FILM REVIEW – APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT. With Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper. Written by John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Rated R for violence, grisly images, language, some drug use and nudity. 183 minutes.
Francis Ford Coppola’s magisterial, psychedelic monster “Apocalypse Now” has spawned four decades of arguments, think-pieces, and slack-jawed wonder. Is it a bombastic, mega-budget spectacle picture in the guise of a brooding, European art movie, or vice versa? Transplanting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to the Vietnam War, Coppola conjured a vision of madness on a scale we’ll never see again, during the years-long process nearly losing his house, his leading man, and his mind. In his wife Eleanor’s riveting 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” the director famously (and somewhat tastelessly) likened his experience in the jungle to the United States’ doomed military incursion: “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money and little by little we went insane.”
Greeted with mixed reviews upon initial release, “Apocalypse Now” is now generally considered one of the greatest films of all time and you won’t find any argument here. But Francis still can’t seem to stop tinkering with it, his latest and purportedly “final” revision hitting home video this week after some scattered theatrical screenings. The 80-year-old legend’s twilight at the vineyard is apparently being spent in an editing bay, with a new version of his 1984 box office bomb “The Cotton Club” set to premiere at next month’s New York Film Festival, following semi-recent, rather annoying editorial exercises like a chronological re-cut of “The Godfather” films for HBO (similar to his 1977 mini-series edit for network television) or “The Outsiders: The Complete Novel,” which contained all the scenes he’d been wise enough to leave on the cutting room floor back in 1983.
The most acclaimed of these efforts, of course, was 2001’s “Apocalypse Now Redux,” which added 53 minutes to the 1979 film’s two-and-a-half hour running time, and while rapturously received by many critics the project was, to this reviewer’s mind, an act of vandalism. Coppola’s extensions and additions more than mucked with the original movie’s carefully calibrated, bad-trip pacing, they also sought to explain away its mysteries, shoving wordy bits of historical background into what worked best as a hallucinatory fugue state. Additionally, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro snipped the sides off the frames to fit the 2.1 Univisium aspect ratio he invented in 1998 as a compromise between the widths of movie and television screens. Don’t even get me started on that.
At 183 minutes, APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT splits the running time between “Redux” and the original 1979 edit, with a new 4K scan from the original camera negative, a remixed soundtrack for Dolby Atmos and thank heavens (or Storaro) it’s back to being presented in 2.35 CinemaScope again. As always, the film is an audiovisual powerhouse like nothing you’ve ever seen, and I often wonder what it is that makes these images feel so much heavier and larger than similar shots in conventional war films. The movie is simply massive in scope, ambition and balls. Whenever I’m done watching “Apocalypse Now” again, for the next few days other pictures seem puny.
Yet this “Final Cut” requires once again sitting through some of Coppola’s more perplexing additions, which aren’t as egregious as the ones in “Redux” but are diminishments all the same. The first and most frivolous is a scene in which Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard swipes a surfboard belonging to Robert Duvall’s fire-breathing Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. I’ve never been able to buy the haunted, all-business Willard suddenly deciding to pull such a frat-boy prank, and his back-slapping bonhomie with the boat crew doesn’t fit the frayed hostility of their other interactions. (It’s like when Michael Corleone is cracking Tony Bennett jokes at the beginning of “Godfather III.” Who is this guy?) We’re thankfully spared the business of Kilgore begging for his board back that was such a groaner in “Redux,” but the entire episode still tragically undoes his “someday this war’s gonna end” departure from the original edit, one of the great character exits in movie history.
Most problematic is Coppola’s insane attachment to the notorious sequence in which Willard and the crew discover a family running a French rubber plantation near the head of the river, carrying on their colonial ways while willfully oblivious to the war around them. For starters the scene is in entirely the wrong place, shoved in following the hallucinatory freakout of the Do Long Bridge (“there’s no fuckin’ CO here”) and the killing of young Laurence Fishburne’s Private Clean by unseen assailants. “Apocalypse Now” is a journey upriver into abstraction, where we watch as structures and systems of order all collapse around us until everything is in ruins and we arrive at the Kurtz compound.
This chatty, civilized and seemingly endless dinner sequence that follows isn’t just out of place and all wrong for the movie’s mood, it’s bizarrely out-of-character for Willard. A few scenes ago we watched him shoot a wounded woman in the head because his mission is of such grave importance he doesn’t have time to take her to a medic. But now he’s cool with sitting down for a leisurely French meal before slipping upstairs to smoke some opium and get laid. What happened to “never get out of the boat?”
The ham-fisted dialogue attempts to introduce a late-game history lesson about the former French Indochina into a film that frankly isn’t built for it. “Apocalypse Now” isn’t a movie interested in geopolitical specifics, and Coppola has often been (not incorrectly) criticized for using Vietnam as a backdrop for his take on Joseph Conrad without fully reckoning with the conflict’s causes or casualties. I personally think such matters are outside the scope of the film, which attempts to deal with larger, more generalized existential questions in primarily visual terms. So suddenly stopping everything to let bit players jaw about the particulars over two hours into the movie does a disservice to all sides of the discussion. (Plus that egg metaphor is an eye-roller-and-a-half.)
Coppola claims that the initial release cut was truncated as a result of him panicking and trying to make the picture accessible to the widest possible audience, hoping to get some of his money back at the box office. But to me that’s always been the genius of “Apocalypse Now” – an undeniably strange and difficult art film brought of with the brio of a master showman. It’s troublingly, enormously entertaining movie on a grand blockbuster scale. Coppola’s continued attempts to revise and undercut his initial, towering achievement remind me of the speech in “Six Degrees of Separation” when the second grade art teacher explains that her students all seem like geniuses because she knows when to take the paints away from them. The first cut was the deepest.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.