I first saw “Apocalypse Now” as a teenager on some classic movies cable network, and it blew my mind. A few years later, I talked a bunch of friends and the (then) love of my life into watching it, and I was once again amazed as were, I was happy to find out, the rest of the girls and boys used to your “Men In Black”, “Top Gun” and whatnot. Yet even though the 1979 film is already one of those films really special to me, I wasn’t ready for the impact of this “Redux”. This isn’t merely a re-release, or a half-assed Director’s Cut. This is a re-imagining of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Viet-Nam epic. He didn’t just add a few new scenes, or tinker with the special effect like Lucas did with his “Star Wars” trilogy. He actually went back to the editing room with his load of some 5 hours of footage and crafted a whole new cut, this time with no pressures to make it shorter or in any way different than his own daring, artistic vision. What we get is a film which is not only almost an hour longer but also different in tone, pace and feeling.
You probably know the story by now, a variation on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novel in which colonial Africa is replaced by war-bound Viet-Nam. Our unlikely hero is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who, when we first meet with him, is depressed and piss drunk in his hotel room, aching to get a new assignment, anything to occupy his mind. He gets more than he’s asked for when his superiors send him on a very secret, very touchy mission : to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The catch is that Kurtz is not an enemy, but an American officer who apparently went nuts. Willard himself will soon start questioning his own sanity, as his journey through the hell that is war wears him down more and more. Death is never very far, and for what ? This isn’t World War II where the Nazis are clearly to be stopped, this is a conflict that has cocky, brutish U.S. troops bombing harmless villages so they can go surfing, abusing clueless peasants, basically screwing up a whole country just because they don’t jive politically and economically with the capitalist regime…
John Milius (who co-wrote the film with Coppola and Esquire’s war correspondent in Nam Michael Herr) describes “Apocalypse Now” as a modern “Odyssey”, with the Cyclops becoming surf-obsessed commanding officer Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) with a thing for “the smell of napalm in the morning”, and the Sirens working as Playboy bunnies sent to cheer up the troops. Other twists include a tiger attack, a tense confrontation with a suspicious merchant boat, a visit to an aimless military camp devoid of a c.o. described as “the asshole of the world”. These scenes we were all familiar with, but in “Redux” there’s more. There’s a fun scene in which Willard and his boys steal Kilgore’s beloved surf board which establishes furthermore the camaraderie between them and an amusing enough scene with the Playmates where they trade sexual favours for some of Willard’s diesel fuel.
And then there’s the infamous French plantation sequence, which takes up most of the additional hour of footage. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on that. I thought the discussion of the war between the Frenchmen was quite interesting, and the bit where Willard is seduced by a blasée French woman is both sensual and eerie, but I think this extended tangent somehow breaks the flow of the film. The other major addition to the film comes along in its riveting last act, when Willard finally arrives in Cambodia to the end of the river and the village where Kurtz rules like a pagan god over the natives, who are willing to kill or be killed for him. I love how Coppola uses Marlon Brando, as a rarely seen upfront but always felt menacing presence, sorta kinda like the shark in “Jaws”.
Through the film, we’ve gone through Kurtz’ dossier with Willard and we are eager to see how such a admirable officer could have gone this far off the deep end, but when we get to him, we hardly get to take a good look at him. Draped in shadows, slithering away from the frame, Brando presides over his people, and over Willard. The new material involves Kurtz reading to Willard from a Time article blabbering about how there is hope to this war again and things are smelling better. “Can you smell that, soldier?”. Priceless. I think that single line justifies this whole “Redux” business. More so, there’s absolutely no way you can miss seeing this oh so powerful picture on a big screen in a glorious new Technicolor dye transfer print. Right from the start, there’s no help being hooked, as you can hear helicopters approaching from all the way behind you and seemingly flying over you to bomb the jungle on screen, as the percussive opening notes of The Doors’ “The End” gradually fill your ears. And then the montage with the flapping ceiling fan over Willard’s soiled hotel bed, and the unforgettable first words of the film’s wonderfully used narration, “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”
Or what about the classic helicopter raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” which, 22 years of supposed advances in special effects and moviemaking techniques later, still stands as one of the most breathtaking action sequences ever made. There’s also all the great performances, from Sheen to Duvall to Brando by the way of Dennis Hopper, playing a constantly stoned photographer who worships Kurt and the rock and roller private played by a teenage Laurence “Larry” Fishburne. “Apocalypse Now” was always a unique cinematic journey, a surreal orgy of images and sounds, beauty and horror. It was one of the best movies of the ’70s, and “Apocalypse Now Redux” might be the best movie to be released in 2001. It’s certainly better than anything Coppola made in the 22 years in between, and it puts to shame most of what takes up screens these days. If there’s ever been a must-see, this is it.
NOTE: An updated version of this review was written upon the release of the Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD