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| With: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Marlon Brando, Sam Bottoms, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Albert Hall, G.D. Spradlin, Jerry Ziesmer, Scott Glenn, Bo Byers, James Keane, Kerry Rossall |
| Written by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola |
| Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola |
| MPAA Rating: R |
| Running Time: 153 |
| Date: 10/05/1979 |
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That Was Then... This Is 'Now'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Francis Ford Coppola made some bizarre comment about "too much money and too much power" and slowly going insane. Though it sounded a bit pretentious at the time, and still does, I think that to some extent that's exactly what happened.
Only a few times in cinema history has an artist gone mad, drunk on his own power and genius, and created a loony, foolhardy, giant-sized masterpiece. Usually this comes on the heels of some huge box office success that allows both artist and financiers to believe that he can do this mad thing. D.W. Griffith mounted Intolerance, the biggest movie ever made after the huge success of The Birth of a Nation. Erich von Stroheim took on a 12-hour version of Frank Norris' McTeague, now called Greed and existing only in a 140 minute version (a newer version uses stills to restore lost scenes and runs 242 minutes). Bernardo Bertolucci made a five-hour, intercontinental epic called 1900 after the success of Last Tango in Paris. And Werner Herzog attempted to tell the story of Fitzcarraldo by hauling a life-sized ship over a life-sized mountain.
But Coppola's story rivals all of these. His Godfather films made more money than any film, ever (except maybe Gone With the Wind), and he was flushed with power, youth, and genius. He took on a novel -- Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- that even the great Orson Welles had abandoned, convinced that he could do it better. And he did.
Adapted by John Milius, Apocalypse Now was this masterpiece. As it begins, with a long, quiet shot of a row of trees and the Doors' "The End" slowly coming up on the soundtrack, helicopters buzzing by almost noiselessly, and finally the row of trees being blown to smithereens, you know you're watching something great.
Seeing Martin Sheen, as Willard, in his room getting blind drunk and smashing mirrors, spreading his blood all over his body and bedsheets, you know you're watching something great.
Willard's story sends him up river in Vietnam to find and kill the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), but Apocalypse Now is all about the journey rather than the destination. Each stop along the way takes Willard and his cohorts, Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Clean (14 year-old Laurence Fishburne), and Lance (Sam Bottoms), farther and farther out of reality. We thrill at the first stop watching crazy Kilgore (Robert Duvall) screaming at his men about surfing, giving a canteen of water to a dying Vietnamese (then snatching it away, distracted by something else), and not even bothering to flinch when bombs go off a dozen yards away. Best of all is the Wagner "Ride of the Valkyres" air raid which never fails to pump adrenaline.
Many critics claim that the rest of the movie fails to live up to this sequence, but they're missing the point. After that the movie gets more and more hazy and dreamy, as if the drugs are kicking in. (Lord knows there's more than enough drugs in this film.)
Many also claim that the finale doesn't work, where Willard hangs around the Kurtz compound waiting for something to happen, which is precisely what Coppola was doing at the time. I think the nightmarish, illogical, unreal ending the movie gives us is the perfect solution. Any conventional ending would have insulted us.
In 2001, Coppola and master editor Walter Murch released Apocalypse Now Redux to the public with some 50 minutes "restored" to the film. These sequences -- the Playboy bunnies, the French plantation, the surfboard incident, Brando in the daylight, etc. -- are every bit as masterful as the rest of the film, but they tend to take the recklessness away. Redux is a film made by men who are older and wiser, and now have plenty of time. I thrilled at seeing the "new" stuff, but I missed the audacity of the original.
The best thing about Apocalypse Now Redux though is watching it put all other American movies in 2001 to utter and complete shame. It's the only true masterpiece playing in multiplexes right now, the only film (besides Ghost World) to be made by men and not marketing committees, and the only film (besides Ghost World) worth seeing right now.
In 2006, Paramount released the ultimate Apocalypse DVD, containing both the 1979 version (1953 minutes) and the 2001 Redux version (202 minutes). I far prefer the 1979 version simply because it had a desperate, uncontrolled energy, rather than the calm, unhurried presentation of the 2001 version. But it's nice having both versions at my fingertips for comparison's sake. Paramount has split up the films across two DVDs, so that the first halves of both versions are on Disc One, and the second halves of both versions are on Disc Two. It seems a bit awkward, but the breaks come in a natural place, and the awesome picture and sound quality are undisputed. Extras include Marlon Brando reading the entire T.S. Eliot poem "The Hollow Men," as well as more outtakes and commentary tracks by Coppola on both versions. There's an Easter Egg, and a gimmick in which you can watch Redux and get a signal whenever a change was made from the 1979 version. The only obvious extra that's missing is the superb 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which is still unavailable on DVD due to mysterious copyright issues. In 2010, a deluxe Blu-Ray edition was released.