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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002

The horror and the hubris

Coppola's masterpiece returns to haunt us

Apocalypse Now Redux

Rating: * * * * *
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 202 minutes
Language: English

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Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Kilgore

This age of ours, this supposedly gleaming new millennium that dawned amid predictions of disaster and Y2K chaos, has quickly spun out of control, a virtual roller-coaster ride of fear, uncertainty and violence. We have all been swept up in a battle that is -- so our political leaders tell us -- nothing less than a climactic struggle between civilization and barbarism, light and darkness, good and evil. The apocalypse? Not just now, perhaps, but you can feel it out there, lurking, just an outrage away . . .

Saigon,1969. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a U.S. military intelligence officer, receives a top-secret directive: Travel deep into Cambodia, track down a renegade U.S. Green Beret colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and "terminate [him] with extreme prejudice." Kurtz, he's told, has gone insane, reverting to savagery and ruling his own jungle fiefdom of Montagnard tribesmen. Willard heads upriver on a patrol boat with younger, greener draftees: surfer-boy Lance (Sam Bottoms), Bronx teen Clean (Lawrence Fishburne), wannabe cook Chef (Frederick Forrest) and the uptight skipper, Chief (Albert Hall). Together they pass through ever more surreal episodes on their way to Cambodia, encountering a mad Air Cavalry commander (Robert Duvall) who's obsessed with Wagner and surfing, a remote base where Playboy bunnies are flown in to perform for the troops and a psychedelicized front line, where leaderless troops fire at unseen enemies. As they near their quarry, however, Willard starts to have his doubts: What had Kurtz done wrong ("It wasn't just insanity and murder -- there was enough of that to go around"), and what would he do when he found him?

So perhaps it's time to take that trip again, down that snaking river through dense, forbidding jungle, straight into the heart of darkness: Francis Ford Coppola's unforgettable epic, "Apocalypse Now." Some 23 years after its initial release, it hits our screens again, just as relevant than ever, in an expanded 3 1/2-hour director's cut.

"Apocalypse Now Redux" is a major remix, adding 50 minutes of previously unseen footage to the original. But aside from the issue of whether the new, longer version is "better" -- and opinions vary -- this remains an experience to be savored on the big screen, for its sheer cinematic virtuosity, its immersive sound design and the colossal hubris of a director who dared to strive for greatness . . . and succeeded.

Apocalypse then

When it first appeared in 1979, after four torturous years in production, "Apocalypse Now" stunned audiences with its depiction of a just-finished war. Vietnam -- America's first rock 'n' roll war and first military defeat -- was a conflict unlike any the country had ever seen before, and "Apocalypse Now" was a war film to match. The mass helicopter assault set to "Ride of the Valkyries"; the drug-taking draftees "with one foot in the grave" surfing in a combat zone; the hellish napalm strikes; the panicky killing of civilians; the dirty covert ops pitting American against American . . . all this seemed surreal and yet all too believable.

Coppola -- with much help from noted Vietnam correspondent Michael Herr -- succeeded in going over the top, while keeping one foot firmly planted in reality. Many of the extreme scenes are based on actual incidents, though cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot them as if they were hazy fragments of a terrible, beautiful dream. Coppola described his approach (in Peter Cowie's "The Apocalypse Now Book") as "natural psychedelics, which is to say the intensity of the ideas is so strong that . . . the film can be heightened, almost perceived through an extended vision."

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Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz

The spectacular flourishes were certainly unprecedented. The showy battle scenes bore a terrifying rush; where "The Deer Hunter" -- the noted Vietnam War flick that beat Coppola's film to the theaters -- had used but one helicopter, Coppola employed 15, for a full company's assault. Elaborately staged sequences, such as the Playgirls' descent and escape by chopper in a floodlit mist of purple haze, Martin Sheen's camouflage-masked face emerging from the black, timeless water, or the orgasmic climax of The Doors' "The End," have become permanently imprinted on the collective psyche.

But what really made "Apocalypse Now" work was how well it captured the bitter irony, black humor and insanity that characterized the war. This was, after all, a conflict in which a U.S. commander could talk -- in all seriousness -- of destroying a village in order to save it. In that light, the ranting of Robert Duvall's Col. Kilgore ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like . . . victory") doesn't seem like much of an exaggeration.

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Francis Ford Coppola behind the camera

Coppola had intended this film to serve as a vast summation of the Vietnam debacle -- resistance from the studios toward any films on the topic made him think that "Apocalypse Now" might well be the first and last movie to do so. This tendency is even clearer in "Redux," with the inclusion of the much-talked about but rarely glimpsed French Plantation sequences, which contain more expository material on the roots of the war and why it became unwinnable.

And yet, an interesting shift occurs: As Capt. Willard's boat moves further upriver, deeper into the jungle and more removed from the rest of the conflict, the film becomes less about the specifics of any war and more about the fundamentals of power, violence and free will. Here, the themes of the source material -- Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness" and Sir James Frazer's study of myth, "The Golden Bough" -- come to the fore and ask: Beyond the controlling norms of civilization, what is a man capable of? With Nietzchean finality, Col. Kurtz suggests, "It's judgment that defeats us . . . what at times is called ruthlessness is often nothing more than clarity."

Now and then

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Dennis Hopper (above) and Martin Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now Redux"
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Coppola and his chief editor, Walter Murch, were more than a little ruthless in trimming their original 5 1/2-hour rough cut down to a tight, focused two hours and 37 minutes. Entire scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor with actors -- such as Aurore Clement -- discovering they were no longer in the film. But there was no arguing with the final cut, which takes Willard inexorably upstream. Indeed, it was the jagged, jump-cut nature of the film's progression that gave it such an intense, dreamlike feel.

The new version restores many of the cuts, some mere fragments, others lengthy and involved sequences, for a much smoother narrative flow. Most of the additions are welcome, although not essential. The "Charlie don't surf" scene has an amusing coda, as Willard and friends take off with Col. Kilgore's surfboard, which prompts the mad officer to pursue them in helicopters. While fun, the scene doesn't have the same poignancy as before, which cut on Kilgore's strangely wistful line, "Someday, this war's going to end."

Better is the new Playmate scene, in which the crew of the patrol boat finds the girls stranded upriver by the monsoon rains. They trade fuel for sex, in a scene as delirious as anything else in the film, one which comments knowingly on the sexual politics of the day: The girls lament being treated as sexual objects, while Chef and Lance naively proceed to do exactly that. This bit ends beautifully, with Clean -- who is waiting outside for his turn -- peering in a window. "Who are you?" asks Miss December. "I'm next, man," says Clean, a line loaded with premonition as the sampan scene begins.

The most questionable addition is the fabled French Plantation sequence, which comes after Clean's death. Willard and crew are confronted by French soldiers, who disarm them. They are allowed to spend the night with a French clan who are holding onto their property to the bitter end. There's a long dinner-table discourse on the reasons for the war -- "You Americans are fighting for the biggest nothing!" -- after which Willard retires upstairs with Roxanne (Clement), to share her bed and a pipe of opium.

Aside from the truly syrupy "love theme" that mars this scene (the one scratch in an otherwise flawless soundtrack), this entire sequence, despite being well-acted, disrupts the overall pacing of the film. Willard's journey is a descent into madness, the nine circles of Hell, with the devil himself, Kurtz, waiting at its core with the ultimate temptation. The French Plantation, coming so late in the film, takes us back to civilization and order just as we're meant to stumble into the abyss of chaos and madness. Coppola recognized as much when he cut it originally.

Ditto for the new scene near the end with Kurtz haranguing Willard, who is locked in a dark cell, with Montagnard children peering through the slits. Again, the original decision was to only show Kurtz bathed in shadow and darkness, and seeing him here in the light of day reduces his menace, to no good end.

Apocalypse 2002

Longer or shorter, oblique or specific, "Apocalypse Now" remains a great, ambitious film, one that will continue to overwhelm viewers with the power of its art, the insistence of its themes. This became clear when watching the film last October, as the U.S. embarked on a brave new war in Afghanistan. The film carries a positively eerie resonance across the generations, like Kurtz's final words, a distant echo of the horror that ever beckons us.

Most uncomfortable is the sampan scene, where the patrol-boat crew panic and gun down a boat full of civilians, killing all but a young girl who's horribly injured. Chief tries to call in medical assistance, but Willard coldly fires the coup de grace (a moment that Stanley Kubrick would later borrow for "Full Metal Jacket"). The crew are shocked, but Willard has no illusions. "We'd cut 'em in half with a machinegun, then give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie."

What do we make of those words, in light of the U.S. dropping food for starving Afghans while simultaneously flattening entire villages through indiscriminate bombing? The irony of dropping MRE rations the same bright-yellow color as cluster bombs would not have been out of place in "Apocalypse Now." Indeed, in the first Air Cav battle, Army medics patch up civilians wounded by wild fire ("collateral damage") while the media looks on approvingly. "We are here to help you" is the message broadcast to the burning village.

"Apocalypse Now" dares us to pierce this veneer of morality, this elaborate self-deception through which we view our "just wars." Kurtz may seem to embody bin Laden's philosophy, the self-righteous conviction that the ends justify any and all means. But look again: Kurtz was once one of us. Willard's confrontation with the Colonel is ultimately a cautionary tale, illustrating the risk inherent in fighting fire with fire -- you may end up becoming what you hate.

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