If the original “Apocalypse Now” was a narrow, swiftly flowing river that gradually closed in on the patrol boat carrying Captain Willard into the heart of darkness, “Apocalypse Now Redux” is a wide river of greater depth, more variable currents and some fascinating new ports of call. Declared by Francis Coppola to be the “definitive” version of his Vietnam War epic, this amazing new work adds 53 minutes of dramatic footage to the 1979 release, making for a weightier, more nuanced and fulsome experience than the film the world has known up to now. Debuting, as did its predecessor, at the Cannes Film Festival, “Redux” will by released by Miramax Films in the U.S. on Aug. 15 — 22 years to the day after the initial theatrical opening. Despite the significant increase in running time, there is no reason that just about anyone who liked “Apocalypse Now” the first time around wouldn’t want to see what Coppola has done to it. A healthy share of that audience should have the good sense to experience the picture on the bigscreen in the brilliant Technicolor dye transfer prints and immaculate SRD sound that will be used in at least the top 20 American cities.
To see the original “Apocalypse Now” now is to marvel at how such a film would and could never be made today (it was hard enough in its day); from the startling napalm conflagration of the opening shot to the subsequent sequence of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard ruminating and flipping out in his Saigon hotel room, one is struck by the film’s abstraction, and then by the extraordinary balancing act Coppola managed between narrative movement and artful elaboration.
Because of the tremendous pressure the producer-director was under to deliver a commercially viable picture after years of production woes, negative rumors and a doubling of the budget to a then-staggering $32 million, Coppola felt compelled to limit the running time to about 2-1/2 hours (original 35mm version ultimately ran 153 minutes).
For this reason, Coppola streamlined his picture as much as he could. Considerable footage was jettisoned, and two sequences in particular — an additional interlude with the Playboy playmates and the French plantation scene — entered the realm of legend.
An uncredited adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” screenplay by John Milius, which was significantly amended by Coppola, charts the journey of Captain Willard and a small crew up a river in Vietnam to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, a brilliant officer who has apparently gone insane and begun running his own war from a native outpost in Cambodia.
“Redux” unfolds just as it always has through Willard’s initial freakout and his assignment to deal with Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” First sign of something new comes with the entrance of Robert Duvall’s Lt. Colonel Kilgore on a helicopter with the slogan “Death from Above” emblazoned on it. After the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter attack sequence, still sensational after all the years, there is new footage of Kilgore obsessing about surfing, preparing to do so himself, then, most significantly, a section-concluding episode in which Willard and his men steal Kilgore’s prized surfboard. This is followed by a fresh river interlude in which the men hide under some shade while Kilgore’s voice is heard booming from a circling chopper, asking for his surfboard back.
In terms of the picture’s artistic ascent, “Apocalypse Now,” then and now, rises to a plateau of greatness the moment Willard assumes his mission and remains there for a very long time. Achievement is now strengthened by assorted bits of extra material devoted to the men on board.
The added moments accrue to give the viewer more of a feeling for each of them, for their attitudes toward one another and toward what they’re doing in this crazy war. Some previously unheard narration also provides some valuable extra insights into Kurtz’s feelings about America’s conduct of the war.
Then, at the 82-minute mark, comes a substantial passage striking for its utter newness as well as for its exceedingly sad, poignant tone. In a driving rain, the men arrive at a small U.S. encampment where the Playboy helicopter looms forlornly over a group of soggy tents. In short order, Willard makes a deal: He’ll hand over some fuel to get the chopper airborne again, in exchange for which his men can spend two hours with the playmates. Chief declines the opportunity and Willard strangely disappears, but Lance pairs up with the Playmate of the Year, portrayed by the real thing, Cynthia Wood, while Chef dallies in the helicopter with the centerfold model played by Colleen Camp; all the while, Clean annoys both couples by shouting, “It’s my turn!”
While there is some nudity and implied sex, the overall impact of these exchanges is quite melancholy. The girls are filthy and at loose ends after who knows how long in this godforsaken place. Indeed, Wood’s character may have already fallen completely off the deep end, while Chief insists upon rearranging Camp’s character to more resemble the Playboy photograph he’s cherished.
At 115 minutes in, after Clean has been killed, the patrol boat emerges from mist and fog to be greeted by a small band of armed French colonial soldiers. In such ghostly fashion begins the French plantation sequence, which, at 25 minutes, represents by far the picture’s longest layover. Welcomed by the French, who are headed by the middle-aged De Marais (the late Christian Marquand), the Americans get the satisfaction of giving Clean a military burial (the disposition of his body was always a mystery in the original), whereupon Willard attends a lavish French dinner in the house, a beautiful abode of faded colonial elegance.
With Marquand delivering a forceful performance, De Marais holds court for quite a while. Explaining that his family has owned the plantation for 70 years and that “it will be ours until we are all dead,” the articulate, opinionated man explicates the French mentality in the wake of defeats in WWII, Indochina and Algeria, ruminates about the disaster of Diem Bien Phu, wonders why the Americans don’t learn something from the French.
Sequence then slides into a gentle little seduction scene in which a young widow, Roxanne (Aurore Clement), invites Willard upstairs, fires up what is presumably an opium pipe and closes the curtains around her bed. This seg is OK but pretty conventional, and marred a bit by the occasional indecipherable line reading by Clement and some corny synthesized romantic music that wasn’t in the original.
Overall, the French interlude is thematically significant in that it begins drawing the voyagers back in time and fascinating in its articulation of specific historical and political details that Coppola made a point of avoiding in the original release version.
Finally, once the men reach Kurtz’s compound, there is a fine new scene featuring Marlon Brando, in which he reads to a caged Willard an actual article from Time magazine stating that the U.S. is finally making progress in Vietnam. Brando gives it a straight, firm, impressive delivery; given that there was precious little of him in the film as it was, it’s a welcome addition.
Despite the new running time of nearly 3¼ hours, “Apocalypse Now Redux” still goes by quickly. It’s a richer experience now, still breathtaking at times and more gratifying with the additional bulk. It retains its brilliance and its mysteries, along with a few nagging question marks concerning the final section.
There is debate over when the great period of independent-minded late ’60s-early ’70s American cinema ended. While the answer is probably 1974-75, seeing this film again now in either version is enough to convince one that “Apocalypse Now” represented the movement’s final display of daring and momentous fireworks.
Click here to read Variety’s review of the 1979 theatrical version of “Apocalypse Now.”