Apocalypse Now Redux
When "Apocalypse Now" was released in 1979, it came with a good deal of baggage: The production was way over budget, Coppola was writing the script as he went along, Brando was milking the financiers for additional money, Martin Sheen had a heart attack in the middle of shooting, a typhoon leveled the sets. All that and a good deal more was ultimately seen to be true when the documentary "Hearts of Darkness," about the making of the film, was released a few years later.
It seemed to me at the time that the film's flaws and successes almost balanced each other out; that for every great set-piece there was a bumbled scene that didn't work; that the film mixed great photography with choppy editing; that lines of dialogue were delivered with almost the same care as precious stones instead of real conversation; that there was a self-consciousness to the whole film that undermined its acknowledged power; that the parallels with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" were strained and added little if anything to it.
And now Coppola and his longtime editor Walter Murch have given us "Apocalypse Now Redux," more than a 'director's cut' such as we see on DVDs, more than a simple inclusion of omitted scenes. With little trims and tucks here and there, with the occasional use of different takes than were in the original, with a whole new section added to the visit to the French plantation - a visit that now includes sex and drugs with a planter's widow; and perhaps most important of all the removal of the final shots that show the destruction of Col. Kurtz's compound, so that the film now ends quietly and darkly, their work gives us a chance to see this film again from scratch.
And what we see is a masterpiece. It was always hard to accept that Coppola's supreme achievements - the first two "Godfathers" - could be followed by such a crazy-quilt of a film, a film that stumbled and fell all over itself. We can see now that there was much less stumbling than we thought. And perhaps the passage of twenty-two years, in which the United States, five administrations later, still repeats every wrongheaded action of the Vietnam era, and still regards the world as its playfield, its property, its fiefdom, gives us a chance to acknowledge the film's prescience and appreciate its wisdom.
Now: How does it work as a film? It is breathtaking. Without the hype that almost submerged the first release, the film asks to be taken for what it is: an allegory of the dark side of America. That dark side is personified by Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a brilliant soldier who chooses to abandon a conventional career and instead goes to Vietnam, takes over a jungle area in Cambodia and runs it without mercy while demanding and getting total loyalty from his subjects. The American command in Vietnam decides that he has outlived his usefulness and assigns Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to terminate him 'with extreme prejudice.' The film is the story, more or less, of Willard's journey by boat up a long river and into Cambodia, to Kurtz's fiefdom, and of what happens when he gets there.
But along the way Willard sees much that we, protected in the theatre, would shy away from if we could. He sees Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) take his flight of helicopter gunships down the Vietnamese coast to the music of the Ride of the Valkyries, blasting a school, killing dozens of Vietnamese, even losing a helicopter and crew to a woman who drops a grenade into the flight deck, all in order to surf where the waves break and split in two directions.
He observes, with us, a USO show of Playmates gyrating for a thousand soldiers on a makeshift stage. He sees the playmates later trapped in an abandoned supply base while his boat crew try to play out their fantasies with the women. If we were looking for some moral ground here, some vision of heroes and villains, some sense of right and wrong, Coppola will not give it to us. Willard himself, who stands in for us, commits meaningless murders, innocents are slaughtered, and no one has clean hands.
That is the key: No one has clean hands, not Kurtz, not Willard, not the generals who send Willard on his mission. And no one understands it all either, not the French planters who understand why the whites will lose but stay on to be consumed by their own death wish; not the Montagnards who live and die for Kurtz. Only the Vietnamese themselves, whom we never hear from but whose presence is constant from beginning to end, will understand because the country belongs to them and not to us.
In making this version, Murch and Coppola have gone back to the old Technicolor 3-strip color printing process - the one that gave "The Wizard of Oz" and a hundred other films their rich, intense color (a process that's no longer used because it's cheaper to use Kodak color films that are less saturated - and deteriorate within ten years). The Technicolor process gives the magnificent shots of Vittorio Storaro - who won an Academy Award for his cinematography - their due for the first time. And the little changes in editing smooth any awkward spots. I think only the French planters' sequence is a problem, with little added to the burden of the film and a sloppiness of scriptwriting that detracts from any power it might have had.
Where once this film had only a small following of film fanatics who kept alive in memory, it should now be recognized for its brilliance as a major artistic statement about America. You can't ask a movie to do more than that.