Both Versions: Apocalypse Now

The legend of the making of Apocalypse Now is unparalleled in film history, a production that spiraled out of control but somehow yielded one of the most extraordinary war films ever made. A fourteen-month shoot produced over two hundred hours of footage. Another couple years were required to sculpt a feature-length movie from that mountain of film stock. When director Francis Ford Coppola needed more money, United Artists stepped in, on the condition that he wrap the thing up already. A 147-minute cut was released to the public in August 1979. It was greeted as a compromised masterpiece, but there was little doubt that Coppola had made the movie his way. All of the unused footage was carefully stored. It would be called upon again twenty-two years later, in the age of DVD director’s cuts, the Star Wars special editions, and the restoration of Touch of Evil. The resulting extended version was dubbed Apocalypse Now Redux.

As advertised, Redux is forty-nine minutes longer than the original. This, of course, represents a modest gleaning from all the unused footage but makes the new cut clock in at one-and-a-third times the length of the original. It is by far the biggest discrepancy for any movie we’ve explored in this series. The additions are substantial and mostly impossible to miss, and with the exception of a few scattered shots that were removed for continuity’s sake, Redux is all additions and no subtractions. As usual, the word “definitive” has been bandied about, but sixteen years later the original cut has not quite been usurped. Generally speaking, the appraisals of the “new” scenes have leaned toward mimicking the less generous verdicts on the film as a whole: scattered moments of brilliance dotting tedious stretches of overindulgence.

Walter Murch, who had won the Oscar for sound mixing on the original film, was placed in charge of editing together the extended edition, under Coppola’s direction. The first thing to note about this recycling project is that the two men were, naturally, twenty years older. They necessarily had a different perspective on the material and perhaps a gentler approach to filmmaking in general. Thus, as the viewer encounters the first additions to the film, what’s striking is a more realistic emphasis on character development. The show-stopping appearance of Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is lent some much-appreciated nuance with only a few seconds of added material. The crude, psychotic, and indefatigable soldier shows genuine concern for a wounded Vietnamese child. This casts in a new light an earlier moment in which Kilgore offers his canteen to a wounded enemy soldier before being distracted.

Another added incident gives Kilgore a chance to take one final bow. The protagonist, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), steals Kilgore’s surfboard for reasons I can’t quite understand. This lighthearted escapade is a chance to get to know Willard and the men charged with taking him up the (fictional) Nung River on a classified mission. The camaraderie of this and other additions puts into sharp relief the isolation of Willard as depicted in the original cut. In Redux, the character laughs and has fun, whereas in the shorter film he seems fundamentally incapable of taking pleasure in anything. Clarity seems to have been the motivation for this change. When, late in both versions of the film, Willard says, “Those boys were never going to look at me the same way again,” we find that only in Redux did they ever have a particularly positive way of looking at him. Still, I tend to prefer the less clear but more mythic effect. In addition to its overt nod to Joseph Conrad, Apocalypse Now has been likened to both Homer and Dante. The latter, as a character in his own epic, is especially analogous to Willard, a passive observer of the madness that surrounds him. (The difference being that Dante doesn’t kill God at the end.)

Right in the middle of the extended film comes the most disposable sequence, the encore appearance of two Playboy Playmates on a U.S.O. tour. Besides the titillation that the original cut deferred, this well-edited scene offers a chance for Colleen Camp and Cynthia Wood to do some acting, in the form of mildly exploitative druggie comedy. In itself, the sequence isn’t that bad, but in the context of the finished film, it’s an eyesore. The original cut had a broad tonal palette as well, but it still followed a coherent progression into higher levels of danger. In Redux, there’s this innocuous respite during a rainstorm. Even the appearance of a dead body doesn’t shake things up too much. This is the first sign that the construction of Redux may have been hampered by indulgence and nostalgia.

The final two scenes added to Redux are the most discussed, but they also probably do the least to disturb the narrative and tone of the original. Like the surfboard-stealing incident, they work to steer the film away from mythic resonance and to a more literal reading, despite one of the scenes being frequently referred to as “ghostly” and “dreamlike.” As the film unfolded in 1979, Apocalypse Now slowly divested itself of specific references to the Vietnam War. That conflict was always the ostensible subject, but in a sense Willard leaves the twentieth century behind on his journey, finally encountering a more timeless evil. (As in The Exorcist, the mythic allusion is signaled by the statue of a pagan deity.) By reinserting the scene on the French colonialist plantation, as well as the scene of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz reading excerpts from an issue of Time magazine, Redux brings the story back down to earth. The beleaguered French aristocrats hash out the entire history of the war at the dinner table, and Kurtz illustrates his motivation for going rogue by exposing the U.S. government as a bunch of liars and fools. Willard is there to absorb all this information, and somehow he uses it to bring the story to its conclusion. The intent, to bring order to an ending that had sputtered into madness, is noble, but not quite successful. Spending more time with Kurtz was not the solution to the movie’s problems. As for the plantation scene, while it’s quite lush and features a magnetic appearance by Aurore Clément, its placement in the film just doesn’t work. The exposition dump would have made more sense earlier in the story, and with Willard getting so close to his destination, the sequence feels like a stalling tactic.

In a sense, there have always been two ways of watching Apocalypse Now. The script, written by John Milius and punched up by Coppola, finds a way to give voice to both right-wing and left-wing postmortems of the Vietnam War. The film has received critical acclaim to match some of the greatest films of all time, but there’s a lingering sense that it’s a tarnished work, a phenomenal buildup that leads to a frustrating lack of payoff. The director himself, occasionally suicidal during the marathon shoot, was petrified that he had a bomb on his hands until the movie premiered at Cannes, where he made the infamous statement, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” (To be fair, when considered in context, there’s at least as much self-deprecation as hubris in that comment.) The extended version doesn’t hide the contradictions, doesn’t solve the paradoxes. It doesn’t ruin anything, either, and I don’t want to dismiss it after a single viewing just because I’ve been familiar with the original cut for years. Still, my emergence as a staunch originalist on these matters continues. The original Apocalypse Now has its puzzling and sophomoric touches, but it accumulates into something defiantly unrepeatable.

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