[box cover]

Apocalypse Now Redux

Paramount Home Video

Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall,
Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms,
Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper

Written by John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Herr
Adapted from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"Apocalypse now isn't about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."

— Francis Ford Coppola

The Parts Left Out of Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now Redux, Francis Ford Coppola's re-fashioning of his 1979 Vietnam war story masterpiece, is on DVD after a brief 2001 theatrical run, and the film is just as good as it was on the screen.

That is, if you liked it on the screen. If you didn't like it, the film is just as bad.

Coppola is a guy who can't leave things alone. He re-edited The Godfather for television as a mini-series, inserting numerous deleted scenes and re-ordering the sequences. DVD technology is perfect for the restless director. He can edit, re-edit, add commentaries, resurrect old footage and make other cosmetic changes (the recent Godfather DVD set has new sound effects provided by Walter Murch's team). He's like the poet Auden, who kept re-writing his famous poems throughout the rest of his life and creating nightmares for the executors and curators of his work. Or Coppola's like those kids with their non-linear editing programs who re-jig Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to delete Jar-Jar Binks. Coppola's like the Air Cav in Apocalypse Now — "Those boys just couldn't stay put."

Apocalypse Now has already been reviewed by The DVD Journal, and there is no need to supersede Greg Dorr's excellent summary of the film's virtues and vices. What the digital release of Apocalypse Now Redux raises are questions about the impact of DVD technology on movies both contemporary and old, and the notion of a "finished" film — a notion that Coppola seems to resist, as least with his two most popular works.

What Apocalypse Now Means

Apocalypse Now Redux, like its predecessor, is about a soldier going up-river to look for a man. As he travels, the soldier encounters people and places that take him on a trip backwards into the past, a journey that exists parallel with his voyage north and forward. When he reaches his destination, he learns that the man he has been seeking has been expecting him for some time. Knowing that the soldier is going to assassinate him, the man prepares his killer and himself for the act. Sensing that the two are really the same, and have had similar experiences, the man expects the soldier to carry on with his own project. The film ends with the execution accomplished, but with the soldier seemingly not taking the place of his victim.

Apocalypse Now is a war film, and a Vietnam war film, but not necessarily a movie that has anything to say about war or Vietnam. There is "breaking news" in the film, of course, and an attempt at surface verisimilitude and historical accuracy. Preceding Platoon, Apocalypse Now did indeed note the insanity of the war: drugs, conflicts between leadership and troops, bureaucratic corruption, sexual temptation, atrocities, and the whole idea of a war backgrounded with Rock Music to Shoot Gooks By. But like The Godfather and several other Coppola films, Apocalypse Now is really about how one generation hands over authority to the next. That's what makes the final sequence — long, dreamy, inexplicable — so important to Coppola's film. It's an important variation on the themes that have plagued Coppola from the beginning.

The First Five Minutes of Apocalypse Now

The best way to highlight the genius of Apocalypse Now is to pick any sequence at random and study it. How about the first five minutes? It lays out everything that is to follow. The film begins in limbo. It's a long focal-length shot of a tropical forest. We hear helicopters (an attractive sound that is used seductively throughout the film). We realize that what we are seeing is also in slow motion. Close up, slow motion: the entire mood of the film. Just before Jim Morrison sings "The End," napalm explodes through the forest, turning it into an inferno. The footage is "borrowed" from the Air Cav attack sequence on "Charlie's Point," the village Vin Drin Dop at the mouth of the Nung (i.e. Mekong) River. That Coppola appropriates this footage anticipates the trip that Martin Sheen as Willard is about to take, underscoring the idea that in this hothouse atmosphere intentions are somehow broadcast, fluid with the "now," just as Kurtz seems to know that Willard is coming.

Now we are shown Willard. He is lying on a bed. He is upside down, and his eyes almost look at us. Coppola and Murch carefully orchestrate the sound and image here, linking the song to his eye movements. Are we in his head? Is he remembering something? Are the blades of the fan above him a reminder? Or is there no difference between the inside of one's head and Vietnam in this drug-addled war? Coppola now layers images upon images in a beautiful visual symphony of reflection, memory, and anticipation.

Eventually, Willard gets up from his dream-state and looks out the window, only to discover that he is "still only in Saigon." How can a person not know where he is? Is that much of a confluence between the inner Willard and the outer world? The only thing is, Kurtz knows where he is. Kurtz seems to know that Willard is coming before Willard does. We soon learn that Willard is alone. His wife has asked him for a divorce, and now he is alone, between in country and jungle, in Saigon. Almost like Kurtz, who has abandoned his family and military position under the sway of the horrors of war.

Willard is Kurtz. The "war" cannot be won because the soldiers "become" their enemy, and cannot live with the change.

The New Stuff in Apocalypse Now Redux

Does the new material in Apocalypse Now Redux help or hinder Coppola's weaving of a Kurtz-Willard similitude? The new material augments the similarity by showing Willard's descent into the jungle, into the past, a journey that Kurtz must have taken too. The insert in Paramount's Redux DVD helpfully segregates the new from the old, with the new scenes listed in yellow in the chapter chart. There are 14 chapters that represent new material, and most of them are clustered together (chapters 5 and 6, 10 through 13, 16 and 18 and 20, 24 through 27, and 32).

There are two main sequences. First there is the Bunny-MedEvac scene, the one where Willard exchanges diesel fuel for sex. The crew of his boat get to have sex with Playboy Bunnies so that the Bunnies can get the heck out of 'Nam. In the sequence, they seem willing enough. However, the men and the women talk at cross-purposes. Cindi Wood (an actual Playmate of the Year) describes the loneliness of the post, as Lance (Sam Bottoms) ignores her, while Chef (Frederic Forrest) tries to make over his Bunny (Colleen Camp) into the one he wants while she talks about birds. The sequence harks back to the rather obvious message moments of the existential-humanism films of the '50s and early '60s, showing how people can't communicate. It's a sad sequence, but also uncomfortable. Coppola shows his typical unease with scenes of sexual intimacy. In fact, Coppola had to re-shoot this sequence after a storm, and Camp was flown back in to substitute half of what was Wood's part. The scene doesn't work, but I don't mind it as much as most other reviewers do.

The other big sequence is the fabled French plantation scene. In this one, Willard and company, bearing the body of Clean (Laurence Fishburne), alight upon a plantation that seems to come out of the mist, like Brigadoon. There, a family with a long history in Southeast Asia, led by the late Christian Marquand (an old friend of Marlon Brando's), has been living through all the wars and occupations. They are bitter and angry and well-informed, and this is the only scene in which Vietnam politics is explicitly addressed. Clean is buried, and the men join the family for dinner. It's actually a very poignant, subtle sequence, with the crew of the boat off to the side, like kids at a Thanksgiving dinner, and with the French family falling further into disharmony, each leaving the table in order, until only Willard and a woman named Roxanne (Aurore Clement) remain, thence to go off and smoke opium and have sex.

The French plantation sequence has been attacked as unnecessary, boring, and out of sync with Willard's character. Even more out of sync with Willard's character, as we know it from the first movie, is the moment when he steals the surfboard belonging to Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). This scene also includes a moment when Kilgore saves a mother and child. Other new material is found during the first Kilgore raid that Willard stumbles upon, and after the second; of Willard and the men hiding from Kilgore, who is searching for his surfboard. There's also Clean's story about a soldier who shoots a Vietnamese over a Playboy foldout; and a scene in which Brando, in daylight, reads to Willard from actual weekly news magazine reports about the war in Vietnam.

More important is that Coppola and Murch have reordered some of the scenes that are in the previous film. In the first version, the crew of the boat are shown sunning, surfing, and smoking pot. This material is moved to chapter 17, and shows instead that Willard grows more isolated from the men as the journey progresses, while they become in some respects happier, freer, and more stoned, at least for a while. (This material occurs in chapter 3 in of the original Apocalypse Now DVD.)

All of these scenes were left out of the original cut because Coppola and Murch were rushing to complete the film before its debut at Cannes. Restored, they change the character of Willard. He becomes less of a passive observer and a fuller person: he laughs, he plays pranks, he has sex. He is no longer just a vacant traveler. His final actions make sense.

The Scenes Still Left Out of Apocalypse Now

There is still much more to Apocalypse Now than we get in this new DVD with its 49 minutes of additional footage. In the bootlegged 5-1/2-hour rough-cut version of the film (I know where one is; I just can't get to it) there reputedly is much more about Colby (Scott Glenn), the soldier with the same mission as Willard who went in before him and ended up converted to Kurtz's philosophy. There is a scene in which Dennis Hopper, as the photojournalist, is killed. There is more material around the beheading. And supposedly there is a sequence in which Willard visits Kurtz's widow back home, although if it is unclear whether this was actually filmed or only thought about by the creators (the scene, if it exists, reflects the final chapter of Conrad's Heart of Darkness). Also, we still don't know where Willard gets the injury to his cheek that necessitates the sudden appearance of a Band-Aid between the eve of the raid and its end.

The Parts Left Out of the Apocalypse Now Redux DVD

Additional outtakes and sequences suggest that there was a lot more that could appear on this DVD, enough to have turned it into a two- or three-disc set. As it stands, Paramount's Apocalypse Now Redux DVD is a supplement-free zone, and it should be noted that Coppola and Paramount could have put a lot more on it rather than rushing it to market. Among the things that could have been included are maps of the real and mythical areas in the region; production photos and stills; a stand-alone music track; the text of, or excerpts from, Conrad's Heart of Darkness; the original (and much different) screenplay to Apocalypse Now; and even comparisons between Joseph Conrad's book and the finished film. There are also numerous commentary-track possibilities, such as a Coppola track, a Walter Murch track (as there is on Paramount's Conversation disc), or even a John Milius and Michael Herr commentary.

There simply are a lot of lost opportunities here, and perhaps the most obvious item is Fax Barh and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of the film that incorporates footage shot by Coppola's wife Eleanor. Hickenlooper's movie has only come out on VHS and Laserdisc and is out of print (at this writing). And one of the most interesting supplements that could have been added would be footage of Harvey Keitel in the role of Willard, which he played for a few days before Coppola fired him. Keitel wouldn't release the footage for Hickenlooper's film, so it is unlikely that this DVD could have offered it — but one can dream.

In any event, fans of Redux will be satisfied with this DVD. Others may even prefer the first version of Apocalypse Now, which is still in print as of this writing, with no known plans to let it go OOP. But those looking for a bigger version of Apocalypse Now Redux down the road should be aware that Paramount usually does not revise its DVD releases, although the Star Trek re-issues at least offer a glimmer of hope.

Suggested Further Reading

Apocalypse Now Redux: The Disc

Paramount Home Video's single-sided, dual-layered DVD offers an anamorphic transfer (approx 2:1, although the box does not specify) that is free of the black spots and white speckles that marred the earlier disc, as befits a recently restored film. Strangely, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds a little better on the earlier DVD than on this new one, even though both discs were authored by Coppola's Zoetrope lab (dialogue in the second Air Cav raid is clearer, for example). The disc also comes with English subtitles and closed-captioning. For supplements, the disc provides the Apocalypse Now Redux theatrical trailer and a one-sheet insert with the chapter selections.

Apocalypse Now and this writer

I first saw Apocalypse Now in a small screening room about a month before it officially opened in 1979. It was the roadshow version, lacking credits. I had been waiting for the film for a long time — years in fact — and had read every article about it I could find. In my own small way along with Coppola, I cringed at the Apocalypse When? jokes. I began to marvel at how the media had suddenly taken the posture of producers. Why was it so important to newspaper and magazine writers that Coppola was spending X amount of dollars and taking X number of months and years to complete the film? Whatever the reason, the media have maintained this stance all the way up to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, essentially taking the side of studios over artists.

But I must say that when I finally saw the film, I found the ending sequence boring. From about the Do Long Bridge sequence on, the film lost me. I squirmed in my seat. I prayed that the film would end. I saw the film about three more times at subsequent advance screenings, and my reaction was always the same. Yet, now, years later, to me the new version is miraculously not boring. Why? I believe that Coppola has managed to integrate Willard more fully into the movie. He has also made sense of the transition from Kurtz to Willard, so that Kurtz's "suicide" via sacrifice is a logical extension of the "training" Willard goes through in Kurtz's camp. The trip backwards, into the past, and forwards, towards Kurtz, is richer and denser. Now I understand it, and more than 20 years later I finally have the Apocalypse Now I should have seen at the time.

I rate Redux as the superior movie. Many will disagree.

— D. K. Holm

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