Worth A Look: 20.91%
Pretty Bad: 1.82%
Total Crap: 5.45%
7 reviews, 68 user ratings
|Apocalypse Now Redux
by Stephen Groenewegen
No matter how big you think your television is, Apocalypse Now is a wide screen, cinema event. If you missed the last reissue in Australian cinemas (in 1992), be sure to catch Apocalypse Now Redux (redux: brought back or returned). As an incentive for those who've seen Apocalypse Now before, it includes 49 minutes of new footage and is intended to replace the original version. The added scenes are generally warranted since they contribute to a more cohesive, albeit longer, film.The Vietnam War is consuming Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). His wife has left him, and when he's not on a mission he feels he's "going soft", and resorts to drug taking, heavy drinking and self-destructive behaviour. So when he's asked to travel up-river to Cambodia to "terminate - with extreme prejudice" a fellow Special Forces operative, he agrees. Willard feels uncomfortable about assassinating an American officer, especially one as highly decorated as Colonel Kurtz. But he is told at a top-secret briefing that Kurtz's methods are "unsound", he is wanted for murder and has gone insane.
Apocalypse Now evolved from an amalgam of stories. John Milius had an embryonic script about a surfer soldier caught up in the Vietnam War; Carroll Ballard wanted to adapt Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Francis Ford Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, bought Milius' script. When Coppola eventually decided to direct, he worked in his own adaptation of Conrad (the journey on the river, the legend of Kurtz and the last 40 minutes or so in Kurtz's compound borrow heavily from Conrad). Michael Herr (who later co-wrote Kubrick's take on Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket) wrote the narration, and Coppola used a lot of the actors' improvised dialogue.
Redux boasts four major new sequences. Two are relatively short. One, near the beginning, has Willard stealing the board of surf-mad Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), and Kilgore's attempt to get it back (the original actors returned to loop the dialogue for these scenes last year). The second comes near the end, and is a short daylight sequence of Marlon Brando's Kurtz lecturing Willard on American foreign policy. The scene was originally cut for time reasons, but it would've stuck out anyway because of its full frontal depiction of Brando in clear light. Most of Brando's other scenes were shot above the chest and in shadow to conceal the weight he'd unexpectedly gained prior to shooting. Brando's in complete control during this short sequence; you see him spontaneously reacting and working with the children surrounding him, and he makes the scene compelling.
Also added is a sequel to the appearance of the Playboy "bunnies" at a benefit for the soldiers. Willard and the boat crew guiding him up the river discover the Playboy helicopter forced down by lack of fuel. The torrential rain is real - these scenes were abandoned as unfinished when the production was shut down by the worst hurricane to hit the Philippines in 40 years (it also destroyed many of the sets). Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Lance (Timothy Bottoms) make sexual contact with two of the girl models (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp). These moments are surprisingly poignant, as both parties obviously long for intimacy but are too numb to connect. Editor Walter Murch has brilliantly incorporated the scene: the abrupt entry into and exit out of it suggest a dream. As well as adding a female presence, it also explains where Lance obtained the make-up to paint his face for the remainder of the film.
The final new sequence takes up most of the extra running time and, frankly, is a drag. The boat crew's last stop before Kurtz's compound is a French plantation that appears out of the mist (like a phantom from the past). Willard eats with the household, and there is a didactic dinner-table discussion about politics and colonialism. A young widow (Aurore Clement) takes Willard to bed and ponders his dual nature: "there are two of you... one that kills and one that loves".
The static political discussion is at odds with the rest of the film's visual style. The action grinds to a halt, and it's hard to focus - two and a half hours into the film - on talking heads. Although important for demonstrating the impact of the river mission on Willard, the plantation scenes should have been shortened, or at least included earlier when the audience is fresher and has a better chance to process the information.
Generally, however, the new scenes in Redux better elucidate the film's themes and characters. Transplanting Conrad's ideas about human civility, colonialism, nature and madness to the Vietnam War was Coppola's masterstroke. It anchors Apocalypse Now to a strong underlying storyline, when the grandiose imagery occasionally threatens to overwhelm it. The alienation and shock felt by Conrad's "civilised" Englishman travelling in Africa at the turn of last century is perfectly analogous to the dislocation experienced by young American troops dropped unprepared into Asian jungles.
Like Marlow in the novella, Willard makes a parallel journey to Kurtz. Each wartime encounter further removes him from civilising human and moral values, reducing Willard to his basic state - "one that kills and one that loves". Kurtz's remaining civilised self (the half that loves) wants to connect with Willard, by discussing politics and the war, but he has been cut off from civilisation too long. His sovereignty over the indigenous Cambodians has also exacerbated his military megalomania and base, uncivilised self (the conflict between Kurtz's civilised and cruel sides is epitomised by his scrawling "kill them all" across a paper he's written about how to win the war).
According to Conrad, our nature is inherently evil - it is the veneer of civilisation that makes us "human". In the moral vacuum of war, increasingly isolated from civilisation, Kurtz and Willard perceive the truth about the "heart of darkness". It is Kurtz's prolonged understanding of, and exposure to, this "horror" - the natural cruelty of the world, and the fragility of human resistance to it - that drives him insane and also brings Willard to the brink of madness.
Apocalypse Now is the ultimate Vietnam War movie - larger than the incidents it presents on screen - because of its lengthy and troubled shoot. The disastrous production serves as a better metaphor for the confusion of war than Kurtz's madness. As Coppola comments in the Redux production notes: "We made Apocalypse Now the way Americans made war in Vietnam: There were too many of us, too much money and equipment - and, little by little, we went insane." In compiling Redux, Coppola and Murch re-edited the film from the original daily footage (rather than insert the new scenes into the original). Once they were finished, they checked it against the 1979 version to ensure they'd left nothing out.
Apocalypse Now frequently looks like chaos - especially the Wagner-driven helicopter assaults towards the start. The harnessing and control of this chaotic energy is a spectacular achievement by Coppola, Murch (responsible for editing and sound) and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who captures some astonishing images (the startling appearance of Kurtz's children in the river boats). Knowing the troubled history of the shoot (the heart attacks and hurricanes are chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker's Apocalypse, compiled from Eleanor Coppola's footage), it's surreal to see Coppola's early cameo as a news camera man shouting "don't look at the camera!" and exhorting the men to act like soldiers for the camera.
It's difficult for actors to compete with this much spectacle. Martin Sheen has the toughest role. Willard is the film's everyman, and Sheen plays the role reactively. I think this is a mistake - we don't see enough of the alteration caused by his experiences; he mostly comes across as numbed. It's wonderful to have more of Robert Duvall's unflappable surfer colonel in Redux. Baby-faced Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) is appealing as Lance until his character is swamped by events, and he resorts to some conventional mad-acting. And I was astonished to see Clean played by a youthful looking Laurence Fishburne, who I didn't realise was already an accomplished child actor (he was 18 when the film was released, but 15 when he was cast). Refreshingly, the two black men on the boat are not token presences. There's a nice moment when Chief (Albert Hall) is told about the Playboy models, but loses interest when he realises they're white. Unfortunately, the mysterious officer at Willard's secret briefing at the start - whose only line is "terminate with extreme prejudice" - is unbearably arch.
I was rapt during most of Apocalypse Now Redux, despite it now being nearly 200 minutes long. The compound scenes at the end are still heavy going, although they are obviously vital to the story and encapsulate most of Conrad's ideas. But Apocalypse Now simulates the anarchy of war and holds your interest because of its extraordinary power and visual beauty. Although Coppola paints with broad strokes, the film isn't flimsy because it's anchored to such a strong, underlying story and concept.It will be interesting to see how a film specifically about the devastating effect of war on American soldiers is received in this gung-ho war-on-terrorism climate. I say Apocalypse Now Redux is more relevant than ever.
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originally posted: 10/26/01 08:13:21