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'Apocalypse' now and again
PART I -- A Veterans Reunion
After watching Francis Coppola's newly restored, 197-minute Apocalypse Now Redux, it is a shock to show up at a New York hotel room and see the actors who played sailors dressed in civvies.
I had been prepared to conduct individual interviews about their struggle to develop and maintain characters during the most tumultuous shoot in movie history. But as they wandered in one by one to discuss their feelings about the movie and Coppola's new expansion of it, they made clear that in the mid-'70s their lives had merged with a production that itself had merged with the turbulence of the Vietnam War.
They had no trouble re-conjuring a woozy, volatile gestalt as they got reacquainted with each other and with Aurore Clement, the French actress who plays a gentle siren on a French plantation in a sequence restored to the film. Hugging and patting each other on the back, speaking of their children and of comrades gone or rarely heard from, they took on the aspect of a Vietnam Vets Against the War reunion.
Apocalypse Now Redux, which opens in theaters Friday, adds 53 minutes to Coppola's 1979 film. The expansion beefs up the interactions between Martin Sheen's Captain Willard and his Navy patrol-boat crew: Albert Hall (Chief), Sam Bottoms (Lance), Frederick Forrest (Chef) and Laurence Fishburne (Clean). Even the original version was rooted in their ability to express total immersion in going upriver and facing the Sisyphus-like battles epitomized by the Do Lung Bridge -- which gets bombed to the ground and rebuilt daily. They conveyed all the freedom and danger of floating beyond military or civilized constraints.
Sheen's tormented assassin Willard and Marlon Brando's satanic / godlike Kurtz had to carry the weight of the movie's meaning. Robert Duvall's Wagnerian surf nut Colonel Kilgore was the central figure of its satire. But these lucky, talented guys embodied its experience. They are and always have been the anchor of the movie.
When they signed on to Coppola's Vietnam, they wound up in a hitch that lasted half the 1970s. Filming in the Philippines started in 1976 and stretched out, over 15 months, to 238 days. Post-production went on for two years. Two years and two decades after its August 1979 premiere, this new version required them to hit the soundstage again, to loop lines never suitably recorded.
Whatever you think of the movie (and I've always been a skeptic), the story behind it is the greatest saga of '70s moviemaking. A writer-director at the peak of his clout and artistic power, coming off The Godfather, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, made an epic about the Vietnam War with a strategy that mirrored the U.S. military. He brought cutting-edge technology into a terrain that could barely support electricity. He fired Harvey Keitel as Willard after three weeks. A typhoon destroyed sets and halted filming for six months. Filipino fighter planes portrayed U.S. jets only when they weren't putting down insurgents elsewhere. Keitel's replacement, Sheen, suffered a heart attack. Apocalypse Now also had the most tortured and public finishing process on record: Even when it shared the Golden Palm at Cannes (with The Tin Drum) it was called a "work in progress."
Yet the picture ended up making money and winning awards; most recently, it ranked No. 28 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movies.
More important, it entered the culture. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," spoken by gung-ho Kilgore, is probably more famous than any line to come out of the real war. It carries the absurdism of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove into a naturalistic military context. It brings home the idea that pitched battle can be horrifying and beautiful and also manic and inane. Apocalypse Now injected images of napalm-seared rainforests, of soldiers fighting in flare-streaked gloom and sailors gliding through psychedelic haze, into our common consciousness of this doomed jungle war. The whir and clink of chopper blades invades our inner ear whenever we think of Vietnam, thanks to sound designer and editor Walter Murch's groundbreaking quintaphonic audio mix.
But ultimately, this wasn't enough for Coppola.
His friend Paul Rassam, of France's Pathe pictures, saw bits of the excised French plantation sequence in the extraordinary documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, and began urging Coppola to reinstate it. Murch and Coppola biographer Peter Cowie say Rassam's enthusiasm ignited Coppola's own feeling that, back in 1979, he had shortchanged one of his grandest achievements, creating a compact version of an inherently expansive work. Eventually Coppola persuaded Murch to help him put together Apocalypse Now Redux. Lovers of the old movie will love this one more. Others will find it fascinating.
Just listening to the film's actors reminisce evoked the movie's atmosphere of blood, sweat and more sweat. Forrest ambled into the hotel room first. He remembered acting at the first premiere like an enlisted man getting his payout: "They put us up in a big hotel suite and we were happy that we were out of the jungle and finally the film was going to come out. Oh, man!" His character, Chef, is supposed to be a saucier, but he said: "I didn't have a chance to learn how to cook. Francis paid some French guy to teach me cooking down in the Philippines; he'd come over every day and show me how to make a bechamel sauce. But the electricity would go off in this little village every day, about noon. Everything was spoiled. I couldn't learn because we couldn't taste."
Then Albert Hall arrived, recognizable now as the all-business judge on The Practice and Ally McBeal -- a character that his by-the-book patrol-boat skipper Chief might have grown into had he survived the war. "I was looking at it Friday night," he said, "and that sampan scene, that's incredible." The scene is a mini-My Lai massacre that starts when Hall's Chief orders Forrest's Chef to search a river boat.
Hall: "We developed that as we went; there was no script for that."
Forrest: "You said, 'Search the boat, Chef! Search the boat! See what's in the such-and-such!' "
Hall: "Francis told you to give me some lip. 'Cause when I first said, 'Get on that boat!' you just went on that boat. And Francis said, 'Don't just go on the boat -- give him some lip.' I remember that scene, man."
Coppola originally cut Clement out of the movie. But she is at the center of the biggest addition to Apocalypse: a 25-minute sequence set on a plantation where French colonials work the land and withstand history. The French explain to the Americans that they've been in Vietnam for five generations and have as much right to be there as white people have to be in the United States. They're fighting for what's theirs; the Americans, they say, "are fighting for the biggest nothing in history."
A lustrous blonde best known for her performance in Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Clement wandered into the hotel room and delighted her co-stars with her casual elegance and enthusiasm. "Oy yoy yoy [or "Ai yai yai" in her accent]," she exclaimed. "You see," she said with a laugh, "We are still alive, my friends."
Sam Bottoms entered and completed the circle. Still looking like a California beach bum, albeit a bearded and weathered one, Bottoms shared a stash of location photographs, and reminiscences that brought home the idealism and the all-hands-to-the-pumps ethos of Coppola productions in that era.
He talked about his late uncle, John Chapman, who took bit parts as one of Kurtz's followers and one of Kilgore's men, as well as being assistant director on the second unit ("and by the end, I think, production manager, too"); he showed pictures of Pete Cooper, a big guy who doubled for Brando.
Bottoms remembered how rumors of Brando's arrival rippled through the company: Marlon's coming to Manila. Now he's in Pagsanjan! Now he's making his way to the set! Now he's on the set! "It was like, where is he?" Bottoms said, then added, gesturing to Forrest: "We went to the boat, you and me, and walked down to the forward part -- and there was Marlon sitting on our boat. And it was like -- how did he get through the set? But he had a way. He went through everybody."
"A very simple man," said Clement of Brando; she is still grateful for his fluent French. "I didn't understand a word Francis was telling me, and Marlon helped me. He would tell me, 'Francis wants you to do that and that and that.' "
Near the start of the French plantation sequence, Chief gives Clean a proper military burial. Even now, Hall can summon up the poignancy of the scene: "This was my boat, these were my children," he exclaimed. "I had lost one of my children and Willard was responsible for it, so you already have this duel of emotions." Clement's character, Roxanne, recognizes Willard as a lover and a killer, and gives him opium: her late husband's cure for his emotional wounds.
In another new scene, Willard arranges for the men to have sex with Playboy bunnies from the movie's notorious version of a morale-boosting extravaganza. The girls are now stranded with a medical evacuation (Medevac) unit, and Willard barters with their manager to exchange boat fuel for their favors. Here, a small enigma from the original is explained: Lance gets the makeup that he uses as camouflage or war paint or psychedelic decoration from his bunny's kit.
Bottoms called inventions like that "the bridges," but couldn't quite reconstruct where and how they were erected -- not surprising, considering that he started improvising with his bunny when the worst typhoon in 40 years rampaged through the Philippines. The scene was shot at different times, Forrest's part of it months later at one of Coppola's Napa vineyards. What was difficult, Bottoms said, "was to maintain the arc of the character without a script continuity: It was like, where am I now? Do I have a banana leaf on my head?"
"Up through Martin Sheen getting his mission," said Hall, "that was in the script. Once you saw the boat take off, Francis was into the rich resources he saw on location. We had all those cats who had been in Vietnam saying this is what we were doing there. And Francis looked at the Ifugao -- the native people in the Philippines -- and said, wow, we can incorporate them into the show!" The small, dark-skinned Ifugao were perfect to portray Kurtz's Montagnards -- ethnic Cambodians living in Vietnam -- and their ritual sacrifice of a caribou gave Coppola the key to his ending.
Clement summarized the two versions of Apocalypse this way: "The first one was sharper, tighter. The second one has more humor, more sentiment." To Bottoms, "the incorporation of the women's characters and the history of the war really fills out the 'novel' of the movie." Hall said, "Francis made excellent choices with the new stuff; both the characters' arcs and the arc of the story are fuller." For Forrest, the new film "humanizes everyone."
PART II -- Walter Murch: The Architecture of 'Redux'
To Walter Murch, it makes sense that Apocalypse Now has attained an oddly protean existence. Murch feels that the play of memory and consciousness is integral to the substance of the movie.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Murch referred to the findings of neurosurgeon Paul McLean, who argued that each section of the brain represents an evolutionary stage. He quoted McLean's joke that "when a psychiatrist asks you to lie down on a couch, he's asking you to lie next to a horse and a crocodile. When you're hungry, the crocodile commandeers the other brains; when you're in love, the limbic brain takes over and uses the other two. And I think what Francis was getting at with Kurtz is this: The crocodile is a dangerous beast, but how much more dangerous would it be if it had the reasoning power of a human being?"
According to Murch, who has worked in various capacities on all of Coppola's greatest pictures (winning an Oscar for the sound on Apocalypse Now and performing the intricate audiovisual stitchwork of The Conversation), "Francis started talking to me about editing this about five years ago. I was unavailable and afraid."
Murch had both designed the sound and joined the editing team for the first version, and was reticent to undo "the balance we'd achieved," particularly with materials that were aging. He had a philosophic objection, too: "To use a metaphor, Francis makes wine -- and the wine you make in 1979 will always be the wine you make in 1979. It's a record of the grapes, the weather, the economic climate, and what you were like back then."
In 1998, though, Murch re-edited Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil using detailed notes by Welles. "That may have emboldened me without me knowing it," he said. When Coppola pitched him again, Murch decided: "Maybe I'll learn something."
He brought in his assistant on Touch of Evil, Sean Cullen, who made sure that what they'd need was available and cataloged, either in Coppola's own storage facility in Napa, Calif., in a Los Angeles vault, or at the mysterious National Underground Storage system in Pennsylvania. They ended up with maybe a half-ton of material.
Coppola has said that in 1979 his main fear was of releasing a film that was too "strange." Murch says, frankly, "For 'strange,' substitute 'long.' " The goal back then, he said, was: "How short can you make this film and still make it deliver the goods -- be both of a piece and satisfying to an audience?"
The new scenes are more fixed historically and psychologically; without them, Apocalypse Now has a focus that's subjective and surreal. But, Murch said, "The thinking wasn't that those scenes were too real, let's cut them out; it was, 'let's cut them out because we can.' The bones of the movie were broken in order to fit it into a box that was 2 1/2 hours long."
Murch's task was to reconnect the skeleton -- in one case, with wisps of cartilage. Crucial bits of the scene with the Playboy bunnies were never filmed. But Murch provides new textures and rhythms with footage of the men bickering and fighting and Willard wandering around the site. He intercuts the action between Chef and Lance and their respective bunnies, and ends it abruptly with Clean pounding on the door demanding his turn. A corpse tumbles to the floor, revealing for the first time to the audience (and possibly to the soldiers) that they've had their fun in a morgue.
Murch's intercutting brings home the point that exploitative sex fantasies trap men and women alike. Chef has to pose his bird-loving bunny like a centerfold before he can have sex with her; Lance's gal, the Playmate of the Year, bemoans her alienation at having to pretend to be a sex goddess. But the scene also contributes to a more subtle heightening of the movie as a whole: Clean doesn't get his time with a woman. Later, when the patrol boat happens on that fated sampan, and a woman skitters to the rear while Chef is searching it, Clean is the one who starts shooting.
"The guy that pulls the trigger on the sampan is the jumpiest and most easily frustrated," said Murch, "and now we know why."
The sampan scene demonstrates the across-the-board collaborations that Coppola encouraged in that era, when he consistently enlisted strong-minded co-creators like Murch. Despite Hall's recollection that the scene was improvised, Murch actually suggested the idea behind it, as well as its general structure.
"It was in July of '76," Murch recalls, "after the typhoon. Francis ... had come back to the States and was working on the script. He asked me to help him out. What struck me that was that the patrol boat seemed to sail up the river at its pleasure; it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do -- patrolling -- and the men weren't interacting with the Vietnamese. I thought they should stop a sampan and have something bad happen as a result -- something like the massacre at My Lai."
In a way, Hall was right: The actors were the ones who whipped up the hysteria of that scene, climaxing when Chef discovers that the sampan's hidden cargo is a puppy -- a twist that caused the appalled film critic Pauline Kael to grumble, "Oh no, Francis, not a puppy!" Murch doesn't think the puppy was in his draft, but he has a theory about why that scene pulls most audiences into the movie.
"People being killed in a film can elicit a certain emotion," said Murch, "but when that puppy is grabbed and used in a tug-of -war between Chef and Lance, people go 'Augggh!' It's not too tough on the puppy, but people can't stand to see it, because they know that the puppy didn't agree to be in the film." A bedrock innocence from outside the picture intrudes on it, clinching viewer involvement.
Murch's instinct for spotting the narrative crux of an issue and weaving it into a fabric with poetic images and sound made him invaluable for this picture's final editing-room rewrite. In Coppola's initial vision, as the patrol boat went upriver, it also went back in time, slamming into the 19th century when it entered the French rubber plantation. The sequence was outlandish in concept, convincing in execution; according to Clement, Coppola even insisted on having the ideal wine (Chateau Latour) for dinner.
The challenge Murch faced was fitting this sequence between beginning and end points that were too dead-on realistic. Since the plantation comes on screen after the chaos at the Do Lung Bridge, viewers inevitably asked, "Where did the French get their supplies? How did they communicate with the rest of the world?" Sifting through unedited celluloid, Murch found footage of the French emerging and disappearing in deep mist. He also located gorgeous shots of Clement's character Roxanne closing the mosquito netting around the French four-poster bed she shares with Willard, and meshed them with a portrait of Willard "materializing out of the fog, in a thoughtful pose, pondering what happened or what he dreamed." Murch was able to create an interlude that exists in a dynamic limbo.
Murch adopted the principle that no change should simply add a new dimension to the film -- it must also perform honest narrative labor. A new scene at Kurtz's compound, in which Kurtz reads U.S. reportage about the war to the imprisoned Willard, provides context about Americans' political illusions and also brings a phase of Willard's stay in Kurtz's empire to an end. Kurtz feels he has caught Willard in his psychological and intellectual web -- physical confinement is no longer necessary.
"That scene brings up another thing that's changed in the film," Murch said. "In 1979, our impression was that Brando was very fat because we had another Brando in mind; now that we have seen him being so much fatter, he seems fine."
Brando is an example of Murch's belief that "in a weird way, the film changes whether or not we alter a single frame. It's because of the marriage between the culture and the images and sounds. When we scored Kilgore's air cavalry charge to "The Ride of the Valkyries," we were being derivative, because Griffith had used it over half a century before. Now people have derived other uses of it from us. And now 'everybody' knows 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning,' and they come waiting for that line."
PART III -- Why 'Apocalypse' This Time
In 1994, Tim Roth acted in a more traditional adaptation of Coppola's source novel, called, like the book, Heart of Darkness. He was so great as Marlow that when I interviewed him for Planet of the Apes, I thought he might criticize Coppola's transformation of his gentle, intelligent observer into the assassin Willard. Instead, he said, "Apocalypse Now is an extraordinary piece of work. I wish I'd been around to be any part of that. All the performers in it were peaking at just the right time. I'm sure it was a tough shoot, but that being said and done they can all look back and be proud of it. Especially because it doesn't date."
Peter Cowie agrees. He's just written The "Apocalypse Now" Book, an unprecedented and illuminating behind-the-scenes exploration of the movie with material culled from Coppola's private archives. Author of a biography of Coppola and a study of the Godfather movies, Cowie decided that a book on Apocalypse was worth doing because Eleanor Coppola's amazingly revealing book Notes and the documentary Hearts of Darkness concentrated on the production phase. Cowie reasoned he could bookend that story with the genesis of the film and its post-production.
As a result of his complete access and Coppola's total comfort with him, Cowie succeeded splendidly, coming up with the kind of detailed record of '70s-style guerrilla moviemaking that got lost in the sensationalistic blur of Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Cowie doesn't ignore Coppola's affairs and family strains and quasi-breakdowns, but never scants his prodigious physical and intellectual labor.
"At the time, The Deer Hunter could have seemed more imposing," Cowie said on the phone from London. "But it has dated badly. Apocalypse Now, because it did not focus on the Vietnam War per se, has not dated at all. Kids like the film for the way it pushes the envelope of cinema. I think of it like The Right Stuff: The material itself may grow old but the way it's done is so exhilarating that people will respond to it continuously."
Of Coppola's urge to reassemble his film, Cowie said: "Nagging away at the back of Francis' mind was the feeling that critics had rejected the film because it was inchoate -- because they thought, in the final analysis, that it didn't make sense. Oh, they'd say, there are great scenes with Kilgore and the helicopter attack in the first third or two-thirds of the film, but when Brando comes on screen and starts rambling the whole picture coagulates. The aim in this new version was not to put in spectacular new sequences but to restore an overall balance.
"When the new version screened at Cannes this year, no matter what people thought of the film, everyone agreed it made more sense. And it was taken as a strong pacifist statement. Now there's no doubt at the end that Kurtz is a figure of the damned and that Willard is our hope: he refuses to call in an air strike on Kurtz's compound and goes back to lead Lance to a better life."
One of the few people outside Coppola's Zoetrope company to see the movie's 5 1/2 -hour rough cut as well as its current one, Cowie said: "The only thing I missed was more with Brando. There were some particularly good Brando scenes in which he talks in French with some of the Montagnards and makes these chillingly offhand, almost Nazi-like comments as to how he runs his fiefdom."
Cowie also reported that no matter how much improvisation occurred on location, "Nearly all the essential ingredients were there at an early stage." For him, two factors turned the creation of the film into a crucible.
First, "It's the only epic made entirely on location -- there were no scenes shot in a studio." And second, "Most great epics have had strong producers, whether Sam Spiegel [for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia] or Sam Bronston [for Anthony Mann's El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire]. The co-producers on Apocalypse Now were Francis' employees, part of his loyal caravan of pilgrims. At a certain point they couldn't pound the table."
Yet in the end, Cowie said, "Apocalypse Now has become extremely profitable: It continues to sell well on video and TV, and Francis controls it, which is an extraordinary asset."
To Cowie, it exerts an irresistible cinematic allure: "Watching Apocalypse Now always brings me back to the time when I was a young critic and it was such fun to see what Fellini and Satyajit Ray were doing, or how Antonioni would glide his camera slowly around an outcropping of rock. Its images are compelling because it depicts war visually in a way that had never been done."
To Murch, the film's style is inextricable from the content. I asked him whether he thinks the movie depicts the inadequacies of American culture, with its combination of potent technology and simplistic ideology.
"Inadequacies is a good word," he said, "given what we were trying to do in the place we were trying to do it. 'Let's bomb them back into the Stone Age' -- that slogan was an expression of our culture in the '60s. And we learned why that slogan doesn't work. You can't 'bomb them back into the Stone Age' because 'they' can absorb the punch and you are enervated as a society by delivering that punch."
Murch said these arguments go back to Heart of Darkness: "After all, Conrad begins his novel with a group of friends on a boat in the Thames estuary. There, outside London, the apex of civilization, one of the men wonders what it must have been like to be a Roman legionnaire at that spot 2,200 years ago, getting ready to go upriver into a land where he knows savagery will close all around him ... and the savages are the ancestors of these friends. I know the word 'savage' has all sorts of connotations now, the ways 'God' does.
"But there is a pure meaning at the center of it. I think what Conrad is getting at, and what the film is also getting at, is that the white man who goes back to savagery is more savage than a savage. Savages aren't brutal, terrible people; they are people in a culture at a certain stage of development. The problem comes when somebody who has all the cultural muscle and sophistication that Kurtz has starts harnessing boldly colored passions and not exercising restraint. That's when you get into trouble."