Apocalypse Now Redux was the non-event of 2001. Far from improving what has long been an overrated work, Francis Ford Coppola manages, in this re-edit, to magnify its flaws. In any form, it is a hollow movie, relying on stylistic bombast to cover a thinness of content.
In 1979 as now, Apocalypse Now relies solely on its spectacular qualities. And it is certainly a spectacle. The opening image – still the best in the entire movie – shows us an imaginary Vietnamese landscape (actually shot in the Philippines) first covered by smoke and then invaded by helicopter fire, as The Doors' "The End" builds and crashes.
For decades, commentators have savoured the ironies and paradoxes of Coppola's project. The fraught production of the film, immortalised in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) and a published diary by Eleanor Coppola, itself often resembled an American military campaign on foreign soil. This hyperreal confusion of real war and pop culture fantasy – a major topic for co-writer John Milius, who referred to Vietnam as the "rock'n'roll war" – is enhanced by Coppola's inclusion of a wild show for the soldiers, complete with a band and Playboy bunnies.
In truth, despite seemingly unlimited material resources, Coppola began with little more than a vague artistic ambition – to show the 'madness' of war – and a literary classic, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is from this source that he drew the character of Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the end-point of the long and dangerous journey taken by Willard (Martin Sheen) and his young team.
Coppola did not successfully figure out what his film was about in the '70s, and he is still fudging the issue now. As well as being obligatorily anti-war, he currently claims Apocalypse Now to be 'anti-lie' – a story of hypocrisy and its victims. No doubt responding to political criticisms that his original work was a touch misogynistic and colonialist, he aims to re-balance the books by including irresolute scenes involving the bedraggled Playboy bunnies and a French clan grimly holding onto its farm through whatever war passes through.
Both of these new scenes are weak, but hardly anything else in the film is much stronger. Coppola is fine with primal imagery – Willard as a vaporous ghost or mud-covered animal, the landscape as at once sublimely beautiful and terrifying – but poor on theme and dramatic meaning.
The endless second act along the river disintegrates into an episodic ramble, and culminates eventually in the most bombastic, pretentious spectacle of all: Brando melodramatically coming forth in the darkness (first his nose, then his chin, then his bald dome) to utter metaphysical banalities about good, evil, fear and horror.
From a technical viewpoint, this 'redux' version of Apocalypse Now is unprecedented in mainstream cinema (although it has often happened in experimental cinema, as in the radical reassemblages of Rivette, Robbe-Grillet and Straub/Huillet). Coppola, with longtime collaborator Walter Murch, has not merely added new footage, but gone back to the raw material of the dailies and completely reconstituted the image and sound tracks from scratch. This implies that every scene may have alternate takes, new camera angles, a different editing pattern and an altered sound mix.
There will be an army of aficionados pouring over DVD machines in the near future to tabulate all these minute differences between the two versions of Apocalypse Now. But, as an old-style Hollywood mogul once said, include me out. Coppola's inflated reputation rests, ultimately, on the first two Godfather films (1972 and 1974) and The Conversation (1974) – and virtually nothing thereafter. Works that seemed groundbreaking at the time, like One from the Heart (1982) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), have not worn terribly well.
The cult worship of Apocalypse Now, fervently stoked by Coppola himself, is a no-brainer that film culture could well do without.
© Adrian Martin November 2001