Francis Ford Coppola's revisiting of his Vietnam epic is bigger, more comprehensible, more astounding than when Apocalypse Now first appeared 22 years ago.
By STEVE PERSALL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2001
Simply reviving the original Apocalypse Now would have been thrilling enough in such a lackluster movie year. Francis Ford Coppola goes one step further by adding 49 minutes of previously deleted footage, making the new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, a certification, often an expansion, of the film's greatness.
Recognizing Coppola's brilliance in 1979 wasn't easy. Apocalypse Now was much like the jungle landscape the filmmaker chose for his opening shot; dense, impenetrable, ponderous to the brink of boredom then erupting into napalm bursts of poetic outrage -- a hallucinatory tour of duty, rather than a mere moviegoing experience.
Time hasn't changed the impact of Apocalypse Now, so Coppola -- a daredevil egoist to the end -- has done it himself. The new footage makes this a different film, more humorous a la Dr. Strangelove yet more focused in its serious themes of unwarranted imperialism and the duality of human nature. Perhaps it's the new scenes, the luscious Technicolor dye-transfer or maybe just our matured sensibilities that make Coppola's grand gamble pay off bigger than before.
The plot is essentially an excuse for a series of set pieces displaying the hollowness of the Vietnam War and its soldiers. Martin Sheen plays Capt. Willard, a special operations expert assigned to travel into Cambodia and assassinate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a brilliant officer now insanely leading a rogue army of natives and deserters.
But who's crazier, Kurtz or the U.S. military establishment that would murder him? That question became moot in the original version because Brando's Kurtz was such a raving lunatic. The new footage and liberal hindsight make clearer the reasons Kurtz is targeted. He's an anti-U.S. voice, a more efficient warlord, who must be silenced. One scene of Kurtz mocking a Time magazine article is all it takes to identify his method and justify his madness.
Brief glimpses of Kurtz surrounded by adoring children reveal a gentleness to the character missing from the 1979 release. The same new humanity can be found in Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the gung-ho air cavalry stud who can now set aside his passion for surfing to assist a Vietnamese mother and her wounded baby.
Even Willard comes off lighter, setting aside his pensive obsession with Kurtz long enough to steal Kilgore's prized surfboard, arrange a tryst with Playboy bunnies and bed an opium-fueled woman (Aurore Clement). Sex and comedy are rare commodities in wartime, so Coppola initially excluded those scenes in favor of darker themes. They do collide with our Apocalypse Now memories, but always fascinate and occasionally embellish with satire what Coppola was saying 22 years ago.
Other seamlessly edited additions offer more character shadings to the grunts escorting Willard up river: the garrulous Chef (Frederic Forrest); Clean (young Larry nee Laurence Fishburne); and stoned surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms). Longer looks inside the Kurtz compound provide Dennis Hopper with more zonked-out moments as the jungle Lear's fool.
The only questionable inclusion is a long sequence detailing Willard's visit to a plantation deep in the jungle where French expatriates live in denial of their crumbled influence in Vietnam. A dinner monologue by Christian Marquand about the futility of imperialism ("You Americans are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.") rambles longer than needed to make that point. One understands why such a scene was excised when audiences didn't want their noses rubbed in fresh mistakes. Now it's a show-stalling lecture when a footnote will do.
The sequence passes, and we're on to another blasphemy of heroism before viewers notice how emptily it played. That's the difference between Coppola's prime -- heck, anybody's prime from the 1970s -- compared to today's cinema when so few filmmakers have a prime anymore. Back then, there was always a possibility of greatness in the next moment. Today, the first bad scene is a signal of expended ideas.
Coppola could have coasted on his legacy like The Exorcist did last year, priming fans for a home video payday with a few previously deleted moments. Instead, he bets that the world has become as crazy as he was in 1979 after the mythic hardships of making Apocalypse Now, a process he compared to the Vietnam War itself. See his ex-wife Eleanor Coppola's excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness for that harrowing backstory.
That any film came out of the experience is surprising. That a classic emerged is remarkable. That a filmmaker could make it better 22 years later is amazing. Apocalypse Now Redux makes an admiring viewer reconsider Coppola's eccentric history in the way Hopper's character doesn't think Kurtz will be remembered: That he's a kind man, a wise man, that he has plans, that he has wisdom.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Larry Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Christian Marquand, Aurore Clement
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr, inspired by the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Rating: R; violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations, drug abuse
Running time: 197 min.
Now showing: Tampa Theatre only