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Smells Like Victory

Never Mind the Extra Footage--Apocalypse Now Still Dazzles

By Andy Markowitz | Posted

If you haven't seen Apocalypse Now Redux, you haven't seen Apocalypse Now--but not for the reason you might think. Francis Ford Coppola's extended remix of his 1979 Vietnam epic is definitive, all right. But it's not that the ballyhooed restoration of 49 minutes of cutting-room-floor footage makes Apocalypse a better or clearer film. Rather, the additions make you marvel all the more at what Coppola accomplished in the first place--and an impossibly glorious reprinting kicks the film's rich sensory overload into overdrive.

Yeah, geeky filmcrits chant "new print!" every time a classic gets a shiny rerelease. But if there was ever a time to buy the mantra that you need to see a particular film on a big screen, in a big theater, with a big sound system--a theater like, say, the Senator--this is it. Even if you've seen Apocalypse theatrically before, Redux's look and sound are astonishing. If Coppola hadn't added a thing, it would still seem like a new film.

When Coppola (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Milius and Michael Herr, loosely adapting Joseph Conrad's novella of colonialism, Heart of Darkness) led his cast and crew into the Philippine jungle in 1976, he was the most acclaimed director of his time, trailing behind him three near-perfect films: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. What he emerged with three years later was radically unlike those movies or any other, a phantasmagoric assemblage of huge images, huge ideas, and huge flaws. It divided audiences and critics--some blasting it as bloated and impenetrable, others hailing it as a visionary masterpiece. It's only fair to disclose at this point that I'm of the latter school.

To me, what makes Apocalypse Now so unique and compelling is the way it immerses you in its world. No film so effectively obliterates the distance between the action on screen and the people in front of it. It drops you into the boat, the battles, the jungle itself as hard-bitten Army assassin Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen, in a performance so intense it makes his wise President Bartlet seem like a parlor trick) winds his way upriver through Vietnam and Cambodia to "terminate" the rogue Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Besides giving the movie its visceral jolt, that you-are-there quality gives shape to its sometimes shapeless Big Thoughts about human nature, the nature of conflict, and the thin line between "right" and "wrong" in the moral morass of the Vietnam War.

The new "dye transfer" print--employing a Technicolor process akin to the color separation used in magazines and lithography--heightens this immediacy immensely. Vittorio Storaro's Oscar-winning photography positively leaps off the screen, right from the multilayered opening sequence of a dense forest, shrouded in yellow mist and circled by ominously thwopping helicopters, exploding into flames, morphing into the Saigon hotel room in which Willard, awaiting his orders, drunkenly implodes. The reprint's brilliantly burnished colors and tweaked soundtrack draw you further into the film's surreal hyper-reality--the staggering set pieces are more vivid, the mordant wit darker, the sense of encroaching menace stronger, the characters more shaded. (Sheen's deep red sunburn in that first scene, which I'd never noticed in a dozen-odd viewings, says that much more about the circumstances of Willard's freakout.) The stark, chiaroscuro lights and darks of Kurtz's nightmarish compound enhance the film's meditations on good and evil, truth and lies, the madness and maddening ambiguity of war and empire.

Which is more, sadly, than can be said for the additional footage. It's easy to understand Coppola's desire to re-create the film, to reincorporate material that he's been sitting on for 22 years and that is obviously close to his heart. (His first cut was more than four hours long.) In a press-kit "Director's Statement," he recalls finishing Apocalypse I in an atmosphere of intense scrutiny and speculation arising from its legendarily tumultuous production. (For more on that, catch the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, opening Aug. 16 at the Charles.) With the press howling and his own fortune mortgaged to cover the film's costs, Coppola writes, he was forced to pare it down to the essentials of Willard's river journey, sacrificing major material to minimize length (it still ran two and a half hours) and maximize commercial prospects.

What's most striking about the "new" footage, though, is how much it makes you appreciate Coppola's achievement back then: Under terrific pressure, with his career literally on the line, almost every decision he made was right. The reinstated material is at best interesting filigree, at worst a distraction. Some horseplay and hijinks among Willard and the Navy crew ferrying him (Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and a teenage Laurence Fishburne all create indelible characters) add continuity but undercut or telegraph the film's best absurdist jokes. (An extended comic coda to the bravura segment featuring Robert Duvall's breast-beating, surf-happy Col. Kilgore takes all the air out of his grimly hilarious speech about the scent of napalm.) The crew's encounter with a spectral French family that refuses to leave its ancestral plantation adds historical resonance but resolves itself in a ludicrous love scene between Willard and a comely widow (Aurore Clement) involving opium and hackneyed Jungian philosophy. Maybe it's because I'm so attached to Apocalypse as it was, but this stuff seems to belong in some other movie. In trying to give the characters and the audience some quiet breathing room amid the increasingly violent and bizarre journey to Kurtz, the new footage punctures the momentum, the sense of enveloping darkness that powers the film upriver.

The one unreserved improvement is a brief scene--one of the last cut from the original--of Brando's Kurtz sardonically reading American news clippings about how well the war is going. A U.S. intelligence analyst "told the president last week, 'Things felt much better and smelled much better over there,'" Kurtz recites to the imprisoned Willard. "How do they smell to you, soldier?" While it doesn't quite untie the movie's philosophical knots, the scene offers a little more insight into Brando's fascinating but murky characterization. And Coppola jettisons once and for all the fiery closing-credits sequence, resolving two decades of uncertainty about how the movie ends.

In the end, Redux is not so much a new-and-improved Apocalypse Now as a sort of remaster, like those boxed-set editions of Pet Sounds or What's Going On, full of alternate takes filtered through modern technology. For aficionados, there's a definite anthropological kick to seeing the never-before-seen. But as much as all those demo versions of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" might provide insight into Brian Wilson's creative process, in the end they just make it all the more impressive that the finished product is what it is. Apocalypse Now may be unnecessarily longer, but it has never looked better, and Coppola's achievement has never seemed more monumental.

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