hmv.com presents… The Best Soundtracks of All Time: Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's epic picture set in the Vietnam war
So what’s the film about?
Coppola's film is loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, but the action is transplanted from the depths of the Congo to the Vietnam war. The story follows U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on a mission to head deep into the jungle and find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a special ops commander who has gone rogue and disappeared into Cambodia where he commands a group of local militia. Willard is under instructions to locate Kurtz and kill him.
When they find Kurtz he is heavily guarded and accompanied by an American freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper) who is ranting about his 'genius'. After imprisoning him and killing one of his group, Willard is allowed to roam the compound where Kurtz lectures him on his theories about war. Much like Conrad's book, the film covers themes such as our perception of society, and what exactly constitutes civilisation and barbarianism.
Is this a score or a soundtrack?
It's a soundtrack, with a mixture of contemporary tracks, classical music, local Vietnamese music and some clever use of sound effects, all overseen by the watchful eye of Walter Murch.
So who's on it? Anyone I might know?
On the contemporary side there are appearances for Shirley & Lee's 'Let The Good Times Roll' and Dale Hawkins' 'Suzie Q', as well as 'The End' The Doors and The Rolling Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'.
It is perhaps the classical tracks that serve as the most memorable, in fact one of the film's most iconic sequences is the napalm helicopter attack by U.S. soldiers on a Vietnamese village, accompanied by the ominously majestic strains of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'.
What does it give the film?
The contemporary tracks give the film a sense of time and place, particularly in the camps of the American soldiers, while in moments like the Wagner-accompanied helicopter scene the music is employed cleverly, serving both as a traditional orchestral soundtrack for the benefit of the audience, as well as a diegetic device used by the soldiers to terrorise the Vietnamese while blaring the music from helicopter-mounted loudspeakers.
Walter Murch also cleverly uses sound effects to great effect, such as the moment when Willard is lying on his back in a Saigon hotel room and is transfixed by the ceiling fan, the sound of the spinning blades slowly morphing into helicopters as he experiences a flashback.
What’s the best moment?
We've already mentioned it above, but 'Ride of the Valkyries' blaring out of the helicopters while the villages are engulfed in lethal gas is an extremely striking moment and one of the film's most enduring scenes.
Has it stood the test of time?
Absolutely – in fact, it was quite far ahead of its time in many ways. Murch was the first person to be credited as a 'sound designer' on a feature film rather than a mere composer, insisting that there was much more to his soundtrack than a collection of songs or pieces of incidental music, rather it was a collage with everything from sound effects to silence used to weave an audible narrative across the film. It also won Murch an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, and rightly so.