Apocalypse Back Then, And Now

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The whole ordeal was a hallucinogenic nightmare. Principal photography took an exhausting 238 days. A typhoon destroyed some of the sets. The director mortgaged his house to cover ballooning costs. He fired his first leading actor (Harvey Keitel) and found that his second (Martin Sheen) had suffered a heart attack. At one point the director told his wife, "I'm thinking of shooting myself." So when it was all over, Francis Ford Coppola figured he had earned the right to a public primal scream. "My film is not a movie," he told the press at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where Apocalypse Now had its premiere. "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. It was crazy...And little by little we went insane."

In a production so bizarre that it inspired a fascinating documentary (Fax Barh's 1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse) and a full-length study (Peter Cowie's new The Apocalypse Now Book), the quality of the resulting film could be irrelevant. But despite Coppola's protestation, Apocalypse Now is a movie--the most ambitious, artful attempt to capture on film the sundering trauma of American soldiers in Southeast Asia. Like any movie, it can be assembled into any shape, any length, that its powerful auteur deems suitable. So last year Coppola went back into the jungle of his Vietnam vision to reimagine one of the worst and proudest experiences of his career.

Being Coppola--sire of the Godfather films, mogul of his own Zoetrope studio, vintner and publisher, capo di tutti capi of the Movie Brat generation--he would not come up with any old director's cut. Apocalypse Now Redux is more than a tinkering, with a brief scene added here, some computer effects daubed in there. It is a complete recutting of the original 5-hr. assemblage; the 2 1/2-hr. running time of the 1979 version has been expanded to include 53 minutes of previously unshown footage. If any recut can be a "new" movie, this one is--vivid, harrowing and pretty damn cool.

The tale, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is about an Army officer, Captain Willard (Sheen), sent to find and "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has "gone insane" and set himself up in Cambodia as lord of an army of Montagnard headhunters. On his long trek up the Mekong River, Willard learns that in this war, man is ever at risk of becoming the thing he hates, the unknown he fears.

John Milius, the author of the original script, thought of Apocalypse as a modern Odyssey. He gave it a modern Cyclops (Robert Duvall's demented surfer stud Kilgore, who thinks napalm "smells like victory") and a group of Sirens (the Playboy Playmates who entertain the horny troops). Coppola, deep into his own Big Muddy in the Philippines, was calling his film "the Idiodyssey." He soon felt himself devolving from Willard to Kurtz--from the man on a quest to the madman at its end. But he was enough of a showman to release a picture of Academy-consideration length. Now he's enough of an artist to lay out the full story.

The new material includes scenes on the boat, as Willard gets to know its crew (including a very young Larry Fishburne); the crew's sexual encounter with two of the Playmates, who, like the young men, are in Vietnam on a mission of mercy that will degrade them; a new scene with Kurtz, in which he puts Willard in a cage and reads from a TIME article about the war; and a long, ghostly reverie set on a French plantation. There Willard finds a fractious old colonial family and is seduced by a young widow (the ever beautiful Aurore Clement).

These scenes enlarge the view from intimate to panoramic; they show how the war touched and tainted so many lives--though, like nearly all films about the Vietnam War, they ignore the Vietnamese who were its real and immediate victims. Apocalypse Now is about an American, perhaps a human madness. It searingly depicts, and finally embodies, the spiritual wounds men inflict on themselves and one another in the name of war. To gain the hearts and minds of a distant people, we lose our own souls.

Movies have changed since the '70s, and not for the better. The artistic bar is not only low, it's practically closed. Back then filmmakers were addicted to audacity; they wanted to make both art and waves. Now they are craftsmen who want to make a bundle. In this airless atmosphere, Redux is both a reminder of American cinema's last glory days and a rebuke to the timid present. Maybe Apocalypse Now wasn't the best movie of 1979, but Redux is surely the film to beat for 2001.