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Apocalypse Now Redux

It's amazing to realize that, within the span of a decade, Francis Ford Coppola directed three of the greatest American films of the 20th century: Godfather I and II and Apocalypse Now. While you could have long arguments about which movie is the best, Apocalypse Now is undeniably the most ambitious. Now, 22 years after its original release, Coppola is re-releasing Apocalypse Now with an additional 49 minutes of  never-before-seen footage.

The story, adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is about the journey of a man up a river. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen in an awe-inspiring performance) has been sent by Army Intelligence to kill one
of its own men, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has forsaken the chain of command and started his own private army, and Willard is to "terminate him, with extreme prejudice."

To get up the river, he rides along on a small boat with four enlisted men (including one played by a very young-looking Laurence Fishburne). They encounter Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall as a force of nature) and have the fortune of experiencing one of his trademark helicopter assaults, with Wagner blaring from the speakers. Farther along on their expedition, they meet some Playboy playmates, a leaderless battalion, and finally Kurtz himself.

This quest, literally and figuratively, is a harrowing one. Some men will die and even those who survive will be permanently altered. Coppola's searing vision of the Vietnam war is not only a startling anti-war film but
a deeply profound exploration of the human condition. What are we when our societal conventions, laws, and norms are stripped away? When we truly reach the "heart" of the matter and we're answerable only to ourselves, what are we really like?

Coppola's vision is helped immeasurably by Vittorio Storaro's astonishing cinematography. The striking opening sequence of Willard's miserable hotel room, the helicopter assault on a small Vietnamese village, the deceptively placid river shots, and Kurtz's compound (surrounded by decapitated bodies and skulls) are images that will stick in the mind of anyone who's seen the film. But maybe the most powerful visual scene is when Willard's boat stops at the Do Lung bridge. Shot in complete darkness with only brief flashes of gunfire, it is one of the most horrifying scenes in all of cinema. "Who's the commanding officer here, soldier?" Willard asks. The sharp reply comes back, "Aren't you?!"

This is just one of many great lines in the script by John Milius, Michael Herr, and Coppola. "Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" are two of the more quotable ones. Even more impressive, though, is how Apocalypse Now incorporates and expands on Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There aren't many great literary adaptations in movies, particularly of well-written books, but this is one of them. Apocalypse Now faithfully follows Conrad's narrative arc while still remaining true to the Vietnam War setting. It is a most impressive combination.

Equally impressive is the acting. Martin Sheen perfectly captures a man coming to grips with himself but losing his grip on reality. His slow descent into darkness is compelling. The famously incorrigible Brando gives
a haunting performance as Kurtz. And as Anthony Lane wrote in last week's New Yorker, has there ever been a better cameo than Robert Duvall's? His Colonel Kilgore (an appropriate name) might be the best thing about
Apocalypse Now, and that's saying a lot.

I wish I could say as much about the 49 minutes that have been added for this version. The Playboy bunny sequence has been expanded (Captain Willard and his men rendezvous with the ladies later on), and there are a couple of extra conversations between Willard and his men, and Willard and Kurtz. The longest scene, though, takes place at a French plantation where Willard has dinner with a group of colonialists who are determined to stick it out. Though each of these additions provides a greater context for the film (the Playboy bunny scene is heartbreaking), they also have the result of dragging out what is already a long movie. That's particularly true of the plantation sequence, which comes towards the end of the film and pretty much brings the narrative to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, Apocalypse Now Redux is absolutely required viewing, especially if you've never seen it on the big screen before. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and a thought-provoking and deeply
unsettling portrait of what lies at the heart of all of us. 

by J. Robert Parks 8/13/2001


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