Apocalypse Now Redux

It is dismaying to realize that the best film to come out of America this summer – the only one whose end product justifies its bloated budget, artistic self-indulgence, and general excessiveness – was made over two decades ago. Comparing Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Ford Coppola, 2001) to a propagandistic piece of schlock like Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) drives home the realization that the tragically bygone era of great American moviemaking that flourished in the 1970s is just that – gone. If it requires the marketing ploy of a “director’s cut” to get great American film art up onto the big screens of multiplexes in this day and age, so be it.

I am, however, opposed in principle to the idea of a director’s cut, preferring to view films as historical artifacts rooted in the temporality of their production. Occasionally we get a reissued version of a film that, upon its initial release, was so mangled by a studio hackjob to be virtually unrecognizable from the filmmaker’s intent. The best example of this is the original cut of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which sported a trite explanatory voice-over that insulted audiences as well as a maudlin conclusion that tied everything up with a Hollywood happy ending. Film school students and sci-fi fans alike would still only know this comparatively perky vision of a future apocalypse had Scott not finally managed, in 1992, to deliver the film that he had always wanted audiences to see.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness” and co-written by John Milius with narration by Michael Herr, Apocalypse Now (originally released in 1979) remains very much Coppola’s baby. As critic A.O. Scott recently wrote in the New York Times, the film is “the apotheosis (and also the catastrophe) of American auteurism.” (1) Coppola, who funded Apocalypse Now‘s corpulent costs largely out of pocket and under the auspices of his San Francisco-based production company American Zoetrope, was not known for tailoring his projects to the demands of anyone but himself. But Apocalypse Now went so far over-schedule and over-budget that Coppola was forced to borrow nearly $30 million from United Artists, who owned the U.S. distribution rights, and was rushed into releasing the film by an inpatient press and public who had begun referring to his pet project as “Apocalypse Never.”

Nevertheless, in Coppola’s case as in most, going in and tampering with a relic print is ill-advised from my standpoint. Such an exercise is tantamount to digging up a time capsule, shifting around its contents, throwing in some added items, and reburying it. To the best of my knowledge, Jackson Pollock never retrieved any of his paintings from museum walls in order to add a few splatters and re-hang. Neither did Nabokov sit down in his mellowed old age to soften Lolita‘s acerbic prose for a Golden Years re-issue. Thankfully there’s nothing soft about Apocalypse Now, redux or not, though one has only to look at Coppola’s recent work (Jack [1996], The Rainmaker [1997]) to see flaccidness defined. Why, instead of re-visiting his past brilliance, can’t Coppola continue to hammer out gems like those that made him (more than Lucas or Spielberg or even Pauline Kael) the voice of the American New Wave?

Coppola’s star shone brightly but briefly: the first two Godfather films (1972 and 1974) and The Conversation (1974) were made in the space of a half-decade. When Coppola went into production on Apocalypse Now in 1976, he had already received two Best Picture Oscars and one for Best Director. Since then, there has been…not much. Of course, these are the petulant complaints of a nostalgic critic. And Coppola’s recent dearth of visionary output isn’t wholly the result of some sort of artistic abandonment on his part. Industry structures, sociopolitical climate, and audience demographics create circumstances that, when aligned perfectly, can give rise to an exultant period of filmmaking such as that which occurred in the 1970s. Or they can hinder creativity to the point of the cinematic wasteland through which American audiences (and other nations unfortunate enough to import our stuff) are currently slogging. Apocalypse now, indeed.

The test of time is a cruel one: like certain aging rock stars who insist on an umpteenth reunion tour, Coppola has the dubious honor of being one of the last standing. We should be grateful he hasn’t developed the empty-headed pretensions of Lucas and Spielberg. Coppola was dealt a healthy dose of hubris but he has never been empty-headed. And who’s to say that if James Dean had survived, he wouldn’t be doing cameos on Friends? Or that an aged Hal Ashby wouldn’t have followed up Harold and Maude (1971) and Being There (1979) with a Sandra Bullock vehicle? It seems that, in the entertainment business at least, it is better to die than to fade away.

Off with the polemics and on to one film that has stood the test of time. For me, Apocalypse Now is a work which, like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and much of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, even after double-digit viewings never ceases to enthrall and amaze. Thus lies the first problem in my reception of Apocalypse Now Redux, which Coppola premiered to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Any changes, however slight, to a film so firmly engraved upon one’s sensory receptors will seem jarring and, at least initially, unpleasant. You may grow to like the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly”, but didn’t you bristle at first hearing Roberta Flack in bastardized form?

The recent director’s cut of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, 1975) had as one of its amusements an added ten seconds of never-before-seen footage – the rest remained the same. It was a clever move – a way to justify the film’s re-release while still mocking the idea of a director’s cut itself – yet not a wholly original one. Blade Runner aside, director’s cuts typically stray from their original sources little beyond the reinsertion of sex-and-violence scenes denounced by the ratings board. Coppola, however, has added fifty-three minutes of footage to what was already an epic-length film. With Apocalypse Now Redux ringing in at 197 minutes, Coppola and his audience are embarking on a real tour of duty – and like the Vietnam War itself, this is no in-and-out operation.

The circumstances surrounding the making of Apocalypse Now, we have learned, resemble the reality of Vietnam far more than the film itself does. At the film’s original premiere at Cannes, Coppola himself remarked on the similarities between U.S. involvement in Vietnam and his own misadventures there: “We were in the jungle, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” (2) A planned six-week production schedule swelled to sixteen merciless months in the jungle, where everything that could go wrong did.

Thanks to the behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), made by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, we’ve been briefed on the unending calamities that hindered the Filipino production: the quick dismissal of original star Harvey Keitel; the on-set heart attack of his replacement, Martin Sheen; the torrential storms that ravaged Coppola’s sets and halted production for months on end; a rebel uprising that required Ferdinand Marcos to reclaim the military choppers on loan to Coppola; Coppola’s own depression and suicide threats; and the late, drunken arrival of Marlon Brando. Coppola persevered to eventually shoot three hundred and seventy hours of footage, so it’s not surprising that a battalion of editors were required to sift through the rubble and find those missing treasures worth restoring in the new version. What’s curious is that all they seem to have been able to come up with is old junk.

What was great about Apocalypse Now is still great in Redux: Walter Murch’s extraordinary sound editing (for which he won an Oscar); the dense superimpositions and heartbreakingly beautiful images captured by Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography; and what is, for my money, an opening sequence that remains unrivaled in the history of filmmaking. The best new bits in Apocalypse Now Redux are just that – bits. Snippets here and there, mostly aboard the U.S. military vessel that escorts Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) to his mission upriver, that flow nicely and are probably indiscernible to an eye untrained by multiple viewings. And yet they are highly effective in rounding out the roles of Willard’s shipmates. This film is so plump with big-name performances that the supporting cast often gets overlooked, but the actors playing Lance (Sam Bottoms), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Chief (Albert Hall) and Mr. Clean (a 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne) all turn in highly memorable performances.

Not known for his superior skill at self-editing, Coppola has curiously chosen to restore three prolonged scenes that weigh down what was already a hefty film. The most highly touted of Redux‘s new features, these sequences extend Willard and company’s Dantesque journey to include an erotic escapade with the Playboy Bunnies at a deserted upriver camp; a ghostly encounter with French colonialists at a crumbling rubber plantation; and the much-heralded glimpse of Brando in the daylight, reading aloud from a Time magazine article. The greatest flaw of Apocalypse Now, it is widely agreed, is that the film’s final third is plodding and overlong. With the added sequences, all occurring late in the film, it seems downright interminable.

And pointless: the additional episodes simply mimic or repeat themes and stages of the story already expressed more eloquently. The Bunnies, not surprisingly, are far more engaging while dancing to “Suzy Q” than while chattering on in shell-shocked haze during their second coming. And the sodden medevac camp in which they languish too closely resembles (but isn’t nearly so affecting as) the heady later scene at Do Long Bridge, where a bewildered Willard slogs through the infernal muck to ask “Who’s in charge here?” only to get the dreaded reply, “Ain’t you?”

The trip upriver is a trip back in time, and so the French plantation sequence seems (chronologically, at least) a fitting rest stop before the final showdown at Kurtz’s primordial court. The boat’s remaining crew, bedraggled and befuddled, join a ghostly gathering of stubborn imperialist strays for an elegant dinner; later on, Willard smokes opium with and is seduced by an enigmatic French widow (Aurore Clément.) The mood and visual styling of the sequence is evocative – languidly paced and shot through shrouds of mist and mosquito netting – if a bit reminiscent of a J. Peterman layout. It is a shame that the exquisite production design by Dean Tavoularis was excluded for so many years. Nevertheless, the sequence is a shambles. The political rhetoric voiced by the French plantation owner (Christian Marquand) is surely valuable but largely unintelligible, and it occurs too late in the film. By the time they arrive at the plantation, the horror has escalated too far for such a prolonged period of civility.

The final addition comes when Willard is taken captive by Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the man whom the American military has judged insane and whose command Willard has been ordered to terminate “with extreme prejudice.” The first glimpses we get of Kurtz are befitting of the mythological stature of character and actor alike. Storaro shoots Brando in near darkness so that his hulking presence is more felt than seen, just as his ponderous intonations are more felt than heard. Only his huge granite-like skull is visible, slipping in and out of the light to resemble shifting phases of the moon.

In Coppola’s original cut, Brando’s sparse appearance (both in screen time and in what we can see of him while onscreen) succeeded in making him seem both wondrous and monstrous. It was a grave mistake to bring Kurtz into the light, both in theory and in the manner by which Coppola does so. Kurtz, having appeared at the stone crypt where a half-conscious Willard is being kept, settles himself on a sunny stoop and reads aloud accounts of the war from a tattered copy of Time. Another critic commented that in humanizing Kurtz, his decline becomes more poignant. (3) But Apocalypse Now is not the type of conventional narrative that panders to audience sympathy. Witness Willard, the film’s hero (if you can call him that), putting a bullet through the head of a Vietnamese peasant woman only a few scenes earlier.

The reading of the Time article is clearly part of Coppola’s agenda, proving as it does the degree to which the American public was deceived about events in Vietnam. Brando is disengaged from the scene, delivering his lines with little inflection and surrounded by a swarm of distracting children. In one fell swoop, Coppola manages to de-mythologize the giant. As in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), Brando’s performance here finds him teetering precariously between majesty and ludicrousness. You are entranced by his imperious soliloquy but cannot help noticing that he has food on his face. Yet he manages to keep his grip strong until this added sequence, when Coppola pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of dwarfing Marlon Brando.

Sorry at having to be the bearer of such disappointment, I have saved the best for last. It is unfortunate that Coppola chose to cut Kurtz down to size before Willard got around to doing the same thing in the finale. But I was considerably consoled to discover the additional screen time awarded to Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall in an unforgettable best-of-career performance. Duvall was constrained in the shadows playing the dutiful Corleone consigliere in the Godfather films, and Coppola’s choice to bring him into the light in Apocalypse Now was a bet that paid off far better than Kurtz’s day in the sun. Inflated to larger-than-life status, Duvall’s wildly caricatured Lieutenant Colonel rises to the same mythic proportions as Brando’s Kurtz. But Kurtz is a suffering soul, drawn as far into himself as he has into the Cambodian jungle. Kilgore is Kurtz’s antithesis, the impervious American cowboy lamenting that “someday this war will end.”

One last word: United Artists has been joined by Miramax in releasing Apocalypse Now Redux. While I would venture to say that the Weinsteins are not counting on a landslide at the box office, they don’t appear to have questioned Coppola on subjecting viewers to upwards of three hours spent in the theatre – nor should they. And yet Miramax seems convinced that films doled out in easily digestible doses of 90-120 minutes are more agreeable to audiences, having ordered sizable cuts made to the upcoming film In the Bedroom. Written and directed by Todd Field and starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, this is a stunning debut feature in which, to my eyes, no frame is expendable. I saw the film at Sundance only days before Miramax bought it, and my heart sank upon hearing the news. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that In the Bedroom had received the Miramax treatment, but I was deeply troubled. The film’s pleasure comes from its stately pace and depth of detail. Of course, it’s far easier to cut a first-timer’s film than it is to cut Coppola’s. You can see In the Bedroom in theatres this autumn in its slaughtered form, but I’ll wait for the day when Field releases the director’s cut.


  1. A.O. Scott, “Aching Heart of Darkness,” New York Times, Aug. 3, 2001
  2. Quoted in David Thomson, “‘Apocalypse’ Then and Now,” New York Times, May 13
  3. Ibid. (words of Thomson)

About The Author

Maria San Filippo is Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, and Editor of New Review of Film and Television Studies. She authored the Lambda Literary Award-winning The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television (2013) and Provocauteurs and Provocations: Screening Sex in 21st Century Media (2021), both published by Indiana University Press, and edited the collection After ‘Happily Ever After’: Romantic Comedy in the Post-Romantic Age (Wayne State University Press, 2021). Her Queer Film Classics volume on Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014) is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2022. She chronicles 21st century film and film-going on her blog The Itinerant Cinephile (www.itinerantcinephile.com) and on Twitter (@cinemariasf) and Instagram (@itinerant_cinephile).

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