Apocalypse Now (1979)

reviewed by
Jonathan F. Richards

Rated R, 196 minutes
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Now playing at the Grand Illusion

As America reels under the agony of terrorism and Washington rattles its saber at Afghanistan, and CNN unfurls the banner of `AMERICA'S NEW WAR' across our television screens, it's as good a time as any to remember another war in an inaccessible land halfway around the world. After 22 years, Francis Ford Coppola has finally completed his Vietnam epic, `Apocalypse Now'. When he introduced it at Cannes in 1979, the director described it as `a work in progress,' and complained of critics carping at a picture that wasn't even finished, though it was coming out in theaters. He was 100% over budget (a then-scandalous $31 million), more than a year over schedule, battered in mind, body, and spirit from massive production disasters of God's making and his own, and under intense pressure to deliver a movie that would not tax the attention span of its audience. Sounding a little unhinged by the strain, he declared at a press conference `This picture isn't about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.'

Now, working with his original editor Walter Murch from the original dailies, he has remixed and re-edited, and restored some 49 minutes from the cutting room floor. He calls this revisited version `Apocalypse Now Redux'. Now that it's finally ready for the critics, how is it? It's extraordinary. Coppola, who's now in the wine business, has learned a little something about letting things age and ripen. At 2 ˝ hours the original release was hardly rushed, but the restored footage expands and enlightens the director's Dantesque vision of a world gone mad with war.

The story, briefly, is a Vietnam adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness. Marlow becomes Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a Special Forces assassin who is given a mission to go up river, locate a rogue American colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and `terminate him with extreme prejudice.' As he studies Kurtz's brilliant résumé, and as he draws closer to his quarry, Willard comes to understand and even admire the man, and becomes increasingly aware that the darkness is not just in the mad Kurtz, but in the system, in the war, and in himself.

The war in `Apocalypse' is a war without a real enemy presence. It is not filled with pitched battles against enemy troops. The primary thrust is the American Willard on a mission to destroy the American Kurtz, with a few almost incidental skirmishes en route, most of them involving civilians. It is, in effect, a war with ourselves.

The biggest chunk of restored footage is a scene at a French plantation, where Willard puts in to bury a slain crewman (Larry Fishburne), and stays for dinner and a bit of romance amid the ruined elegance of a lost colonial world unmoored from reality. Cut originally because it was thought to distract from the upriver momentum of Willard's quest, it now opens a ghostly window onto the experience of the French in Vietnam, a cause already lost but not yet learned from. `You Americans,' says the French planter (Christian Marquand), `you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.'

Another resurrected scene has Willard bargaining fuel for sexual favors for his men from a stranded USO troupe of Playboy bunnies. This scene doesn't work as well as it should, and smacks of pandering, but it has a point to make about exploitation. The rest of the additions serve to deepen the sense of place and character.

The intervening years have given `Redux' a deeper resonance. Many of the lines of dialogue and narration vibrate like lost chords. Those young actors have grown older, but in the movie they're like soldiers thawed from memory on the battlefield. Martin Sheen was a down-the-ladder choice for the role of Willard. Coppola had wanted Pacino, Caan, Nicholson, even Clint Eastwood. He'd hired Harvey Keitel, then fired him, and settled at last on Sheen. Looking at it now it is apparent, as it was not to me then, that Sheen mustered a heroically intense performance that is both wild-eyed and understated, nearly killing himself with a heart attack in the process. That he survived and is now, in our hearts and television sets, the President of the United States, gives that youthful military assassin an extra dimension.

Robert Duvall's celebrated Col. Kilgore is as vivid as ever, swaggering through smoke and bullets, destroying a village to make a beach safe for surfing, and relishing `the smell of napalm in the morning.' But added moments showing Kilgore compassionately helping wounded Vietnamese children, only to drop them without a thought when the surf comes up, give a new insight to his character, and ours. Duvall has said in interviews he feels the added footage shows that Kilgore is more than just a madman, but Coppola seems to me to be making a different point – that we Americans enjoy our moment of compassion, but we're easily distracted.

Brando, who demanded and got the obscene sum of one million dollars (a figure now tinny with irony, like Dr. Evil's world ransom) for playing Kurtz, shocked the filmmakers and the public in '79 with his corpulence. Coppola swathed him in heavy shadows to conceal it, but with today's huge Brando for a point of reference, the man looks trim. Anyway, why shouldn't Kurtz have been fat? He was living deep in the jungle, without a military regimen, deified by Montagnard tribesmen who catered to his every whim. Like Brando's in Tahiti, Kurtz's situation is conducive to weight gain. Brando is said to have toyed with his young director, improvising dialogue, playing mind games, and behaving arrogantly. Whatever hell he put Coppola through, it works – Brando's megalomania infuses Kurtz with a freakish truth that a disciplined, scripted performance might not have accomplished.

They don't make movies like this any more. One has only to compare this summer's big war movie, `Pearl Harbor', to see what accountancy and digital gimcrackery have wrought on the genre. Of course, they didn't make movies like this back then, either – or perhaps only then, in that brief blaze of youthful talent fueled with funds that seemed limitless, that produced `The Deer Hunter' and `Apocalypse Now' and a few other works of impassioned, lunatic genius. `The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam,' Coppola said then. `We were in the jungle, we had access to too much money and too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.'

And now, we're back at war again. As Kurtz observes, `the horror.'

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X-Language: en
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