Apocalypse Now Redux

"Director’s cuts" can be infuriating. Sometimes they’re an excuse to shovel in footage that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Other times they result in a film that’s superior to the original, and raise the question why things weren’t done right the first time. Why does the director of a film ranked #28 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list – a film already criticized for being exceedingly long and disjointed – would find it necessary to add 49 minutes of new footage to bring it up to an almost catheter-requiring 3 hours and 17 minutes. That film is Apocalypse Now, and the answer is clearly that the additions – while not all worthwhile – undoubtedly make it a better film.

Now titled Apocalypse Now Redux, this is essentially a totally new effort.The origin of the new version goes back several years, to director Francis Ford Coppola’s viewing of the 1979 original on a London hotel room television. He says, "What struck me was that this film – which had been seen as so demanding, strange and adventurous when it first came out – now seemed like something that the audience had caught up to."

Instead of merely inserting new scenes, Coppola and editor Walter Mirsch took an unusual and time-consuming tack. They went back to the original raw footage, the "dailies", and re-assembled the film from scratch, a process that took six months. The result: even aficionados of the original version will find scenes with slightly different takes or shots than the ones they’ve known so well for 22 years. And the film looks great. In at least the top 20 U.S. markets, the film has been released with dye-transfer Technicolor prints, resulting in richer, more saturated colors and wider gradations of light and dark.

For those unfamiliar with the story (loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness), it’s a journey by special operative Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who commands a patrol boat upriver and behind enemy lines into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. His mission is to terminate "with extreme prejudice" the command of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is a highly decorated career soldier now leading his own private army – a group of local tribesmen – in mysterious activities condemned by his superiors.

New footage on the patrol boat near the start of their journey fleshes out the relationship between Willard and the rest of the crew – some regular army, some whacked-out druggies and callow teens. It shows the crew as more of a team than in the original, where Willard seemed merely a high-ranking passenger.There’s an expanded "Playboy Playmates" sequence that shows the crew meeting up with the Bunnies after an abortive road show. Willard exchanges some fuel for two of the women’s attentions for a couple hours – an obvious parallel to the exploitation of American youth during the war, but the scene is heavy-handed and gratuitous. It’s the one addition that seems totally unnecessary. And there’s now a scene where Kurtz reads excerpts from U.S. intelligence reports and Time magazine to a captive Willard, sneering at their lies and inaccuracies. It’s a valuable addition, providing additional insight into the mind of Kurtz and making him less of a shadowy enigma than in the original cut.

The bulk of the new footage is the much-discussed "French plantation sequence," in which, at mid-journey, the crew comes upon an outpost of French nationals shrouded in mist and fog. The civility and calm shown by those who live on the plantation is an eerie contrast to the madness that Willard and his men encounter elsewhere. But overall the sequence is too long, too much of a break from the main story. There’s a long-winded Political Science lesson over dinner that by itself brings the film to a screeching halt. Later that evening, a love scene between Willard and a widowed Frenchwoman is intended as poignant but instead comes across more like very bad Zalman King, including a tacky soundtrack. Not all the changes are additions. There’s no longer a pyrotechnics display at the film’s conclusion, just simple white credits on black.

It’s fascinating to view the film as merely a historical artifact, to marvel at the production values, knowing that the film was made long before computer-generated imagery was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Unlike the scenes in today’s films like Pearl Harbor, which liberally used CGI to re-create the attack, in Redux when the Hueys led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) attack a Vietcong outpost, everything you see is real – the helicopters, the explosions. And there was no digital editing available to erase mistakes or add additional action in post-production.

Those who loved the original Apocalypse Now will find more to admire.Those who found the original self-indulgent and pompous may now find it even more so. But there’s no denying that the additions result in a more unified story line and a richer, more complete Colonel Kurtz character. Those two enhancements alone make Apocalypse Now Redux a welcome reincarnation of the original.

– Bob Aulert