Apocalypse Now Redux
by Jon Bastian
Tinkering with a classic — and making a new classic.
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Every motion picture story is written three times — first when it’s put on paper by the author, again when it’s shot by the director, and finally when it’s assembled by the editor. Sometimes the same person is all three, or frequently the director works with the editor. Sometimes, the director is even lucky enough to have that thing called “final cut,” in which they get to decide what version is released to the world. Of course, “sometimes” is the key word. One of the most famous examples of a director fighting for and winning this right is also one of the few extant examples of how different a story can become in the final step. This would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is available both in his original American and European cuts, as well as the atrocious but historically educational Sidney Sheinberg hack-job, known as “The Love Conquers All Version.” Sheinberg created his abomination from the same script and the same raw footage, but it could not be a more different movie.
One other pertinent case to cite before getting to the crux of the biscuit here is a little-seen film by Robert Altman, called O.C. and Stiggs. Based on a series of National Lampoon articles, I’m sure the producers intended it to be just a teen gross-out comedy. Why they assigned Altman, a very adult director, to it, I’ll never understand. What he gave them originally, apparently, was a three-hour film that went quite a bit deeper than the twisted humor of the source. That’s not what they wanted, so the producers sliced away, destroying all evidence of any coherence. Altman’s version doesn’t exist. A lot of director’s original visions and writer’s original stories don’t exist. As we’ve found out recently, the same was true of as famous and successful a film as Apocalypse Now, which was recently rebuilt from the ground up by director Francis Ford Coppola and editor Walter Murch, now playing under the title Apocalypse Now Redux. The end results are quite illuminating, because while it’s the same story, it’s a very different — and, in my humble opinion — better film.
Back in 1979, Coppola wanted to release a well over three-hour epic, but the studios balked, despite his double Oscar win for The Godfather Part I and II. Coppola cut Apocalypse down to two and a half hours and, while the end result was an incredible piece of cinema, a common criticism of that version has been that the ending was too ambiguous and confusing — did Willard have Kurtz’s entire camp fire bombed into oblivion? Why did he finally decide to kill Kurtz? Why did Lance the Surfer go all native, anyway? You wouldn’t think that adding back in almost an hour would improve matters, but it does. Not only does the additional footage clear some things up, but it makes all of the characters much richer and more well-developed and, strangely enough, the film doesn’t feel any longer at all.
A refresher to the story. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is a career soldier who’s already done one tour in Vietnam, found stateside life unsatisfying and returned to Saigon, hoping for a new assignment — he’s an Intelligence/Counter-Intelligence specialist, after all. He soon gets the new assignment, and it’s a doozy. Under the utmost secrecy, he’s to go upriver into Cambodia (technically forbidden to the US Army), track down the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and, as his superiors quaintly put it, “terminate his command… with extreme prejudice,” or, in English, kill the crazy SOB. Willard hops on a boat with three compatriots who have no idea what they’re getting into — the Captain, Chief (Albert Hall), seventeen year-old Mr. Clean (Larry Fishburne, long before he became Laurence), the guy who only wants to cook, Chef (Frederic Forrest) and famous surfer dude Lance (Sam Bottoms). They head north, experiencing the ravages and caprices of a very strange war, not all of them making it to their final destination. Along the way, Willard tries to get inside Kurtz’s head via intelligence reports, finding that he may already be there.
A lot of what’s added in happens on that boat, and this time around we get to see more of the interactions between this quartet during the jungle silences which can (and do) explode with death at any instant. There’s also an hilarious coda to the whole sequence with Lt. Colonel Kilgore(Robert Duvall), the demented surfing cavalry officer who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, and we also encounter those Playboy Bunnies a second time at a remote outpost that’s descended into sheer anarchy.
The biggest addition comes late in the game, the previously excised “French Plantation” sequence, and after seeing it I can’t help but think that the reasons for the cut were more political than artistic at the time. Willard asks one question, “Why don’t the French return home?” and it results in a political firestorm at the table, illuminating the forgotten history of Vietnam and the war, and why it was all such a big mistake. At the distance of more than twenty-five years, it’s a necessary discussion, but as the film originally came out about five years after America pulled out of the conflict with her tail between her legs, I can understand why it made producers nervous. It’s a beautifully shot, strangely eerie sequence, with this group of hold-outs somehow maintaining their elegant eighteenth century home amid all the chaos.
From there, it’s on into the heart of darkness, Kurtz’s camp, and again, the additions here deepen the characters. We get to see more of the Mad Colonel, and understand that he isn’t necessarily as insane as he appears to be. If anything, he may actually be the best soldier in an insane war — not that this is a good thing, but Willard’s entire assignment may be nothing but a hypocritical attempt by his superiors to save face.
The real revelation here is Sam Bottoms’ Lance. In the previous version, there was always a very abrupt transition. The crew is sailing up river, and suddenly Lance is covering his face in camouflage paint, then dropping acid before the harrowing trek across a bridge under siege and finally going completely native, even donning the dress of Kurtz’s Montagnard troops. He’s the only one besides Willard who makes it out alive, but it was never clear before why he did it all. With the restored footage, we see exactly why, and Bottoms’ performance is transformed from a fluky curiosity to a powerful turn as a gawky innocent become the wise fool.
Even Kilgore is given more dimensions with the above mentioned coda. The payoff to the moment reveals something about the man heretofore unknown to us, and it’s a nice treat. It’s also clearer in this version that Willard is a lost soul, a man who frequently can do nothing more than observe events around him. It’s surprising how frequently he’ll ask one question in a scene, and then answers and events take off around him while he does nothing. The few times he does take action, it’s abrupt and violent. Willard has been given an assignment but no direction, and in a place with no moral compass he doesn’t know where to go.
But the character who has actually gained the most is Kurtz, who paradoxically seems both more insane and more humane. He obviously does see things with absolute clarity and acts accordingly. For some reason, this time around the famous “head in the lap” moment comes across as an impersonal necessity, rather than a mere terror tactic. Someone had to die because he was a danger to Kurtz, Kurtz had to let Willard know he was dead, this was the most expedient way to do it, no judgements involved.
Reportedly, Coppola and editor Murch recut the entire film from the original raw footage, rather than just opting to stick new scenes into an existing print. It’s quite possible that even familiar shots are not the same takes or same edits we’ve seen before. It’s really the kind of thing that would lend itself to setting up two DVD players, then watching both versions simultaneously just to see how really different they are. On top of that, the sound has been remastered, additional music has been added and the whole thing has been printed using the Technicolor Dye Transfer process, which means that the color is as sharp as when it was originally shot, black onscreen really is black and no details are lost in very dark scenes. For a film of this age to be rereleased in such pristine condition is unusual.
For a film that is so well known, oft-quoted and generally counted among the best films ever made, it’s highly unusual for the director to want to go back and tinker. It’s even more unusual that the end result is a great film, and not just a “spot the new stuff” curiosity. Apocalypse Now has been a classic for twenty-two years. Apocalypse Now Redux will have the honor from here on. Whether you’re a fan of the first version, or you’ve never seen the first version, or you’re just alive and breathing, this is a must-see, while it’s still on the big screen.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV hack who lives in his native Los Angeles, but, just like Charlie, he don’t surf.
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