Acid Redux

The bitter taste of Coppola’s new Apocalypse Now. 

Apocalypse Now Redux
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Miramax Films 

Who could have predicted from the chaotic and despair-ridden shoot of Apocalypse Now (1979) in the Philippine jungles that a genuine masterpiece would, years later, emerge? No, it’s not the new Apocalypse Now Redux, which is excruciatingly bad, but the 1991 psycho-documentary Hearts of Darkness, which looks even more brilliant in the light of Francis Ford Coppola’s hapless rejiggering of his ever-unwieldy Vietnam War epic. Hearts of Darkness, directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper (using on-set footage and diaries by Eleanor Coppola), remains the ultimate statement of the horror, the horror of making a big-budget war picture on grand, Conradian themes without a finished script. It gives the feverishly impotent Coppola a stature denied to the characters in his own film.

Well, that titanic Hearts of Darkness fool is still trying to scale Parnassus with a toothpick—and the wonder is how many of my colleagues have proclaimed his three-and-a-half-hour Apocalypse Now Redux a triumph. I’d like a hit of whatever they’ve been smoking. The restored footage, nearly an hour of it, has at once bloated and diluted the work we’ve known and half-loved, undercutting its still-astonishing strengths while making its flaws leap out with unprecedented clarity. You can now fully appreciate the job that Coppola and his colleagues did in 1979 of salvaging what might have been a dud on the order of … Apocalypse Now Redux.

Why did Coppola go back to his Bataan? Partly (ironically!) because Hearts ofDarkness gave people a glimpse of a discarded sequence set in a French plantation, and they were tantalized. In this age of DVD director’s cuts and special editions, it’s fun to see all the stuff that chickenhearted studios insist on excising. Except that Coppola, whose own money was on the line, had discarded these scenes himself, concluding—in a rare burst of good sense—that they weakened the film’s already shaky (some would say nonexistent) structure. The other reported rationale for Redux is that Coppola sat through a 1999 screening of Apocalypse Now and found it too much like “a straight war movie.” But if that’s the case, it’s only because it has proven so influential: Coppola’s Vietnam is now, for better or worse, our Vietnam. Oliver Stone in Platoon (1986), Brian De Palma in Casualties of War (1989), and, in another war, David O. Russell in Three Kings (1999) took their cues and carried the rock-’n’-roll/psychedelia bombardments to more visceral levels. American war movies weren’t like Apocalypse Now until Apocalypse Now.

Before we get to the added, largely terrible sequences, it’s worth remembering the film as it has stood these last two decades. The good news is that it’s still a blast to see the mostly unchanged first hour on a giant screen. Especially the trippy opening: the long line of trees, the swirling dust, the sound of chopper blades weaving in and out of guitar licks of the Doors’ “The End,” the sudden curtain of napalm, the fade from helicopter blades to a ceiling fan and the upside-down head of Martin Sheen (as Capt. Willard). The first line: “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” God, that beginning brings back a time. I was a college sophomore when I drove 200 miles to New York to stand in line for hours outside the Ziegfeld Theater, after a mentor (a worldly senior) had drawled in his West Virginian accent: “Y’know, there are two kinds o’ people in the world—the ones who think Apocalypse Now is the greatest fuckin’ movie ever made, and the morons. So which will you turn out to be, sport?”

It was hard to resist that kind of peer pressure, and some of the film actually turned out to be worthy of it. This was, after all, the first American, big-studio, counterculture war movie, and the Vietnam experience it portrayed was the bloody hallucination we’d read about in magazines and in Michael Herr’s Dispatches—the one in which GIs massacred innocent civilians and one another, in which the arcs of multicolored tracer fire seemed “so lovely, so remote from anything that could harm you.” Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Dean Tavoularis, and sound designer Walter Murch made it their mission to depict the alienation of American soldiers from the landscape in which they fought. This wasn’t The Green Berets (1968) or even The Deer Hunter (1978), in which the Vietnamese were the aliens, the ones who threatened our sacred way of life. The Yanks, with their radios and six-packs and drugs and USO shows, were the unnatural elements.

The Air Cavalry raid on a coastal village was (and still is) the movie’s biggest coup, and not only because of Robert Duvall’s hot-dog turn as the strutting psycho Lt. Col. Kilgore. Breathtakingly designed and edited, the sequence splits us in two: We cringe in horror at the coming of the helicopters to this quiet village with its flock of small children; we thrill to the choppers swooping out of the sun as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blares from the speakers; we cringe at the meaningless destruction; we thrill to the kick-ass marksmanship; we cringe at the sight of all the needlessly dead Vietnamese civilians; and then, when a Vietnamese girl tosses a grenade into a helicopter full of Our Boys, we thrill to see her strafed into oblivion. In few other battle scenes do our revulsion and love of kinetic spectacle so incessantly elbow each other aside.

Apocalypse Now takes our schisms even further: Its thesis is that America’s inability to forsake the trappings of civilization—to “get out of the boat” in the movie’s parlance—ensured its defeat. I’m more partial to Hendrik Hertzberg’s related explanation, written on an anniversary of the fall of Saigon: that we lost because we weren’t, as a nation, prepared to commit genocide. But the problem with Coppola’s film isn’t the thesis itself, it’s that it tells you one thing (via Michael Herr’s pompous narration) and shows you something else. The sinewy Kilgore actually fights the war, while the supposed war god Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) does little beside chop off native tribespeople’s heads and crouch in semidarkness reading T.S. Eliot (“We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men …”). It was impossible, even in 1979, to keep from laughing out loud at the anticlimax that was Brando’s Kurtz, the unplumbable dressed as plumber. Bathed in shadow to disguise his girth, Brando sat peeling and eating nuts while making raspy, echo-chamber-enhanced pronouncements like, “Horror and moral terror, you must make a friend of them, crunch,” while Martin Sheen stared catatonically off-screen. What the hell happened to the end of the movie?

It had never been written. John Milius’ original screenplay was full of his usual gung-ho macho posturing (only an asthmatic who had never seen combat could write such floridly jingoistic lines—his favorite characters sound like Conan the Barbarian), and the climax he’d come up with was a nihilistic battle that Coppola detested. The director didn’t want blood-soaked exaltation, he wanted to pose the Higher Questions. It’s not so hard to see why Coppola hit a brick wall, since he’d stopped grappling with the concrete realities of the Vietnam War and buried himself in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such pointy-headed tomes as The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance. As Coppola puts it despairingly in Hearts of Darkness, his Kurtz needs to be “a character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it.” And his last-ditch hope was that Brando would improvise that struggle with the cameras rolling.

This is, you understand, the Brando who admitted that he wanted to do the least amount of work he could get by with. The Brando who hadn’t yet come to terms as an actor with his new obesity and rejected the only suggestion that might have saved his performance: playing Kurtz as an overstuffed, Gauguin-like voluptuary with a girl on each arm, eating and fucking himself to death. The Brando whose Method-spawned genius was rooted in the way he toyed in character with small, tactile objects, usually edible. A few years earlier, Coppola had stopped by the set of Last Tango in Paris (1972) and watched Brando, under Bernardo Bertolucci’s guidance, dig deeper into himself on camera than he (and maybe any other actor) ever had. But focused improvisations on sex and food—both of which Brando knew intimately—are one thing; lofty ruminations on the meaning of Good and Evil are something else. In the outtakes included in Hearts of Darkness, you can see Brando scraping the bottom of his own banality. When Coppola prompts him to improvise on the theme of why humans are the only living things that kill for pleasure, Brando chews on a nut and says: “The human animal is the only one that has bloodlust. … Killing without purpose, killing for pleasure. …  [Pause] I swallowed a bug.” The improv ends there, which is a pity: “I swallowed a bug” might have led somewhere interesting.

The restored footage, on the other hand, leads nowhere: Coppola has added back all the digressions he took out to streamline the journey upriver. Until it arrives at the fortress of the shadowy lump, the original Apocalypse Now has a satisfying trajectory, from the black-comic carnage of Kilgore through the movie’s most inspired sequence—the acid-carnival anarchy at the bridge at Do-Lung. Now there’s a scene in which Willard mischievously steals a surfboard from Kilgore: a different side of the stolidly wracked Sheen but not one that’s developed anywhere else. The bit plays like an outtake—as do most of the semi-improvised dialogues among Willard’s crew (Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, the 14-year-old Larry Fishburne). Worse, there’s now an interval between Kilgore’s mysterious, “Someday this war’s gonna end,” and narrator Willard’s rumination on the sentiment, which here comes from nowhere. The extra hour does little to connect Sheen’s dots. He still begins as a traumatized assassin and despairing puppet of the universe: He has nowhere, dramatically speaking, to go. He can’t wait, he says, to confront Kurtz, but when he arrives at Kurtz’s lair he has nothing to say to the man. He clams up. The draggy pace means there’s more time than ever to wonder about the weirdly 19th-century premise of sending Willard by boat through hostile waters when everyone else goes by plane and chopper. The Army wants him to gather intelligence on Kurtz, but Kurtz, in Willard’s travels, goes conspicuously unmentioned. It’s the dumbest excuse for a boat tour since Gilligan’s Island.

What it loses in momentum, Redux gains in bare breasts. A rain-swept scene at a rubbled outpost, in which Willard trades fuel for the favors of a troupe of stranded Playboy bunnies, is a mortifying embarrassment. Milius has spoken of women as “sirens” who distract and weaken the soldiers. Coppola, more of a feminist (not hard), wants to have it both ways: to show them at once as miserably exploited and as jiggling bimbos. One centerfold strips down while twittering about her dehumanization: The monologue is so terrible (Feminism 101) and her delivery so abstracted that Coppola more than anyone seems to be using her and throwing her away. (My abhorrence for this scene is admittedly colored by Jonathan Reynolds’ dark comedy Geniuses, written after Reynolds, then a journalist, was holed up in the Philippines with the Apocalypse Now company during a typhoon. In the course of the play, the centerfold gets put through the wringer by various drug-addled megalomaniacs, among them the director and production designer.)

There are still more bare breasts—Aurore Clement’s—in the legendary French plantation interlude, which comes late in Redux and manages to dispel the cumulative power of the Sampan massacre and the Do-Lung Carnival of Souls. Lord, does it go on—it’s as if Coppola is trying to distill every pretentious idea in French arthouse cinema into a single sequence. The idea is to invoke these faded aristocrats, madly clinging to their Western sense of entitlement as Cambodia explodes around them, to underscore the region’s modern history of imperialist exploitation. But there’s no drama—only thesis-mongering, with the barely intelligible Christian Marquand staring into his wine glass and railing at the morose Willard: “Zees is our home! … We make somesing out of nossing. We fight for zat, while you Americans are fighting for ze beegest nossing!” The only pressing question is if Willard will sleep with the gorgeously enigmatic blonde, who is less fascinating when she speaks: “Ze war will still be here tomorrow.” “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” The cinematography goes gauzy, the music sounds like something that issued from the elevator speakers at Plato’s Retreat, and the topless Clement whispers into the ear of Sheen, who remains bug-eyed throughout their tryst: “Zere are two of you, don’t you see? One zat keels and one zat loves.” Deep-sixing Frog Hell was the smartest thing that Coppola ever did.

Are there any good restorations in Redux? It’s no big deal, but I love the bit in which Kurtz sits outside Willard’s cage and reads from old issues of Time magazine on the encouraging progress of the war. Brando is always more fun when he’s focused on something tangible, and he rattles off these government-planted lies with marvelously understated irony. It’s also a relief to see him out of the shadows, with native children perched on his broad shoulders. The one good thing about the French plantation sequence is that it makes the Brando scenes seem deeper, more incisive, more emotional: I’d never registered the tremble in his voice in the seemingly risible lines about gardenias on the Ohio River. Nothing can save Dennis Hopper’s linguistic diarrhea, but much of the small stuff in ApocalypseNow remains pitch perfect, especially the lunch in which Willard receives his terrible assignment: G.D. Spradlin’s sober, squirming homilies; Harrison Ford’s bureaucratic earnestness; the strange little white-haired slug of a civilian “adviser” (Jerry Ziesmer) whose one line—”Terminate with extreme prejudice”—has rightly entered the lexicon. As Chief, who runs the boat, Albert Hall’s tightly channeled despair seems more eloquent than ever. There’s still a lot in this movie to savor.

After all my carping, I feel obliged to cite Kenneth Tynan’s admission, in a review of Albert Camus’ Caligula, of “the petulance critics are prone to display when a work that looked gigantic in conception falls short in execution.” Caligula, Tynan reminds us, is something more than an ordinary bad play: It is “a bad great play.” And Apocalypse Now, in which Coppola labored so earnestly to make a war picture that would go beyond the literal horrors of seeing a buddy get his head blown off, to show our own complicity in acts of unspeakable evil, is a bad great movie. Probably if Redux hadn’t been acclaimed as a newly minted masterpiece, I wouldn’t have felt so compelled to blow raspberries. But Coppola, like many brilliant and unstable artists, is his own worst enemy, and he needs to be dissuaded from heading back into jungles he was lucky to have escaped in the first place.

Now for God’s sake, Francis: Let The Cotton Club lie. Sometimes it’s better to stay on the boat.