'Apocalypse' Then And Now

My film is not a movie," Francis Ford Coppola proclaimed of "Apocalypse Now" in 1979 at a press conference in Cannes. "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam." That may be the dumbest thing Coppola ever said in public, and anyone who actually fought or witnessed that war would be right to take offense. But the flagrant grandiosity is a testament to the mad ambition of the film and the tenor of the times in which it was made. Coming off his two "Godfather" triumphs, the director set the stakes as high as he could--no mere home run, this was going to be his esthetic grand slam. When the film was first released, its measure was taken against that promise, and most people deemed it a failure, albeit a dazzling, unforgettable one.

Time has been good to Coppola's movie. The new "Apocalypse Now Redux" is 53 minutes longer; watching it in the same theater where I first saw it (the huge screen at the Ziegfeld in New York) was an exhilarating experience. As we follow Martin Sheen's Captain Willard on his voyage upriver to exterminate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), one breathtaking, brilliantly executed sequence follows another; beautiful and grotesque, this is operatic, visionary filmmaking at full throttle. It's heartbreaking, too, because you can't watch it without thinking how degraded Hollywood film culture has become in the 22 years since "Apocalypse" was first released. Movies of this sort of ambition--not to mention ambiguity--are a nearly extinct species. Hollywood still makes epics ("Titanic," "Gladiator"), but nothing that might seriously challenge an audience or bother the body politic is allowed to ruffle their slick surfaces. If a studio executive today gave a director the kind of freedom and budget Coppola was allowed to play with on "Apocalypse," he'd be "terminated with extreme prejudice."

If "Apocalypse Now Redux" looks better to our eyes than the original version looked in 1979, it's in part because everything else looks worse. Amazingly, the movie hasn't dated--only the tinny, synthesized Carmine Coppola score sounds outmoded. What reminds us of the passage of time is the shock of seeing an unrecognizably young Laurence Fishburne (only 15 when he played the soldier Clean, one of the crew that accompanies Willard upriver) and an oddly geeky Harrison Ford, who pops up behind huge aviator glasses in an early scene.

The biggest new addition is an almost 20-minute sequence in which Willard stumbles into a dreamlike French-colonial plantation, where a formal dinner is served, the politics of Indochina are debated and he spends an opium-laced night in the bed of a beautiful widow (Aurore Clement). It's easy to see why the sequence was cut--it's often stilted; it doesn't advance the "plot"-- yet this ghostly diversion broadens the movie's perspective, reinforces its theme of the duality of man and adds new colors to its emotional palette. As does the comic-nightmarish sequence in which two Playboy bunnies (Colleen Camp and Cynthia Wood), their helicopter stranded in a muddy medical-evacuation port, trade sexual favors for fuel. There are smaller, subtler changes that strengthen the movie: Coppola and editor Walter Murch have not only expanded the role of Robert Duvall's surf-crazed Colonel Kilgore but rearranged the placement of the surfing scenes, deepening their insane incongruity.

The new material only emphasizes how far from realism Coppola has traveled, how metaphorical and surreal his take on Vietnam was. Where are the Vietnamese in this Vietnam War movie? Only in the shocking massacre of the peasants on the sampan--in many ways the movie's emotional climax--are any Vietnamese characters brought to the foreground. "Apocalypse" was and is a hallucinatory vision of American hallucinations of power. In the twisted bravado of Kilgore and Kurtz's plunge into megalomania and butchery we are meant to see the repercussions of a government policy run murderously amok.

The Kurtz episodes, roughly grafted from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," were always the movie's Achilles' heel, and "Redux" doesn't solve them. It's the journey, not the destination, that matters in this movie: everything Coppola and screenwriter John Milius have to tell us is viscerally stated on that boat ride. The all-too-literary coda at Kurtz's compound seems like another, fascinating but lesser movie. The bald, brooding Brando, bathed in painterly pools of light by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, is treated as an imposing objet d'art, more symbol than man. It's startling to see him, in an added scene, in the daylight, when he scornfully reads a Time magazine account of the war to Willard. It's the only moment when Brando is allowed to be life-size.

The burden of Conrad (who got pretty vague himself when it came to actually describing "the heart" of evil) has always hung heavily on Coppola's shoulders; you can feel him, backed into a corner, laboring to give birth to a final profundity he's not equipped to deliver. "Apocalypse Now" in any form will never be a seamless work of art, but its flaws of hubris now seem not just forgivable but part of its ragged glory. Does it strive too hard for greatness? Sure. But it's not likely that you'll see another movie this year with so much heart-stopping, gut-churning greatness in it.