This sorry-ass movie year finally coughs up a masterpiece — Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — and it turns out the damn thing was first released in 1979. It still counts, though, because this Vietnam epic is not the same movie the public saw back then. Coppola and editor Walter Murch have remixed the film from original raw footage, restored forty-nine minutes (the running time now clocks in at three hours and sixteen minutes) and tacked on a new title: Apocalypse Now Redux. It’s not the usual hustle to cadge bucks from a rerelease and future video and DVD sales (think of the recent scam with The Exorcist). This is the untamed Apocalypse that Coppola envisioned in 1979 before money and mental pressures made him fear he had created something too long, too weird and too morally demanding for the masses.
course, the film is still chaos, and as such it’s an apt reflection of the war it depicts. But the journey, laid out in the script by Coppola and John Milius, is much better mapped now. As Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) begins his trip up river to Cambodia to “terminate with extreme prejudice” the mad renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the film moves with less velocity but, oddly, with a greater sense of purpose. Extended scenes on the patrol boat draw us closer to Willard, Chief (the great Albert Hall), Chef (Frederic Forrest), the surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms) and the ghetto-raised Clean, played by a fourteen-year-old Laurence Fishburne. Robert Duvall’s sensational performance as the surf-lovin’, bomb-droppin’ Col. Kilgore (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) is pumped with more humor as Willard steals the bastard’s new surfboard. One restored scene, showing Kilgore helping to save a Vietnamese child, adds a telling ambiguity. Even the sequence with the Playboy bunnies is, er, fleshed out, and speaks to the theme of exploitation that permeates the film.
The longest addition involves the French plantation where Willard and his men stop for a burial. The scene was cut originally because these French sophisticates, who dress formally for dinner in the jungle, were thought to stop the movie cold. Hardly. The family patriarch (Christian Marquand) explains his claim on the country in a monologue that burns with the fury and folly of imperialism. Nothing seems superfluous in this new Apocalypse. The tenderness of Willard’s lovemaking with a French widow (the lovely Aurore Clement) stands as a poignant counterpoint to the savagery ahead. Brando’s Kurtz, once a dead weight of clanking metaphor (“The horror! The horror!”), resonates more as a character in scenes that show him reading Time magazine aloud, surrounded by children, and mocking American intelligence operations in the age of Nixon. Redux succeeds brilliantly in finding a human context for shocking acts of violence, such as the sampan massacre in which Willard coldly shoots a woman without a twinge of conscience.
Of course, Apocalypse Now Redux isn’t just about new scenes. The kick comes in how well the old scenes play in the new setting. The opening, with the whirling sound of choppers intercut with Willard sweating angst in his Saigon hotel bed, a jungle burning with napalm and the Doors playing “The End,” remains a visual and aural wonder. Has cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ever shot a sequence more fierce than the one of Kilgore firing up a helicopter attack with music from Wagner’s “Die Walk Yre”? How about the scary, implosive power of the young Sheen — a stark contrast to his warmth on The West Wing? And Dennis Hopper, as the photojournalist living among severed heads and rotting corpses in the Kurtz camp, seems to have created something more crazily intense than memory serves. Hopper’s premature eulogy of Kurtz bubbles with a crackbrained logic: “When he dies, what are they gonna say about him? That he was a kind man, a wise man, that he had plans, that he had wisdom? Bullshit, man.”
Madness is the operative word for this Apocalypse, onscreen and off. You can read Notes, by the director’s wife, Eleanor Coppola, to learn of the turmoil of making the film in the Philippines. Or you can watch the superb 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which includes footage Mrs. Coppola shot of her husband coming apart — and, for a while, their marriage along with him — as he fought a typhoon and even stormier insecurities that sex and drugs couldn’t appease to complete his magnum opus. With Apocalypse Now Redux — one for the ages when it comes to the moral battles of war — Coppola has reached the finish line at last. It smells like victory.