Apocalypse Now Redux
review by Gianni Truzzi, 20 July 2001

It’s both strange and exhilarating to watch a young, sleek Martin Sheen drunk in his skivvies, haunted by his own hollow stare. Few things can beat hearing Robert Duvall insist once more that “Charlie don’t surf,” marveling at the early talents of a fourteen-year-old Laurence Fishburne, or listening to Brando dreamily consider “the horror” of war. Those are reasons enough to see this twenty-two-year-old movie. But the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, doesn’t seem to think so, revising it to add forty-nine minutes of previously cut footage, bringing the already-long running time to a butt-numbing three-and-one-half hours. (Don’t supersize that soda pop.)

Apocalypse Now suffered a notoriously difficult production, taking fifteen months to shoot instead of the four that had been scheduled. The list of obstacles reads like a cautionary lesson of how not to make a movie: don’t start with an unfinished script, don’t film in a country with an active rebellion, plan well for weather, and never, ever use your own money. After a prolonged post-production and its premiere at Cannes in 1979, the story of Captain Willard’s journey upriver to kill the insane, charismatic renegade Colonel Kurtz was hailed as a masterwork, silencing the critics that had been asking, “Apocalypse When?” This lush, brutal film remains for many the definitive movie about the Vietnam War.

So why did Coppola feel the need to revisit it? It seems that the famously obsessive director feels he never got it right. Even after the gruesome difficulties he suffered (and made many others suffer) for it, the film still gnaws at him.

Seeing it again, one can understand his frustration. Apocalypse Now always felt like two movies, both brilliant and astonishing, but one that succeeds and another that narrowly skirts the mark. Despite Coppola’s giant talent, the material still bests him.

The film’s division derives from its being based on two stories, augmented by tales from primary screenwriter John Milius’s veteran friends and Coppola’s feverish imagination. The main storyline is taken from Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, an indictment of Belgian colonialism in which a steamship captain chugs upriver into the depths of the Congo. Conrad’s Kurtz is a station agent much-admired for his ability to deliver ivory, but the jungle and his own zeal have driven him mad.

As Captain Willard, Martin Sheen is lost in his own madness, a special-operations agent on his second tour, emotionally damaged by his first. Coppola sets the hallucinatory tone with Willard’s dreams of jungle fire as he gets drunk and wails, anxious for a new mission. He is, and yet is not, Conrad’s steamboat captain. Willard teeters on the brink of insanity himself, unsure he can live with the violence he has wrought, yet craving it, eager to jump back into the bush. Strangely, it insulates him from the madness he will endure on the journey upriver.

Once Willard receives his assignment, (from a pre-stardom Harrison Ford), the story vaults away from Conrad, into a journey upriver that is a mixture of the absurd and nightmare. Willard and a green crew of four men must rely on a roughneck air cavalry commander to help get their boat into the river’s mouth. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) emerges from a Huey that proclaims “Death from Above” to distribute playing cards on the corpses of freshly killed Viet Cong. He chooses the enemy-controlled point of access to the river because it offers the best surfing, then attacks to the accompaniment of Wagner. In the midst of napalm-scented battle, he laments, “Someday this war’s going to end.” But, as Willard cynically observed upon meeting Kilgore, the major was the sort who would fight with a manic happy-go-lucky, by-the-book spirit to that end, oblivious to the costs others would assume on his behalf, because Kilgore knew “he wasn't going to get a scratch on him” in the process; he could afford to be indulgent.

At this year's Cannes film festival, Coppola again explained that Apocalypse Now, in whatever form, was an exposé of lies: the lies officers told to soldiers and the lies that politicians propagate in their countries. However, the real heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now is cemented in the lies that individuals tell themselves, either to justify their behavior or preserve what remnants of sanity remain, both in and around them. Kilgore is the most flamboyant, but not the only, liar in this film. The officers delude themselves into believing that they are fighting a just war, and the grunts delude themselves into believing that they all will go home in one piece. Apocalypse brutally smashes those illusions.

In Heart of Darkness, the steamship captain’s voyage upriver is not nearly so eventful, so the script draws on another great epic, Homer’s The Odyssey. Kilgore is the Cyclops and Willard “injures” him when they leave by stealing his surfboard. Later, they will find the sirens -- a USO show featuring Playboy Playmates – and their Scylla and Charybdis is the Do Lung Bridge, a horrific outpost that is built each day only to be destroyed each night. By now, the audience is primed for the entrance into a Hades of incomprehensible madness.

Most of Coppola’s new material lies within this middle section, including a sordidly ironic sequence in which the stranded Playmates exchange sex for some fuel. The New Orleans Chef (Frederic Forrest) asks his partner to restore herself to her centerfold, complete with her wig, while California surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms) undresses the sorrowful Playmate of the Year. “Who are you?” she asks the young and eager Clean (Laurence Fishburne). “I’m next, ma’am,” he says. Coppola also restores the “French plantation sequence,” a dreamlike encounter with a group of colonial French who refuse to abandon their home. This is, in part, Willard’s descent into Hades, to speak with the souls of the dead. The French give him quite an earful. “We fight for our homes, our way of life,” the patriarch Hubert says. “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history.” As interesting as this will be for film buffs, the sequence adds very little to the story, and comes off as pedantic and too full of talk. Coppola was right to cut it in the first place; it doesn’t really work. As Roxanne, Aurore Clement is spectacularly beautiful in an erotic scene, but her introduction as Willard’s Calypso also seems out of place. Her only purpose seems to be to tell Willard, “There are two of you . . . one that kills and one that loves.” But this is something we already know by now.

At last, we come to the troubling end, the return to Conrad that gave Coppola so much trouble. John Milius’s original ending was warlike, with a final huge battle sequence full of guns and flames, emphasizing Kurtz’s love of the kill. But Coppola, who by this time was distributing the script revisions on 3x5 cards he had typed up late at night, would change this in favor of a more ethereal ending.

It’s interesting to note what Coppola retained from Conrad’s novella. As in the book, Kurtz’s camp is a pit of barbarism, full of severed heads and corpses on display. The role of the fool photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) was also taken from there, a wandering Russian who Conrad describes as dressed in rag patches, like a harlequin. Certain lines of dialogue are lifted, too, such as Willard’s response to whether Kurtz’s methods are unsound, “I don’t see any method at all.”

But where the film departs from Conrad is damaging, and it’s not entirely Coppola’s fault. When Marlon Brando arrived in the Philippines for his limited, three-week engagement to play Kurtz, he hadn’t done any of the things he was supposed to do, and had threatened to quit several times. He hadn’t lost weight, and was much heavier than Coppola had expected. He didn’t fit into any of the Green Beret uniforms they had designed for him. He hadn’t even read Heart of Darkness. By this time, Brando’s well-broadcast contempt for his profession was at its height, and it seems clear that he didn’t care anymore.

Kurtz is the personification of the most extreme and unapologetic cause of misery, the ugly, racist outsider that pursues his objectives with grisly vigor. He is ourselves magnified by madness. He brings success – in Conrad it is ivory, in Apocalypse Now it is victories – but he cannot be accepted. Brando’s weary, distant readings of lines like, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor,” are mysterious and other-worldly. His description of Vietnamese hacking off children’s vaccinated arms is chilling. But it isn’t Kurtz. There’s too much of a gap between Hopper’s declarations about him and what we see before us. This isn’t the man who “you don’t talk to him, you listen.” He is more of a guru than a madman. When Willard finds Kurtz’s manuscript, the scrawl across a page that says “Drop the Bomb!” doesn’t seem to have come from the understated giant we’ve been watching.

Coppola’s attempt to further save things by restoring a scene in which Kurtz reads Time magazine clippings to Willard is a nice touch, but I suspect it would have had more force from another actor. One wonders what the difference would have been with an actor of similar age like Gene Hackman, who Coppola had recently directed in The Conversation. He certainly would have given Kurtz greater force. It’s a tribute to Coppola’s great skill, however, that he was able to make such a forceful film out of such a trouble-plagued production. Apocalypse Now is, without a doubt, one of the best films ever. It’s worth watching again and again. Does “Redux” add enough dimension to warrant the greater investment of time? Probably not for the average viewer. Its earlier strengths are still strong, and its old weaknesses can’t be salvaged, but any opportunity to see Robert Duvall smell that napalm and smile on the big screen is well worth it.

Directed by:
Francis Ford Coppola

Marlon Brando
Robert Duvall
Martin Sheen
Frederic Forrest
Albert Hall
Sam Bottoms
Laurence Fishburne
Dennis Hopper
G.D. Spradlin
Harrison Ford
Jerry Ziesmer
Scott Glenn
Bo Byers
James Keane
Kerry Rossall

Written by:
John Milius 
Francis Ford Coppola

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.




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