The Film, Now Improved, That Changed Vlad’s Life
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, inspired by ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Albert Hall, Lawrence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Harrison Ford, and Dennis Hopper
Once in a while, something happens to make it worth watching film after film that all end up, at best, likable, and, at worst, crap. Once in a while a film will grab you from the get-go and proceed to redefine the possibilities of the genre.
That’s happened to me a few times in the movie theatre, and once -- only once -- when I was watching a film on home video, a not-too-good transfer (and pan-and-scan to boot) of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Now, Coppola had returned to his film, adding 49 minutes of footage and remixing the sound, releasing the result as Apocalypse Now Redux and giving us the priceless opportunity to see it the way it was always meant to be seen: on a giant screen, in surround sound, with images’ hallucinatory beauty cleaned and restored.
This is not to say Redux is an improvement on the original as far as the narrative goes; it is actually one step down the totem pole of great films. While the original Apocalypse was one for the ages, truly one of the dozen best films ever made, Redux, for the reason I’ll mention shortly, is merely a masterpiece.
Let me clarify, for the people who have yet to be dazzled by this brilliantly insane piece of cinema, what Apocalypse is not: is it not a definite cinematic statement of the Vietnam War. As a matter of fact, it has little to do with Vietnam, per se: it is set there, true, but as it takes its story from Africa-set Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is nothing specific to the setting and era in the movie. Yes, the protagonist, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), is traveling up the river in war-enveloped Vietnam, trying to locate and kill the insane Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) -- but the setting is largely that, a setting, as opposed to being the theme.
The journey up the river, as read by Willard from the military dossier, provides both an environment and a subtext.
Before this starts to sound too cerebral, let me mention what "Apocalypse" is: it is an action film -- the best action film ever made, as a matter of fact. Roughly 20 minutes into the film, after the rather creepy opening (featuring, among others, subtle work of Harrison Ford, cast resolutely against type as an unctuously enthusiastic bureaucratic toady), three forces of nature hit the screen: Wagner, Robert Duvall, and napalm.
This sequence -- two armed assaults on Vietnamese villages -- lasts roughly half an hour all told. Yes, everyone knows Apocalypse went wildly over budget and over schedule. But the question should not be, "How much money did they spend to get these images?" but, simply, "How could they get images like this for any money?"
Coppola orchestrates a jaw-droppingly complex battle scene; director of photography Vittorio Storaro provides the best cinematography exhibited in any motion picture. Duvall crackles and blisters as a live wire while “The Ride of the Valkyries” thunders on. And all this has a point unlike, say, Michael Bay’s visual diarrhea, and even unlike Spielberg’s two grand battle bookends to Saving Private Ryan. While Spielberg was working toward a kinetic evocation of the horror that is war, Coppola goes one step further.
This is just one high point in a film of many high points and plethora of indelible images: the nighttime search for mangoes in the bluest and greenest of all forests; the carnival-on-acid crossing under Do-Lung bridge; the gray fog and the purple fog over the river; and the impossibly decadent horrors of Kurtz’ compound in the finale. Of scenes Coppola added in Redux, some work unequivocally (the fate of Kilgore’s surfboard; Kurtz reading Time magazine to Willard), one is neither here nor there (the second encounter with the playmates, which manages to say exactly zero about the women but adds some nice details to the dynamics of the boat crew).
And a notorious “French Plantation” sequence merely interrupts the rapidly moving narrative and all the great parallels between the development of story and character and the physical voyage up the river -- only to spend half an hour to show pointless bickering (in French!) Apocalypse was fine without a scene which seems to have come from a Merchant-Ivory production.
Now I choose to think of this as a popcorn break, an intermission in the middle of an otherwise relentless movie. After all, the main thing Redux provides is a chance to see Apocalypse Now on a big screen, where it goes not as much for the brain or even for the heart as for the jugular.