December 9, 2001 -- "Apocalypse Now Redux" is the director's cut of an epic film about the madness of war. Almost an hour of new footage has been added to the film, making an already long film even longer, but not better.
As with the original version of this film, the first two hours or so of the film are the best. After that, it sinks into a murky swamp of dark imagery, cryptic dialog and gore, capped off by a primitive, violent ritual. Based on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" it tries to penetrate the confusing veil of human evil and institutionalized killing. It succeeds, in a heavy-handed way, of raising more questions and a few observations about the Vietnam War, and these have more than a passing relevance to the current war in Afghanistan.
Martin Sheen, currently starring as the President of the United States in the TV show "West Wing," carries the film as the consummate anti-hero in this 1979 film. Sheen plays the role of Captain Benjamin L. Willard. In a very creative opening scene using overlapping, superimposed images we see Willard's upside-down face, along with the whirling blades of the ceiling fan as we listen to the sound of helicopter blades overhead and the haunting voice of Jim Morrison of the Doors. Sheen gradually transforms himself through the course of the film into a quiet madman -- the destroyer of worlds -- judge, jury and executioner. He becomes war itself.
Willard, who has lost the ability to live as a normal person in society, tries to make sense of the insanity of war, and in doing so loses his own mind. Willard is given the top-secret assignment of killing a renegade soldier, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is like a god in his own little kingdom across the border in Cambodia. Willard studies Kurtz's background and comes to admire the man. He listens to Kurtz's words and finds himself being drawn in. Another soldier, who was earlier assigned the mission to kill Kurtz, fell under Kurtz's spell and became a disciple.
In one of the key moments of the film Kurtz tells a story about how American troops inoculated a village of Vietnamese, and how the Viet Cong came along and amputated the arms of the children who had been vaccinated. Kurtz said the Americans could not win the war without that same force of will and determination and clarity of purpose of those who hacked off the arms of the children. He makes no secret he admires the mutilators. The story also makes a point of showing how Americans tended to kill Vietnamese in order to save them during the war. The same thing is being done in Afghanistan. We're dropping lots of bombs and very little food on a starving people. As Willard says in the film, Americans will shoot a person fill of holes and then offer the person a bandage.
In another key scene Robert Duvall, who plays Lieutenant Colonel William 'Bill' Kilgore, destroys a Vietnamese village to secure a good surfing spot on the river. He then has a wounded child put on a helicopter and taken to the hospital. He gives with one hand, and takes away with the other. Another key character in the film is Gunner's Mate Third Class Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms of "Gardens of Stone"), who is portrayed as an innocent, a child playing in the midst of great destruction. Johnson is a California surfer dude who seems totally out of place in the war. He seems to have no animosity toward anyone. It is instructive to watch how he reacts to his environment and how his environment reacts to him. It is also instructive to see the contrast between Lance and those other soldiers who are filled with hate and revenge.
Kurtz, himself, turns out to be a bit of a disappointment when we finally meet him in the last hour or so of the film. Except for the one speech about the amputated arms, he doesn't give us much insight into anything. He reads passages from a magazine (an added scene) and he reads passages from T.S. Elliot's "The Hollow Men." There are no pithy insights into war or evil or chaos. It is sort of a shotgun approach. A lot of ideas get thrown out in the hopes that something will stick. There is a slow dance that he and Willard do in which Kurtz gives Willard tacit approval to judge him. Willard does judge Kurtz, and he gives the matter a good deal of thought. One of the best parts about the film's final act is the appropriate music on the soundtrack, "The End" by The Doors.
Another character turns up at the end, another Kurtz disciple, a mad photojournalist (played with conviction by Dennis Hopper). He expounds Kurtz's theories about dialectics, which sounds a bit like Karl Marx's theory of dialectical materialism of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Hopper argues that there are no shades of gray, only right and wrong. While the Marxian tenor of Kurtz's theories may be overstated, Kurtz certainly seems to have plenty of respect for his Marxian enemies. While God may not be dead in the film, he is made to appear irrelevant.
Except for Hopper's dialectic tirade, there is actually little political dogma in the film. The war itself renders politics and morality irrelevant. Those who try to make sense of war are only fooling themselves, the film seems to be arguing. There are those, like Col. Kilgore, who seem to thrive on war by embracing it and turning a blind eye to its consequences. Others try to skate by on the thin ice around the edges of the war, but eventually fall into the chaos. In a way, Willard and Kurtz are the most noble soldiers in the movie because they alone are willing to look straight into the face of that chaos and try to create their own rules. Kurtz arrived at this point years earlier, but Willard vaults to this level at a point in the story when he executes a wounded civilian.
A series of scenes restored for the director's cut happens at a French plantation. There is a sort of dinnertime lecture about the long French involvement in Vietnam. Willard thinks the French are crazy to continue their fight to keep their plantation against impossible odds. The French point out that at least they are fighting for something tangible, while the Americans are not. The French plantation scenes include performances by Roman Coppola as Francis deMarais and Gian-Carlo Coppola. There is also a seduction scene involving Willard and a French widow, Roxanne (Aurore Clement). Another added scene involves Playboy bunnies in a USO show (Colleen Camp plays Miss May, Playmate Terri Teray; Cynthia Wood plays the Playmate of the Year, Carrie Foster) and Linda Carpenter plays Playmate Sandra Beatty (Miss August). It further establishes the innocence of Johnson. The newly restored scenes from 1979 add a little sex, but not much more, to the bloated film, now three hours and 22 minutes long.
I had forgotten that Harrison Ford has a small role in the film, as does J.D. Spradlin, who plays a general near the beginning of the film. Sailors on the boat used on the upriver mission include "Chef" Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest of "Falling Down"), Chief Phillips (Albert Hall of "Get on the Bus") and Gunner's Mate Third Class Lance B. Johnson (Laurence Fishburne of "The Matrix").
The first two hours of the film are filled with fantastic imagery, and gripping war scenes, among the best ever filmed. A huge formation of helicopters attacking to the music of "Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's opera "Die Walküe" is truly spectacular, especially considering those are real helicopters, not computer-generated images. The film has huge sets (some of which had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by a hurricane in the Philippines). It is a very ambitious film and everything is on a grand scale. It doesn't really achieve what it sets out to do, but those first two hours are really fantastic. If the last hour and 22 minutes had been as good, it would have been a masterpiece, something rivaling "Lawrence of Arabia." Francis Ford Coppola deserves a lot of credit for giving this film his best shot. It was a tremendous undertaking, well documented in his wife's film, "Hearts of Darkness."
Unfortunately, it takes more than great effort, good intentions, and a willingness to stand up to the power of the studios to try to make a great film. Despite what some critics might tell you, it is not about the process so much as it is about the result. In this case Coppola was unable to get past his own limitations as a filmmaker and his own limitations on his understanding of the Vietnam war. He himself ended up much like Kurtz, toiling against long odds on a movie set in jungles as remote and unforgiving as those in Cambodia, trying to piece together something meaningful from improvised dialogue by Marlon Brando and other actors. It is not quite a complete work, but the parts that do succeed are audacious, insightful and imaginative. This film rates a B.
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