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A Revelation That Took Two Decades

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

The Cannes Film Festival is so overwhelming it’s difficult for a single film to have a stranglehold on public opinion. It’s an event so focused on celebrating the new that a 22-year-old classic has zero chance of dominating the buzz. Or at least that’s what you would have thought until Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” debuted there in May.

Called “Apocalypse Now and Then” by puckish jury member Terry Gilliam, who joined his colleagues in lamenting that it was ineligible for a prize, this three-hour-and-16-minute epic astonished festival viewers with its beauty, power and ambition. It will likely do the same when it debuts in Los Angeles and New York on Friday in a classy roadshow presentation that includes, as the original 70-millimeter release did, credits in printed handout form rather than on the screen.

Initially, as it should be, talk about the longer “Apocalypse” will center on the 49 minutes of new footage that separates this version from the one that shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979 and was nominated for eight Oscars. Yet what turns out to be especially interesting about “Apocalypse Now Redux” is how different the entire film seems for reasons that have as much to do with the passage of time as with the restored footage. What was impressive 22 years ago seems even more so now; what was problematic seems less important. Changes in us as an audience, changes in filmmaking fashions, changes in the times we live in, they’ve all combined in making this “Apocalypse” feel more impressive, more of a revelation than it did before.

It was, appropriately, director Coppola who noticed this transformation first, when the film appeared while he was watching TV in a London hotel room six years ago. “It was considered too long and too strange when it came out,” he said at Cannes. “But in contemporary terms, it didn’t seem that far out. I thought maybe times had changed.”

Other “Apocalypse” veterans had noticed the same thing. As the film’s brilliant editor and sound designer Walter Murch said in conversation with novelist Michael Ondaatje “As much as the work affects the culture, the culture mysteriously affects the work. ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the year 2000 is a very different thing than the physically exact same ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the second before it was released in 1979.”

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Working with Murch, who won the film’s Oscar for sound, Coppola added footage in several areas, bringing back two complete sequences, both involving women, and restoring trims that had truncated key performances.

Back was the 20-plus-minute French plantation sequence, which put American involvement in Vietnam in a historical context and gave Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard a romantic interlude with Aurore Clement’s widow. Also back was an equally poignant scene at a Medevac station where Willard trades fuel for quality time for his men with Playboy entertainers played by Colleen Camp and Cynthia Wood.

Treated with more completeness were two critical performances. Robert Duvall’s outsize “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Lt. Col. Kilgore is now shown entering the film in a helicopter with a “Death From Above” logo, and his entire power-source performance is given more room to breathe. The same goes for Sheen’s Capt. Willard, who is shown enjoying a good laugh on the river, and for Marlon Brando’s work as the renegade Col. Kurtz, the man Willard has been ordered to terminate.

In addition to the value this footage has in and of itself, it turns out to have the additional virtue of changing the core pace of the film, of resetting its internal clock. In the old version, “Apocalypse Now” had a tendency to seem choppy, an NFL highlights reel of marvelous individual sequences that had difficulty connecting. With the new scenes, the film has regained its proper rhythm, and not only feels like a coherent whole, it paradoxically plays faster than it did in shorter form.

Also benefiting the film across the board is the decision to use the dye-transfer system of printing for this version. Essentially a modern form of the classic three-strip Technicolor process that created the glories of old Hollywood, dye transfer allows for colors so breathtakingly deep and rich that director of photography Vittorio Storaro, who won the film’s other Oscar, said “I almost cried, it was so beautiful” when he saw the new print.

The new scenes and the new color, however, are not the only reasons this film, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and co-written by John Milius and Coppola with narration by Michael Herr, plays differently.

If nothing else, the passage of 22 years has added a different emotional patina to the personae of many of the cast members. Here’s Harrison Ford and Coppola himself (in a cameo as a TV director), both looking like their own sons. Here’s Laurence Fishburne, now a major star but then all of 14 (he misrepresented his age to get the part of one of Willard’s nautical escorts). Here’s Sheen, now best known as President Bartlet in “The West Wing,” a role that gives his earlier performance as Willard an unexpected “John F. Kennedy in PT-109" flavor. And, most sadly, here’s Gian-Carlo Coppola, the director’s son who died tragically young, in a cameo with his brother Roman, now a director, in the French plantation sequence.

More than that, seeing this film well after the hubbub about its chaotic origins has died down underlines the way initial responses were conditioned by those frenzied creation myths, how much “Apocalypse Now” got trapped in the maelstrom of press disaster reports, which, accurate or not, now seem close to irrelevant.

What does it matter, finally, if the film was shot on 238 days spread over 15 months, with so long (another two years) devoted to editing that the crew reportedly took to wearing “Apocalypse Now: Release With Honor” baseball caps? “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam,” the director said later. “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Perhaps it was that very craziness that gave the film one of its lasting qualities, its ability to convey the feeling of what a long, strange, irrational and surreal trip the Vietnam experience must have been. This was a characteristic Coppola stressed from the beginning. “My film is not a movie,” he said at Cannes in 1979. “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy.”

From the film’s remarkable opening image of napalm exploding like the devil’s wrath in the dark, impenetrable, unknowable jungle, “Apocalypse Now” introduces a world of urges and impulses, of unending savagery and institutionalized insanity, where power trumps right and the unstoppable U.S. war machinery ground its gears against the immovable jungle 24-7, 365 days a year.

Using real soldiers, real helicopters, and real fire to make these points (as opposed to today’s computer-generated varieties) makes them that much stronger.

“In this war, things get confused out there,” G.D. Spradlin’s unnamed general tells Sheen’s Willard. “There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. Good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes the angels of our better nature.”

The general is saying all this as he is giving orders to the captain to terminate Kurtz, a third-generation West Pointer and a warrior with “about a thousand decorations.” Making one of America’s outstanding soldiers descend so far, making his methods become so unacceptable and unsound, emphasizes the departure Vietnam was from our idealized vision of ourselves that lingered after World War II and is still present in waves of “the greatest generation” nostalgia. “I am beyond their timid, lying morality,” Kurtz says, revealing a face of war we weren’t yet prepared to recognize.

By the time Willard and “Apocalypse Now” get to Kurtz, holed up in Cambodia, the film has already made its strongest points. No character could live up to that bravura, “We’re going to meet the Wizard” build-up, and the shadowy, elliptical performance Brando gives has never been the film’s strength. But, here too, the passage of time has helped. Now that we know going in exactly what we’re in for with Brando, now that there’s no chance of over-anticipation and letdown, we can enjoy Brando’s eccentric work for what it is.

This is also true for one of the things that remains in the mind from “Apocalypse Now’s” initial release, which is how mannered and excessive it at times seemed. Seen today, after so many actors and directors have considerably raised the bar for what self-indulgence on the screen really means, those same scenes and performances play more tame and even poetic. We not only tolerate the excesses better, we barely notice them, which is either a comment on how far we’ve evolved as an audience or how far the medium has devolved in what it has made us accept.

Finally, seeing “Apocalypse Now Redux” after 22 years brings to mind the long, sad descent of Hollywood as much as the similar trajectory of the Vietnam War. It’s not only the sweep and intelligence of the filmmaking that make an impression here, it’s the ambition as well.

Revisiting this film today reminds us, as if we needed it, how puny our cinematic aspirations have become, how infrequently we attempt to say anything significant in an epic form. The fact that screens have frankly seen so little like this film makes us appreciate what it set out to do (and largely achieved) even more.


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