Scenes I Love: Apocalypse Now

It’s been awhile since I put up a scene I love from a film I love. Time to change that and what better way to do it than pick a favorite scene from one of the best films ever made: Apocalypse Now.

This particular scene occurs in the last act of the film which finally puts Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) face-to-face with his target in the off-the-reservation Special Forces  commander Col. Kurtz. This is the first time we actually see Marlon Brando in the role of Kurtz in a film that’s been obsessed with his character right from the very beginning. The glimpses we get of Kurtz are fleeting as he remains in the shadows with only his rumble of a voice giving weight to his presence in the scene. I have to admit that even after seeing this film for over a hundred times through the years it’s still pretty difficult to understand some of what he is saying. Yet, when such an occurrence would be a death for a scene it doesn’t for this scene. It only helps highlight just how far down the abyss this former paragon of American military might has put himself in to accomplish a mission given to him by people he dismissively call “grocery clerks”.

There’s no soundtrack to try and manipulate the scene for the audience. It’s just the ambient noises of the jungle and the ancient temple Kurtz and his people have called home. Even the dialogue in the beginning of the scene where Kurtz inquires about where Willard was from was full of menace and hidden dangers. It’s very difficult not to get hypnotized by this scene. There’s not a fake beat to the dialogue between Sheen and Brando. The way the scene unfolds almost acts like a metronome that lulls the viewer until the reveal in the end when we finally see Kurtz’s face in full for the very first time.

Coppola has done great work before this film with hi first two Godfather films but this scene in this film I consider the best he has ever put on celluloid.

Kurtz: Are you an assassin?

Willard: I’m a soldier.

Kurtz: You’re neither, you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill”

G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.

Earlier today, I was looking through the list of recent death on Wikipedia (I do this several times a day.  It’s one of my morbid habits.) and I came across the name of G.D. Spradlin. 

G.D. Spradlin died on June 24th, at the age of 90.  While G.D. Spradlin is a great name, it’s hardly a household name.  However, if you’re in any way interested film, you’ve probably seen G.D. Spradlin at least once.  G. D. Spradlin was a character actor who played small but key roles in some of the best films of the 1970s.

Spradlin’s most famous role was probably as the corrupt Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II.  We see Sen. Geary a handful of times over the course of the film.  At first, he’s just another folksy politician who, behind close doors, proves himself to be coldly corrupt.  A bit later, we meet Geary again.  This time, Geary is sitting naked in a brothel, shaking as he tries not to look at the dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  Though it’s never explicitly stated, the suggestion is that the Corleone — the film’s “heroes” — murdered the prostitute and framed Geary for the crime.  To me, this is the pivotal scene in the film because it’s the scene that reveals just how much Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone has changed in between the two Godfathers.  The Michael from the first film might have ordered Geary killed but he never would have deliberately ordered the murder of an otherwise innocent bystander, regardless of her profession.  It’s lucky for Geary that Michael changed his ways because it gives Geary a chance to later accompany him and Hyman Roth to Cuba.  Finally, Geary shows up towards the end of the film, passionately defending Michael Corleone before a Senate committee on organized crime.

If you don’t remember Spradlin from The Godfather, Part II then maybe you remember him as the friendly yet sinister Gen. Corman from Apocalypse Now.  When Martin Sheen is briefed on the man he’s been assigned to kill, it’s Spradlin who does the briefing. 

Before going into acting, Spradlin was active in Oklahoma politics and he had the bearing of a man who was used to being in charge.  If he had gone into acting a little bit earlier, he probably would have played countless ranchers and bank presidents in various Westerns.  However, since he came to prominence as a character actor in the cynical cinema of the 1970s, it was his fate to play roles in which he epitomized the corruption of the American establishment.    Though his roles were rarely big, he brought an unexpected depth to all of them and, as a result, played a key role in some of the greatest movies ever made.

Not too bad for a man who was never a household name.