by Adam-Troy Castro
A few words of explanation: while the examination of movies and their remakes will continue to be the major purpose of this blog, it is not the only movie writing I have done, nor will it be the only movie ranting I intend to do here. What follows is a previously-published blog post on the subject of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and its much inferior “Director’s Cut,” Apocalypse Now Redux. Consider it a palate-cleanser before the next big remake essay, still a week away. A-TC
Is more of the same too much? That’s the question that greets viewers of the restored, re-edited version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War fantasia, Apocalypse Now, a film that codified genius in its first release and is here presented under a different title, with almost an hour of scenes cut from its original release. The critical consensus is that the re-edited version embarrasses current Hollywood product by emerging as the best film of the year. That happens to be more or less arguable, but that, alas, is more a commentary on the bankruptcy of so much of today’s filmmaking than it is on the the quality of the restored material. For while Apocalypse Now Redux contains much that is brilliant, it is almost entirely material that appeared in the previous release; the additions, while interesting on a historical level, dilute rather than enhance the impact of what appears on screen. It is all too often easy to see why these scenes were cut during the first release. They were either redundant or just didn’t work.
Both versions of the film are loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” transferred from Africa to Vietnam. In both, a troubled, burnout military assassin named Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned by a group of officers that include a young Harrison Ford to seek out and “terminate, with extreme prejudice” the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is now somewhere in Cambodian jungle, operating a private war with natives and AWOL soldiers who “worship him like a God.” In both, Willard undertakes this journey up the river in a small patrol boat with several navy men who know nothing of his mission except that “it’s gonna be hot”; in both, he experiences so much surreal military madness on the way that by the time he gets to Kurtz he isn’t sure whether he wants to kill Kurtz or join him. Both versions suffer from a wonky geography, of the sort that requires a major military action just to get the boat into the river but then allows the crew easy contact with USO shows and mail drops much further upstream. Both versions end with the bloated Kurtz droning on about his philosophies at such length that the eventual assassination seems less like Willard carrying out his assignment and more like Willard doing something, anything, to get the blowhard to shut up.
It’s the journey to Kurtz that provides both versions of the film with its memorable power, but the meat of the journey is contained in the shorter version. Take the film’s greatest set-piece, an encounter with a mad Colonel named Kilgore. Duvall plays the role as if his life depended on it, giving what might have been the best performance in a career filled with great ones. Kilgore is, now and then, one of the most chilling and perversely funny creations in the history of film: an arrogant, swaggering military man so lost in his own myth that he reacts not at all to explosions taking place right next to him. Willard knows at once that Kilgore knows he won’t be killed no matter what he does, a quality that makes him frightening even to an assassin like Willard. Kilgore, who blasts “The Flight of the Valkyries” from his choppers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes,” isn’t an evil man; he’s capable of wanting to give water to a wounded enemy soldier, but so easily distracted even from such moments of potential nobility that he walks away without providing the wounded man with so much as a sip. The distraction? Sheer fan-worship of a stoned Californian PFC named Lance (Timothy Bottoms), who happened to be a legendary surfer before being drafted to Nam. Kilgore, an avid surfer himself, mounts an airborne blitzkrieg on an enemy village not because it furthers Willard’s mission, but because access to its quality surf will provide Lance an opportunity to show his stuff.
What follows, a massive and terrifying aerial assault on both soldiers and civilians, for the most trivial of reasons, is one of the most indelible (and most elaborate) battle scenes ever filmed, all the more terrifying for the absurdity of forcing soldiers to surf under heavy fire. It ends, of course, with a genial Kilgore delivering the film’s best speech, declaring how he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. “It smells like…” he gropes for the word: “Victory.” Sheen’s character, a pretty cold-blooded bastard himself, stares at him in astonishment.
It’s a great moment. And in the film as originally released, it’s a punchline. But the restored print adds more. The napalm has blown out the waves, so Lance can’t surf. The Colonel throws a tantrum about it. Willard takes advantage of the distraction to get Lance back to the boat so their mission can continue. Lance steals a surfboard. Everybody in the crew, including Willard, shares a hearty laugh as, shrouded by jungle canopy, they hide from helicopters broadcasting demands for the board’s return.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong.
We establish at the beginning of the film that Willard’s a major burnout case: alcoholic, self-destructive, even suicidal. He wants a mission in part because it’s all he’s good at, and possibly in part because he wants to be killed on the way. He never smiles at all during the edited film. Allowing him to laugh, and even to indulge in hijinx, humanizes him in precisely the wrong way. It also lessens the impact of everything that happened before with Kilgore. Coppola was correct in removing this scene the first time, as it deals the film a heavy blow. There are unfortunately others to come.
Another of Apocalypse Now’s set pieces is an encounter with a travelling USO show, where three Playboy playmates gyrate and shout come-ons to soldiers who then riot and force them to flee. In the original, this is a wonderful dark bit of comedy, contrasting the empty consolations of entertainment with the violence more central to the soldier’s lot. The re-cut version eventually brings us to an abandoned base where the chopper ferrying the playmates has gone down. Willard, humanized still further (and again, in the wrong way), trades their road manager precious fuel in exchange for getting his boatmates laid. What follows is grotesquely comical coitus interruptus as the Playmates, so busy chattering about nothing that they don’t even seem to notice the imminent sex, allow themselves to be used in a chopper containing occupied coffins. None of it plays: not the soldier who begs one Playmate to pose exactly as she did on her centerfold, not the same Playmate’s endless monologue about her birds, not the other girl’s emotional collapse about posing nude, and not the punch line involving the horny 17-year-old inner city kid Sweet, who has been pacing around waiting for his turn.
It’s wrong, wrong, wrong in part because the girls don’t come off as characters, in part because it stops the film dead, in part because it’s way too obvious that the film does what it can to get only the white soldiers laid, in part because procurement seems way out of character for the emotionally dead Willard, and in part because it defuses the tension that should be building at this point in the story — but mostly because it really has nothing to do with anything. The film has already made the presence of the Playmates, in the context of the war, grotesque; bringing them back for a little sex comedy adds nothing and subtracts a lot. Again, Coppola was correct to remove this scene in the seventies, and misguided to replace it now.
The longest of the film’s restorations occurs way upriver, after Sweet’s death, when the crew of the little boat discovers a crumbling plantation still occupied by its original French owners. The frenchmen live with their own private army, repelling assaults by both sides as they stubbornly hold on to that which they insist is theirs. There is a military funeral for Sweet, adding nothing, followed by a profoundly dysfunctional family dinner where the embittered frenchmen harangue Willard with a history of the french involvement in Vietnam. Some critics love this scene, considering it as surreal as anything that comes before or after. It is surreal, all right, but there are still problems with it, as the little history lesson (shouted in thick accents), feels way out of place in a film that otherwise functions better as a nightmare than it does as a realistic portrait of the average soldier’s experience in-country. (I mean, give me a break). It also goes on way too long, and stops the film as dead as the second Playmate encounter, but that’s a minor point. What’s absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG, is Willard’s subsequent seduction by the beautiful french woman whose husband has been killed. This is the same guy who, we’re told at the onset, returned from his first tour unable to speak a word to his wife until he said yes to a divorce. This is the same guy who needed a mission because he wasn’t able to do anything else. Giving him a bittersweet encounter with a spacey french broad, whether she smokes a mean cigar or not, is the greatest mis-step in the re-edited version — and it’s even worse when you consider that these scenes, which feature the french broad going on and on about the two sides of Willard’s nature, also also include the only sappy syrup-music in the entire film. The brilliant making-of film, Heart of Darkness, shows us Coppola throwing a temper tantrum after several days of filming the sequence, cursing that it’s shit and doesn’t work. He was right then, and he should have resisted the temptation to restore it.
The most problematic sequence in either version of the film is the encounter with Kurtz, played by a Marlon Brando who showed up on the set weighing far too much to be a believable Green Beret (especially a dying one). Brando had yet to become comfortable with showing his increased weight on film, and insisted on being photographed only in extreme shadow. His mostly-improvised scenes are rough going even though he did produce a memorable monologue about an atrocity involving innoculations. Many viewers believe they don’t work at all. I take the position that they work just fine in the original film, where the abrupt change in tone takes place at the end of a film that up until then moves like a rocket. I feel that, as cut, Brando gave the film precisely what it needed at that point. But the recut version places Brando after the second playmate encounter and after the interminable plantation sequence; i.e. after the film has already squandered its momentum and cannot afford anything that slows the story still further. Worse, it adds even more slow-motion Brando, who at one point reads at length from TIME magazine. By the time Willard finally gets off his ass and provides Kurtz with the mercy killing he desires, the film feels like it’s been dead for more than an hour.
Apocalypse Now, whether Redux or not, still looks fantastic, with brilliant photography that accentuates every bead of sweat, astounding visuals that elevate warfare to the level of literal as well as figurative nightmare and surreal comic-opera performances from, in addition to those already cited, Frederic Forrest and Dennis Hopper. The original version was a flawed work salvaged from one of the great disaster-ridden productions in film history; among other things, it almost killed Martin Sheen. Coppola himself thought the film was a disaster until he heard the critical reaction. But he came closer to a disaster than he ever knew. Redux is that disaster. Somebody once said that writing is an exercise in killing your darlings, by which he meant that writers need the courage to remove the lines and scenes and little bits that fail to work as well as intended. With Apocalypse Now Redux, we learn once again that the same is true of filmmaking, and see, with perfect clarity, just how crippled even masterpieces can become when those murdered darlings are pulled moldering from their graves and returned to that which was vital and astonishing without them.