cinematic, big screen punch. As examples, Blue Velvet comes very close.

Raging Bull (1980) has all the character, Good Fellas (1990) packs the punch, but to me, none actually put it all together in the same manner as Apocalypse. It’s worth noting that all these are now over 20 years old. Maybe we’ll never see a “Movie” the like of Apocalypse Now again. If it was made today, we’d have Smirnoff bringing out the Apocalypse cocktail, and there’d be T-Shirts with “I love the smell of [brand here] Corn Chips in the morning”.

It’s not the smell of napalm, these days everything has the smell of merchandising about it. That’s what movies have become. Real writing doesn’t happen on the big screen any more. That happens on TV. It’s a real pity.