I first saw “Apocalypse Now” as a teenager on some classic movie 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 boys and girls I was with. Then came the 2001 “Redux”, not merely a re-release or a half-assed Director’s Cut but a re-imagining of Francis Ford Coppola‘s 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 million feet of film 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 got is a film which is not only almost an hour longer but also different in tone, pace and feeling. And now we get this “Complete Dossier” DVD, which I watched on a cool August night and confirmed “Apocalypse Now” as, maybe, the best picture of all time.
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 delicate 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 war correspondent in Nam Michael Herr) describes “Apocalypse Now” as a modern Odyssey, with the Cyclops becoming the surf-obsessed commanding officer Kilgore (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 at USO shows. Other twists include a tiger attack, a tense confrontation with a suspicious merchant boat and 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 bit in which Willard and his boys steal Kilgore’s beloved surfboard, 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 part where a blasé Frenchwoman seduces Willard 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 in the 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, kind of 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, getting to see this oh so powerful picture on a big screen in a glorious new Technicolor dye transfer print during that “Apocalypse Now Redux” run was one of the very best film experiences I ever had (along with the “Vertigo” and “E.T.” re-releases – see a trend there?). 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 perfectly calibrated, film noir 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, almost thirty years of advances in special effects and moviemaking techniques later, still stands as one of the most breathtaking action sequences ever made. “Apocalypse Now” undeniably shows the horror of war, but it also displays the grandiose spectacle of it – for better or worse.
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 Kurtz, and the rock & roller private played by a teenage Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, plus the rest of the boat crew: Frederic Forrest‘s New Orleans Chef, Sam Bottoms‘ pro surfer Lance B. Johnson and Albert Hall‘s Chief Phillips – “It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was the Chief’s boat”
The sum of the extraordinary subsequent quests of Conrad, Marlow, Coppola and Willard, “Apocalypse Now” is a unique cinematic journey, a surreal orgy of images and sounds, beauty and ugliness, at once intimate, historic and mythic. “Redux”, by its very nature as an alternate cut, can never replace it, but it’s still a must-see companion piece. Which makes the decision by Paramount Home Entertainment and American Zoetrope to make a two-disc DVD containing both “Apocalypse Now” and “Apocalypse Redux” particularly welcomed.
Hitting stores on August 15th, 2006, Apocalypse Now – The Complete Dossier includes audio commentary for both the 1979 and 2001 features by Coppola, exclusive featurettes, the lost “monkey sampan” scene, Marlon Brando’s complete reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men, an “Apocalypse Then and Now” retrospective, the “PBR Streetgang” cast members reunion, 12 never-before-seen segments from the cutting room floor, an A/V Club for aspiring filmmakers, in-depth study of the sound design, editing, music and color palette the film and more. You could literally spend days exploring these discs. And yet even after years and years of watching, re-watching and dissecting it, “Apocalypse Now” remains as complex, mysterious and fascinating as ever.