In retrospect, the dozen years between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the fall of Saigon in 1975 look like America’s very own season in hell. Compared to the relative placidity of the Eisenhower years in the preceding decade and of the Reagan era that followed it, this period of riots, war, public murders and searing national division was uniquely dark and turbulent, if also electric with the drama of social change: in short, a perfect illustration of the Chinese notion that to live in interesting times is a curse.
At the movies, the same period witnessed an apogee of sorts, the full flowering of cinematic modernism, when artists such as Godard, Antonioni, Fassbinder and others struggled to assert that cinema was capable of the same fierce refinements as those practiced by the likes of Joyce, Eliot, Klee and Brancusi. Obviously, this aesthetic surge owed something to the cultural ferment surrounding it, but not everything. If the ’60s’ general tumult of experiment and innovation catalyzed the cinema’s progress, some of the ideas central to its advances–especially the exaltation of the artist, the auteur, to the level of visionary or industrial-age shaman–harkened back not only to modernism’s first flood stage in the early 20th century, but even further, to the Romantic era a century before.
The first two-thirds of cinema’s 1960-75 modernist peak belonged primarily to the artists of Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan and Brazil. In the latter third, 1970-75 roughly, America came into its own as the young, European-influenced “film generation” of Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and company inaugurated the U.S. cinema’s most cerebral, dark and adventurous period, a half-decade that still looks like a renaissance. Here again, there was no exact correlation between history and art. While it could have been totally coincidental that this brilliant half-decade and the Vietnam War ended in the same year, the cinematic downturn was perhaps no less connected to another event of 1975: The blockbuster arrival of Jaws, the first movie launched with a TV ad blitz, offered a dispiriting preview of the current era, when TV-influenced inanity has all but erased modernism’s acute intelligence from mainstream movies.
Arriving in 1979 after a long and famously troubled production history, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was not only a latecomer, but arguably the last great movie of the 1970s American film renaissance. At the time, it felt very much like the end of something, yet there was no consensus that this something deserved to be mourned. Modernism’s high seriousness had grown ponderous and inert, some charged, while the adulation heaped on young auteurs had led to self-indulgence and excess. Given Apocalypse Now‘s reported budget overages and Coppola’s Balzacian labors in bringing it to completion, it was hardly surprising that coverage of the film’s debut at the ’79 Cannes Film Festival often focused on its signs of hubristic overreaching, or that its supporters were offset by critics who deemed it more a monument to ego than a milestone of art–a division of opinion that continues to this day.
In light of such advance reports, I went into Apocalypse Now in the fall of 1979 with as much skepticism as hope. I came away dazzled and impressed. On its own very ambitious and aesthetically high-flown terms, the film unquestionably works; it’s a unique item in the history of movies, a film that’s at once daring, beautiful, creepy, magisterial and troubling in perhaps more ways than it means to be. That was my opinion in 1979 and it remains so. Yet I hasten to add that I understand its detractors’ viewpoint. In so many ways, and much like the mind of its main character, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), Apocalypse Now is a film poised on a knife’s edge. It wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t as easy to abhor as to admire.
The new Apocalypse Now Redux, a version almost 50 minutes longer than the original, created by Coppola and sound designer/editor Walter Murch, is easily one of 2001’s major cinema events, yet it is not, I think, a film to change anyone’s mind. If you hated the movie originally, you’ll hate it still. If you loved it, ditto. (If you’ve never seen it, prepare to take sides.) Nor in my opinion is this new version an improvement on the first. Coppola has indicated that while financial and other pressures obliged him to give the 1979 version a shape he thought would work with audiences and exhibitors at the time, he regards this new cut, made under freer circumstances, as “definitive.” Be that as it may, Apocalypse Now Redux bodes to enter the history books not as the version but as an interesting alternate to an original which retains the advantages of greater concision and aesthetic focus.
The new footage begins with some short and fairly neglible moments early in the story, including interplay between Willard and the crew of the boat taking him upriver on his mission to locate and kill the renegade U.S. officer Kurtz (Marlon Brando). There’s also a little more to the brilliant and funny passage involving the gung-ho Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall, who gives the film’s most striking performance) and his passion for wartime surfing. Most of the additions, however, comprise three sequences in the movie’s second half: a new scene involving the Playboy Bunnies; the famous, 25-minute “French plantation” scene; and a scene where Kurtz rantingly reads from current magazine reports to the captive Willard.
The first two of these insertions led some hopeful pundits to say that Apocalypse Now finally has what it lacked all along: sex and politics. But that’s a bit misleading in both cases. The Playboy Bunnies sequence comes after the memorable scene in which Willard and his crew stop at an upriver camp and watch the surreal spectacle of hundreds of sex-starved soldiers going crazy over three imported Bunnies performing on a makeshift stage, with a rock band’s backing. Now that scene is followed by one where Willard’s boat stops further upriver and finds the Bunnies’ transport stranded in the rain. He trades fuel so that his crew can have sex with the girls. This is something of a throwaway passage, however. It’s neither sexy nor revealing of anything in particular, except perhaps the sad loneliness that characterizes sex in such circumstances.
The French plantation scene, though also problematic, is far more substantial and fascinating on its own terms. It occurs fairly late in the story, following the death of Clean (Laurence Fishburne Jr.). After Willard and crew put into shore and find a mist- and jungle-shrouded plantation guarded by its own small army, he has a long and boozy dinner with the French inhabitants, and afterward goes to bed with one of their women (Aurora Clement).
The dinner-table talk is what gives this scene its political bite. While Coppola has said that much of it was improvised by the French actors, its gist recalls that the film’s primary credited writer is John Milius, whose political sympathies tilt strongly to the right. (Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the screenplay is co-credited to Coppola, with narration by Michael Herr.) What these colonial holdouts seem to be saying is that Americans will lose the war because they don’t have the strong, gut-level reasons for holding onto Vietnam that they, the French, still feel.
Like pretty much every director who’s ever made a film about war, Coppola has said that his is an anti-war film. But one of the things that’s fascinating about Apocalypse Now is the sense that, thanks to Milius’ contributions, it’s at least partly pro-war, pro-military and pro-colonialist. Surely, Coppola’s emphases and Herr’s lyrical narration stress the pity and horror of war. We sense Milius, on the other hand, in Duvall’s surfer colonel riding to battle with Wagner blaring from his helicopters, and in his exultant line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” None of this is satirically derided. Rather, it is slyly valorized, in much the same way that the tenacity of the colonial French implicitly is. And one might suspect this is why Coppola initially dropped the scene, fearing that Milius’ imprint was giving the story too much of a right-wing polemical tilt.
But there’s an even better reason for the original excision. Not only does the French plantation segment comprise too long a detour, it also comes far too late in the narrative, well after Willard has passed the bridge that should be the last barrier before he reaches Kurtz’ nightmarish domain. If Apocalypse Now‘s idiosyncrasies have any final justification, they are aesthetic, and this violation of the film’s narrative shape and drive is what dooms the sequence.
In comparing my original judgments of Apocalypse Now to this version, there was only one area where I felt my opinions shift strongly. In my youthful enthusiasm for Coppola’s vision, I defended Marlon Brando’s performance, which was much criticized in some quarters. I now have to concede that one to the nay-sayers. Although Coppola does a terrific job using the bulky actor’s iconic presence (his bald head emerges from the shadows like a rogue planet), Brando’s narcissistic, mostly improvised performance, including the newly inserted scene, is a flat-out embarrassment. Refusing to do the first things required of any actor–submit to the director and the script–he maunders pretentiously and pointlessly, and thereby deprives the film of the powerful, fully focused climax it so deserves. What an ego flame-out, and what a pity for Coppola.
That said, I should emphasize what a wonder most of the film remains. Although it may represent the zenith of modernist auteurism in the American cinema, it is very much a collective achievement. Coppola had terrific assistance from the likes of Murch, the wizardly cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Dean Tavoularis, original editor Richard Marks, and actors such as Dennis Hopper, whose zany effectiveness in the final sequence nearly counterbalances Brando’s loose cannon. When most or all of these elements suddenly mesh to maximum effect–for example, when Willard’s men first enter Kurtz’ jungle lair–the film attains a magical, unforgettable grandeur all its own.
Ultimately, Apocalypse Now is one of those masterpieces that seem overly self-conscious of their lunge toward mastery, and that possess an air of noble failure for reasons beyond their own scope and control. Indeed, it now seems more inevitable than coincidental that Coppola’s throwback to the cinematic renaissance of 1970-1975 concerned the war that tore America asunder during the same years. After Vietnam, people looked to the film to heal that wound, to explain the war, to make political sense of the whole long nightmare. But of course it couldn’t do that. It could only point toward the darkness and division within the human heart, and try to find its own way out of the jungle. It did that, but at a time when cinema’s modernist phase was ending as America slouched toward the Reagan era. So much for missions upriver, against the current.