Movie buffs have heard the stories of cost overruns, star Martin Sheen's heart attack, Coppola's tantrums, the unforgiving weather, the studio pressure to just get the damn thing done. And so, the theory goes, if any filmmaker had the right to have his crack at a director's cut, it was Coppola the idea being, with a clearer head and the distance of time, he could do it his way. Not the jungle's.
I'm almost dead-set against director's cuts, and have rarely seen their value. Steven Spielberg re-edited Close Encounters of the Third Kind and took an imaginative story about alien contact and extended it into a tedious bore. Ridley Scott's reworking of Blade Runner was a curious waste of time. Usually, first version is usually the best version, even if the director didn't intend it to be. Sometimes "mistakes" can be a good thing. But for every rule there's an exception, and anyone who had to go through what Coppola did deserves his second chance.
Having said all of that, Apocalypse Now Redux is better in that with a few added scenes and exquisite editing touches (courtesy Walter Murch), Coppola is allowed the chance to flesh things out just a little bit more. The first version was indeed a brilliant mess of a film, which was part of its beauty. A film about excess -- of war, of madness, of destruction -- can be forgiven for being an excess unto itself. What's wrong with a little more?
Based loosely on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, 1979's Apocalypse Now shows a nation eating its own. Martin Sheen is Capt. Willard, a counter-intelligence officer who has blood on his hands and has given up looking for the soap. Which makes him the perfect candidate by military higher-ups, led by G.D. Spradlin and a young Harrison Ford, to track down a renegade colonel who has started his own ragtag unit and set up shop in nearby Cambodia. Col. Kurtz (Brando) is doing things his own way and is too successful, they argue. "His methods are unsound," they tell Willard vaguely, and order him to "terminate the colonel's command ... with extreme prejudice." Really, though, Kurtz represents what corporations hate: the efficient freelancer. In America, that's one of the ultimate no-no's.
Thus begins the odyssey for Willard, though he tells us that it's only a continuation of a hell he's ultimately accepted. In one of the film's early poetic scenes (before the meeting with his superiors), Willard is lying drunk in a Saigon hotel, staring into the ceiling fan that mirrors the spin of so many choppers bombing villages with napalm. "Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon," he groans, because he yearns to return to the jungle where he belongs. Sheen, who was reportedly actually drunk for the scene, seems to try to exorcise his demons, eventually getting up the nerve to punch out a mirror in a fit of self-destruction, smearing his bloodied hand down his face. Apocalypse now? For Willard, it's already happened.
Despite his craving to get back into the "shit," Willard can't figure out how the Army would want a perfect soldier like Kurtz dead. The more he reads about him, the less he understands. While he becomes obsessed with his prey, he almost passively observes his crew go from one bizarre setting to another as Coppola collects snapshots of just how insane the Vietnam War truly was.
The scenes have survived the past 22 years and become vignettes filled with unforgettable images and lines, the latter courtesy of the script fashioned by Coppola and main screenwriter John Milius. While they serve as checkpoints along the river and therefore are supposed to enjoy a thread of sorts, they feel more like pieces of a puzzle that never really forms. Fragmented yes, maybe even a prism. But is madness supposed to be coherent?
The most memorable scene is of course the chopper invasion, featuring Robert Duvall's Col. Kilgore, the "Flight of the Valkyries" approach of the choppers, and the string of dead bodies everywhere. There's the irony of Kilgore insisting on giving water to an injured Viet Cong fighter only to absentmindedly yank the canteen away when he realizes one of Willard's crew is a champion surfer. Duvall's performance is one of the all-time scene-stealers in movie history, the beneficiary of such classic lines as "Charlie don't surf!," "I love the smell of napalm in the morning ... it smells like ... victory" and finally with sincere regret, "Some day this war's gonna end." He is the military's wet dream, a fearless and fierce soldier who sends his men into hostile territory without hesitation and knows, as Willard notes, that he "will get out of this without a scratch." Kilgore is Kurtz's doppelganger, the company man who stayed on the right path because he hasn't thought for one second of the moral implications of his actions. He doesn't want this to end.
From there, the odyssey grows more insane with each stop. They stumble upon a riverside camp just as it's preparing for a USO appearance by Playboy playmates. It is perhaps the director's most visceral statement about one of the military's most critical missteps in trying to bring as much of America to the jungle as it could. As perplexed villagers watch from behind a fence, the bunnies try to perform for the sex-starved troops, who inevitably and predictably riot as they battle against the reality of the illusion. And the playmates are whisked away by the choppers who delivered them. Illusions, indeed.
Two scenes later, the crew stumbles upon a ghost town of an encampment, where no one's in charge and the playmates are holed up (for no apparent reason). Willard bargains fuel for sex with his crew, which includes the surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms), Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chef (Frederic Forrest). So the illusion becomes a dirty, wet, prostituted reality in a cramped helicopter.
The scene is one of two that Coppola added that involve the film's only sex. In the second, the crew runs into a bedraggled French plantation whose inhabitants steadfastly refuse to leave as their countrymen did about a decade ago. Though the scene drags on a little too long -- once again messing with the anticipation of Willard's clash with Kurtz -- it does provide a little political history lesson and the film's only real tender moment as Willard smokes opium and sleeps with a beautiful widow. "There are two of you, don't you see?" she tells him as she pulls down the bed canopy's gauzy veil. "One that kills, and one that loves." For one fleeting moment in the movie, Willard loves. But as we all know, it can't last.
Coppola apparently felt obligated to retroactively get his money's worth by providing a little more Brando screen time in the climactic final scenes. There's nothing much new here, just Kurtz further eroding Willard's resolve by explaining the ongoing hypocrisies of America's war. Kurtz can freak Willard out all he wants. He knows that if he doesn't kill Willard, someone else will come in his place. Kurtz is a marked man and he knows it; he's even "gone too far" with his own "army" as the strewn bodies testify. He's a king who knows he's going to be deposed; a god who's become too much the monster.
And so Kurtz allows Willard to do what he does all too well, as both Kurtz and a sacrificial cow are slaughtered in what amounts to a parallel sacrificial ceremony. The ending, though, remains just as curious the second time around, for we're still not really sure what Coppola is trying to ultimately say. Are we all simply slaves to our own nature? As Willard leaves, the villagers bow to him, their new king, and drop their arms as he drops his stained machete. Great. What now? It's almost as if, even 20 years later, Coppola ultimately has no answers for the questions he poses, except to say that war is bad.
The scenes with Brando, in fact, represent Coppola at his best and worst as he struggles to define how the movie shall end. Brando's performance, still abstract and just plain weird, resonates more from his presence than anything else as he continues his rambling pontifications. "Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror," Kurtz tells Willard. "Otherwise, they will be your enemy." Which sets up his last immortal gasp after Willard has hacked him up like the ceremonial cow: "The horror ... the horror."
At least the elliptical ending is no less powerful now than before. Coppola said that at one point, he wasn't making the movie; it was making itself. Production went nearly a year past its deadline, storms wrecked sets, Sheen had a heart attack in the middle of everything. Perhaps Coppola was just as puzzled by the jungle as its previous Anglo invaders.
Regardless, Apocalypse Now, Redux or not, remains perhaps the most powerful war movie (or statement about the essence of war) ever. The timing of this belated New Orleans release couldn't have been more prescient, as America grapples once again with an enemy in the shadows -- one that has struck on our soil, to be sure, but one that may be just as elusive as those we lost in the jungle, both in reality and on the big screen.