Apocalypse Now (1979): Coppola’s Vietnam Masterpiece, Starring Brando and Martin Sheen

Apocalypse Now Redux, Francis Ford Coppola’s expanded and definitive version of his dazzling 1979 war epic, reaffirms its status as one of the highlights of the new American cinema and one of Coppola’s undisputed masterpieces, along with The Godfather movies.

This surreal philosophical meditation on the madness and folly of war, which won the Cannes’ Palme d’Or as a work-in-progress, also suggests that the movie should be perceived as a horror epic rather than an action-adventure saga. Challenging subject matter, uncompromisingly tough treatment, hallucinatory/psychedelic style, and epic running time (three hours and 17mins without opening or end credits) will limit commercial appeal, but Miramax’s late summer release should do well in the top urban and specialized markets, with a much brighter future in ancillary markets. The new picture captures the exhilarating beauty of war along with its cruelty, incoherence, and terror.

In scale, ambition, and scope, Apocalypse Now Redux is to Coppola what Napoleon is to Abel Gance, Greed to Von Stroheim, The Birth of a Nation to Griffith, and Citizen Kane to Orson Welles, a monumental film that tests and expands the very possibilities of the film medium. Rather fatefully, with Apocalypse, Coppola also reached the dangerous point in his career that all of these great filmmakers have.

Twenty-two years after it was first shown, Apocalypse Now continues to fascinate scholars, critics, and viewers as a cultural phenomenon, a media event rather than a Hollywood movie. Much has been written about the picture’s problematic shoot and protracted post-production, including Coppola’s wife’s published journal, a documentary on the making of the film, a play about the director’s infidelities, and various books.

To describe Apocalypse as an anti-war movie is not only to abstract and obscure its qualities but to do it injustice, as it’s the exploration of madness — the matrix of dementia — that sets the movie apart from other war epics. Set in Vietnam in 1968/9, the film offers a candid, operatic view of America’s longest and most tumultuous war. Drawing on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse is basically a philosophical inquiry into the mythology of war and the human condition. Haunted by Conrad’s story of the Congolese jungle, Coppola has reshaped it as a surreal allegory about man’s struggle with his innermost animalistic instincts. For his serious reverie, the filmmaker has used the unique iconography of Vietnam: helicopters, disposable weaponry, rock music, acid drugs, psychedelic sensibility.

Rather than simply insert scenes that were never used, Coppola and his associates went back to the negative and dailies, editing and remixing the new version from scratch. Judging by the evidence onscreen, it’s a pleasure to report that the addition of 53 minutes of never-before-seen footage has made the film richer, fuller and more textured. More specifically, Apocalypse Now Redux is funnier, more romantic, more politically intriguing — and even more bizarre.

Though the new footage is dispersed throughout, the new work contains at least four new sequences. First, there’s new footage of the navy patrol boat in the beginning of the journey up the river, as a result of which the group dynamics among the men becomes more lucid and complex, with more attention paid to the growing camaraderie. Furthermore, each of men on the boat now emerges as a fully-realized character.

The Playboy playmates sequence is also expanded, including a sub-plot that depicts how Willard exchanges fuel (when the Playboy helicopter is stranded at a remote base along the river) for a couple of pleasurable hours with the bunnies.

The most dramatic addition, which amounts to 25 minutes of the new footage, is the French plantation sequence, which includes a riverside encounter, the funeral of Clean (Laurence Fishburne), a rancorous dinner with the French owners, and Willard’s seduction by Roxanne (Aurore Clement), a French widow. This sequence is crucial for a number of reasons: It provides information about the politics of Vietnam and the difference between the French and American types of colonialism, and it also exposes the naivet of the Americans as represented by Willard (Martin Sheen).

Finally, toward the end, at Kurtz’ compound, there’s a new scene with Brando holding Willard captive in a metal shed and reciting an article from Time magazine about the American intelligence. In this, as well as in other scenes, the moral scope becomes more focused, suggesting again that Apocalypse is not just an anti-war movie, but one set out to expose the lies surrounding the military-industrial-media complex.

The film’s greatest set piece is still the helicopter attack, led by the demented, war and surf loving colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), to the delirious sounds of Wagner’s “Die Walkure.” And significantly, what was problematic in 1979 is still problematic: the anti-climactic encounter with Kurtz at his compound, This narrative weakness is a combined function of Kurtz’s abstract, rambling text (“the horror, the horror”), Brando’s eccentric performance; the near-dark lighting (partly to conceal a much overweight Brando), and excessive montage (a result of the way the scenes were shot).

The structure of the film, with its four basic units of fire, water, air, and earth, is now more articulate, and so is the message about the absurd inanities of the American involvement in Vietnam. The film illustrates the loss of innocence of young men, who by the end of the trip become savages. Willard is drawn to the jungle’s primeval mystique and power, only to realize that the horror and savagery lie not in the jungle but within American culture itself. The physical journey up the river is thus a spiritual journey through the various layers of civilization, all the way to its cruelest phase.

Michael Herr’s narration, arguably one of the most brilliant elements in the overall design, is indispensable due to the inherently episodic structure. At the same time, no other American film has shown so effectively how visuals and voice-over can operate both separately and parallel to each other.

In 1979, Apocalypse was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two: cinematography and sound. Ace lenser Vittorio Storaro experimented with light and texture in a jungle setting, displaying even greater visual splendor than evident in his work for Bertolucci.