Jack Garner on Apocalypse Now Redux

Submitted by Guest Post,

This article, written by Jack Garner, was originally published as part of his Gannett News Service reviews, and is a segment from his book, From My Seat on the Aisle, which can be purchased in the Museum Store. Garner shared the segment with us in celebration of the upcoming George Eastman Award honoring Vittorio Storaro, and our screening of Apocalypse Now Redux (2001).

I am among many critics whose admiration for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, came with an asterisk: If I called the film a "masterpiece,'' I modified it with "flawed.''

It's time to drop the asterisk and erase ``flawed.'' Why? Because Apocalypse Now has evolved. It's not the same film. And because we've evolved, too. We're not the same audience.

Apocalypse Now Redux is a magnificent new edition of the Coppola film. Restructured in subtle but important ways - and with 49 minutes of previously unseen footage - this landmark film is not to be missed.

It is clearer now that Coppola created a profound metaphor for the entire Vietnam experience -- but audiences in 1979 were too close to step back and take in this broader view.

And with the addition of a fabled but previously unseen French plantation sequence, the presence of the French in the bloody history of Vietnam is reaffirmed, and the overview of the conflict is complete.

But that's only one of several major additions to Apocalypse Now, which adapts Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam era. As in the novel, a man takes a long, difficult journey up a jungle river to destroy a demented, dangerous man.

The journey is taken by a military special op named Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), on instructions to terminate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) ``with extreme prejudice.'' Kurtz was once a great officer but has left the military behind, gone native and set up a kingdom of jungle warriors.

As we observe Willard's trip upriver, we go on a journey through the Vietnam experience, with all its horrors, paradoxes, humor and idiocy.

Besides the plantation scene, Coppola and his Oscar-winning editor and sound designer, Walter Murch, now weave in:

  • A few more scenes with Robert Duvall's fabulous Col. Kilgore character, the surf-riding officer who loves ``the smell of napalm in the morning.''
  • Another scene involving the Playboy bunnies, who had been shown entertaining the troops. Now, their sexual favors are bartered for a helicopter's gasoline - a stunning example of human exploitation in a war of exploitation.
  • The only sequence that shows Brando in daylight, as his character reads to Willard war reports from Time magazine, showing the hypocrisy of the conflict.

The movie's end - it stirred much confusion in 1979 - is largely unchanged. But now it makes more sense in the broad metaphoric sweep of the film.

In going back to the dailies and rebuilding Apocalypse Now, Coppola and Murch said their goal was to make the film they had always intended. Coppola says he rushed to wrap up the original because of the looming 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Coppola has written: "We were terrified the film was too long, too strange and didn't resolve itself in a kind of classic big battle . . . so we shaped the film that we thought would work for the mainstream audience of its day. More than 20 years later, I (saw) the picture. . . . What struck me was that the original -- which had been seen as so demanding and adventurous when it first came out -- now seemed relatively tame, as though the audience had caught up with it.''

Clearly, we're further removed from the conflicted emotions of the Vietnam War, and have seen far more at the movies -- more violence, more technique. Coppola was inspired to tackle a new version that adhered more to original themes "related to the morality in war.''

Indeed, audiences hungry for reality in 1979 were sometimes dumfounded by the film's operatic melodrama and its penchant for metaphor. The film's violent, ritualistic ending was especially strange and unsettling.

In the new version, the journey upriver can be more easily seen as a trip back in time:

First, we encounter the '70s, with American soldiers led by the surf-loving Kilgore.

Next, we travel through the dark hell of Vietnam, crossing the DMZ into Cambodia, after stopping at a border camp where drugged-out, '60s-style soldiers have no clue "who's in charge.''

Farther upriver, out of the fog comes a squad of Frenchmen guarding a plantation, where a French family lives as if unaffected by time. We're now back in the '50s, when the French were a strong player in Southeast Asia.

Finally, we reach the river's beginning - Kurtz's compound - where painted natives carry spears and bloody heads decorate the shore. We've returned to the primal. Coppola has said Apocalypse Now was designed "to let audiences feel what Vietnam was like: the immediacy, the insanity, the exhilaration, the horror, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma of America's most surreal and nightmarish war.''

With Apocalypse Now Redux, it can be said: Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017