I mean, the war is essentially a Los Angeles export, like acid rock.
—Francis Ford Coppola
The priciest cult movie to take Cannes by storm, Apocalypse Now has always been as famous for the excesses of the men who made it as for anything about the film itself. Could any story be as great and absurd as that behind the making of this epic? Among the production's manifold dramas and staggering follies were its star's near-fatal heart attack, the cornucopia of drugs (who wasn't stoned?) and the extramarital affairs that nearly shipwrecked the director's marriage, including a tryst with the future Mrs. Harrison Ford and writer of E.T., no less. There was the photo op with Ferdinand Marcos and the 15 Huey helicopters on loan from the Philippine Air Force that were transformed into U.S. war machines in the morning, only to be repainted for active military service at night. There was the 14-year-old Larry Fishburne, who lied about his age to land the part of a grunt called Clean. There was civil unrest. There was nature unleashed—a typhoon named Olga, a tempest named Marlon. There was John Milius. Throughout, there was also Francis Ford Coppola, self-abridged to Francis Coppola in the last days of filming, as if somehow by changing his name, by shaving it down by a third, he could bring the never-ending madness to a finish.
It didn't happen. It had taken four years to kick-start Apocalypse Now and two years to shoot it; it would take another two to see it locked. Coppola ended up taking an unfinished copy to Cannes (calling it "a work in progress"), and the press swooned. Back home, though, critics sharpened their knives. On its release in 1979, much of the press (Time, The New York Times, The Nation) savaged the film as a cautionary tale of unchecked ambition, ego and budget. More than a year after it opened, Pauline Kael wrote, "Coppola got tied up in a big knot of American self-hatred and guilt, and what the picture boiled down to was: white man—he devil." That's not Apocalypse Now or then; it's just Kael poking at leftovers. Still, with her next line, she did admit what was really bothering her: "Since then, I think, people have expected less of movies and have been willing to settle for less." The thing is, though, it wasn't Coppola who made people settle. After all, it was Kramer vs. Kramer, not Apocalypse Now, that won Best Picture that year, and that cleaned up at the box office, followed by Rocky 2 and Star Trek.
Critics like to say that the audience expects less and settles for less, and maybe it's true. But who could tell what was true about Apocalypse Now in 1979? The press had churned out disastrous reports for years—the typhoon that destroyed the set, Martin Sheen's brush with death, the money, the money, the money. Kael mentioned the bad press on three separate occasions, in February 1977, October 1977 and September 1978. When she finally saw the finished film, how could she, like so many others, not be disappointed? (Off working for Warren Beatty in Hollywood, she had missed the chance for a full-length assault.) "His film," she would write in passing of Coppola, "was posited on great thoughts arriving at the end—a confrontation and a revelation. And when they weren't there, people slunk out of the theaters, or tried to comfort themselves with chatter about the psychedelic imagery." But Apocalypse Now wasn't about great thoughts arriving at the end. It wasn't about great thoughts period, or Kurtz squatting in his temple of death, bald head rising like the moon. As with American film, as with America, Coppola's film wasn't about the end of the road, it was about what it takes to get there. The point was the journey; the point was the moviemaking—it still is.
Watch out for Charlie, Sheen.
It was Milius who transposed Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, with the idea that his and Coppola's friend George Lucas would direct. At first, Lucas was going to shoot the film in 16mm around some rice paddies near Sacramento; later, his producer scouted locations in the Philippines. Lucas has said Coppola took the script from him, though Milius counters that without Coppola, the movie would never have been made. Instead, Lucas went on to make Star Wars, dubbed by Coppola's editor, Walter Murch, as "George's version of Apocalypse Now, rewritten in an otherworldly context." Coppola eventually took over Milius' script and re-wrote enough of it to share guild credit with him, with Michael Herr earning a separate credit for Sheen's narration. The story itself is straightforward. It begins, without opening credits, in 1968 with palm trees erupting into flames as Jim Morrison sings "The End." The image and the thudding sound of helicopter rotors melt into a ceiling fan blowing down on the sweat-bathed Captain Willard, who, blasted on booze (as was Sheen), naked, bleeding, weeping, ranting, is praying for a way back to the jungle. He gets his wish. In a meeting with military intelligence, he is ordered to locate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who, backed by AWOL Americans and indigenous tribes, has formed his own army in Cambodia. Willard is to travel upriver aboard a patrol boat and terminate Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice."
Coppola publicly screened the film with at least four different endings. One version, taken from the Milius script, ended with Kurtz's compound in flames; in another, Willard considered assuming Kurtz's place. (Coppola's perceived inability to finish the film was held against him, an accusation that says more about critics who insist that there is a "right" way to make movies even as they indulge in historical amnesia. D.W. Griffith fiddled extensively with his films even after they had opened, cutting prints at the actual theaters and even incorporating newly shot footage—but then, Intolerance was a bust, too.) The new Apocalypse Now edit adds 49 minutes to the original, which, depending on whether it was shown in 35mm or 70mm, with or without credits, has been clocked as running from 139 to 153 minutes. (According to Miramax, which is releasing this version, the new cut comes in at a backbreaking 197.) Obscured by confusion and legend, the film was even said to exist in a five-and-a-half-hour version, a cut that one of the producers insists was more of an assembly, "not really the movie." In his entertaining if overly partisan account, The Apocalypse Now Book(2000), Peter Cowie describes much of this excised footage. Although Coppola and Murch have restored only 49 minutes, many of the crucial scenes described by Cowie seem to have made it into the new cut, the most important of which is a lengthy stopover at a French rubber plantation in Cambodia.
At once a stroke of genius and a missed opportunity, the interlude foreshadows Kurtz's own encampment and serves as a ghostly rebuke to the American presence in Southeast Asia. Willard and his fellow travelers—played by Fishburne, Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest and Sam Bottoms—come across the plantation after a surprise attack on their patrol boat. Flawlessly shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the scenes, with their gilded interiors and languid, narcotic pacing, look and feel as if they could have been taken from a period European art movie. Cigarettes and Resistance platitudes dangling from his mouth, Christian Marquand plays the head of the household, Hubert deMarais, like Jean Gabin, with pugilistic insouciance and a hard glint of madness. He explains that his family has been in Cambodia for 70 years and has no plan of leaving. Less politically motivated is Aurore Clment's Roxanne, a young widow aflutter in chiffon and in urgent need of sexual ministration. As two of the family's youngest members, Coppola's own sons, Gian-Carlo and Roman, help round out the insanity by, in a wonderfully demented touch that seems pure Milius, reciting Baudelaire at the dinner table. "It's a very cruel poem," growls deMarais, "but they need it."
Milius invented the plantation scenes, but Coppola apparently wrote his share, including some ham-fisted politics—"The Viet Cong were invented by the Americans"—wisely absent in the rest of the film. (More effective is another newly restored scene in which Brando simply reads aloud some shameless flag-waving journalism courtesy of Time magazine.) DeMarais' diatribe on colonialism and the need for American resolve against the Viet Cong is less important (and persuasive) than Roxanne's subsequent opium-perfumed seduction of Willard, which, while almost undone by Carmine Coppola's synthesizer boudoir doodling, articulates the film's powerful dialectic and the reason for Willard's journey into the heart of darkness. "There are two of you," says Roxanne, slipping a pipe into his mouth, "one that kills and one that loves." That Willard gets back on the boat, choosing killing over loving, death over life, is the bitterly charged, unrelenting thrust of a film that time and again was accused of bad politics, racism and jingoism. Perhaps it's because 22 years have passed since the first release and 26 years have passed since Saigon fell, but now the film's politics—embodied by shimmying Playboy Bunnies and slaughtered Vietnamese innocents both, emblazoned by the really big show of the rockets' red glare—come off as obvious as hell.
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At a recent screening of the film in Los Angeles, Kim Aubry, a co-producer on the re-cut, said that Coppola went back to Apocalypse Now because DVD made possible "a more complete version of what the filmmakers had in mind." So certain was Coppola that this would be the definitive—and final—version that he and Walter Murch cut the negative rather than a copy, as is the usual practice. The re-edit improves on the original on various counts, not just in fleshing out the narrative and making Willard and the crew's transformation more comprehensible, but, as significantly, in heightening the film's surreal beauty. Always a visually stunning film, Apocalypse Now is now among the most beautiful, with a lustrous Technicolor palette dominated by velvety blood reds and kaleidoscopic greens, from the translucent emerald of a palm frond to an olive-drab smudge of camouflage paint. (Storaro says he cried when he first saw the dye-transfer print.) Perhaps what's most remarkable about all this beauty is that it never stops serving the film, never becomes style for style's sake. In hindsight, particularly in light of American film's ongoing love affair with swooping, loop-the-loop cinematography, Coppola's camera seems restrained, more functional than virtuosic. Whether he's fast-tracking alongside Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore on the battlefield or simply waiting for a room to empty of people, he keeps the camera alert, not busy.
The re-edit also repairs a few narrative glitches in the original, such as the mysterious disappearance of the body of one of the slain crew members, but it doesn't fundamentally change Apocalypse Now. It was brilliant then; it's brilliant now—just longer. What has changed in the years since it was released, of course, are the movies themselves. One of the biggest and most frequently repeated laugh lines at Cannes this past May was that the best movie at the festival was Apocalypse Now Redux (even jury member Terry Gilliam was said to agree); it was a joke that became progressively less funny the more new films were screened. What now seems unequivocally true about Coppola's epic isn't its perceived failure to make it all pay off at the end, but how in its reach and monumental scale, in its story and its moviemaking, it pushes film to its very limits. The production was a logistical feat of astounding proportions, from the newly created lenses and Storaro's Italian camera crew (who dined on pasta imported weekly from home) to production designer Dean Tavoularis' extrapolation of Angkor Wat as Kurtz's encampment—a fantastical set studded with extras buried up to their necks to simulate decapitated heads and numerous actual corpses rotting in the sun and eaten through by maggots.
It was the stuff of legend, but it was also logistics; the movies have always had their madmen, though not all of them were also geniuses. "He had a very clear vision in the largest possible sense of where he was going," Murch once said of the young Coppola. As with Orson Welles before him—another visionary whose oversized talent and appetites were continually under scrutiny and siege—Coppola has never just made movies; he has dreamed them. This has been his great virtue as a filmmaker, and it's also what's made him such an easy target—that, and his own penchant (again, like Welles) for undercutting himself and his talent at the most inopportune moments. Coppola made a poor Odysseus: desperate for funds to finish Apocalypse Now, he sent Lucas a telegram when American Graffiti hit ("Send money. Francis"), yet when he was in the Philippines, he thought nothing of shipping in prints of his favorite movies or of spending eight grand importing food for his birthday party. Is it any wonder that so few could forgive him, even when he delivered not simply a movie but a vision of what the movies could be at their finest? Critics build up heroes, and all too eagerly they tear them down—sometimes, it seems, just for dreaming too loftily about their art and their own promise. These days, we look at digital smears and call them films. To look at Apocalypse Nowis to realize that most of us are fast forgetting what a movie looks like—a real movie, the last movie, an American masterpiece.
Apocalypse Now Redux was directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola; written by John Milius and Coppola, with narration by Michael Herr; and stars Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. Now playing at Loews Century Plaza, Century City.