Paramount // 2001 // 202 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 5th, 2001
"He can be terrible and he can be mean and he can be right...You don't judge the colonel like an ordinary man." -- The Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper)
Once upon a time, in an age when men did not know any better (unlike today, of course), there was a war. Men went into a jungle to tame what they thought was a wilderness, only to discover the beasts within themselves. After much money, much time, and too much pain, they retreated and presented their findings to the public. Years later, they returned to that place, saw what they had done, and tried to judge again with a fresh perspective.
Of course, I'm talking about Apocalypse Now. You thought I was talking about Vietnam, didn't you?
A fever dream: palm trees enveloped in yellow dust, eaten by pulsing fire. Helicopters nose forward like angry wasps. It is a world turned upside down. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) waits for an enemy, cracks the mirror in his fury not to face himself. He tells this story as a confession, an apology in the classic sense: merely an explanation. It is a confession for two men, both assassins. "What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin?" asks the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz, condemned by his former masters when "his methods became unsound." Both men judge each other, judge the world -- and find it wanting.
Nearly everyone who tries to talk about Apocalypse Now must account for its fearsome scale. Few films have tried to tackle the subject of war so ambitiously. Sure, some films have staged more elaborate battle sequences, technical marvels of realism. Some films have focused more intimately on the psychological trauma of war. But there has always been a double irony to Francis Ford Coppola's own remarks about Apocalypse Now, seen at the time he made them (on the film's premiere at Cannes in 1979): "My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam. It's what it was really like." And in a sense, he was right: Apocalypse Now was an obsessive, destructive, costly disaster when made. You only have to glance at the marvelous 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness to know that.
But that is altogether too obvious. Apocalypse Now is also not a film about war. It is war: staging itself as final judgment beyond the fraying edges of out Vietnam history, our flirtations with colonialism. It is a film about apocalypse.
Odd how few critics seem much interested in this fact, their nervousness about the film's eschatological implications revealed by their very lack of attention, their obsession with the real Vietnam War and its lack of closure. No one doubts that Apocalypse Now is not a real chronicle of Vietnam: it is far too stylized and dreamlike, its images (shot with surreal softness by Vittorio Storaro) folding over one another and woven with frequent dissolves. Watch Willard and Chief (Albert Hall) on the boat as they push upriver toward Cambodia, their bodies shadowed in grey like some black and white movie, while the plants along the shore burst out at the screen in bright green. Watch the drifting layers of light as Willard slips past Do Lung Bridge.
Holding this dream together is the interior monologue of Willard (written with dry cynicism by Vietnam journalist Michael Herr). He has been sent by his masters (the U.S. Army, though he calls them a "corporation," as if to stress their bureaucratic detachment) to issue judgment on the seemingly mad Colonel Kurtz, who has broken from the pack to form his own empire in the wilds of Cambodia. Of course, empire builders cannot tolerate competition, and he must be eliminated. He is a rogue right out of Paradise Lost: the chosen one, the bringer of light to the jungle, who has chosen instead to rule in Hell. "Out there with these natives," says the general (G.D. Spradlin) who hands Willard his orders, "it must be a temptation to be God."
Only one God at a time, please: Kurtz once ran an operation for the military named "Archangel," and now the airstrike called in to finish him off at his compound (bordered by fires and giant crosses) is dubbed "Almighty." And only one God is allowed to call for an apocalypse: Kurtz's final message, scrawled on his manifesto but destined to be ignored by the high command is "Drop the Bomb! Exterminate them all!" But the God is charge is a hollow one, more apt to end the war "not with a bang but a whimper" (as Kurtz quotes from Eliot's "The Hollow Men"). Nobody is in charge of this war. Nobody is willing to pass judgment from on high. And those who are left to judge, in the field, are more apt to follow their appetites and desires than anything else.
Is there a plan to this apocalypse? We never see one. Instead, Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) captures territory in order to indulge his penchant for surfing. Men treated to a USO show with Playboy bunnies run amok. In Coppola's newly reedited Apocalypse Now Redux, several added scenes enhance the comic elements of these sequences: Kilgore is revealed as more of a buffoon than a threat when Willard steals his surfboard (issuing what little judgment and ironic punishment is within his power), and the bunnies are "bought" by Willard (from a medevac crew that seems rife with gay stereotypes -- one character refers to himself as a "working girl") for the sexual pleasure of his boat crew. The scenes are all rather silly, but perhaps their tendency to make Willard come across as less serious -- and more fallible -- adds a whole new set of problems to his role as judge.
Such fallible judgment is addressed in a long added sequence (about 25 minutes) set at a French plantation. One of two new scenes more closely addressing the history of American colonialism (the other involves Kurtz reading, in a remarkably rational tone and in broad daylight -- counter to his other appearances in the film -- to children from an issue of Time on the corporate selling of the war), the sequence involves an uncomfortable dinner party, during which the stubborn French, hanging on to the last vestiges of their own colonial pretensions, tell a joke about eating a passing angel (resisting the message of coming apocalypse?) and argue in circles about political labels. Willard is distracted briefly by an opium pipe and a lovely widow (Ain't It Cool News Talkbackers: start your jokes about Willard "having a beer and cheeting [sic] on his wife" now) while some overcooked, melodramatic music plays (the electronic score of the film from Carmine Coppola sounds rather dated these days).
The new material, which adds nearly 50 minutes to the film's already grandiose running time, tends to be inconsistent in tone, and was better removed from the film in its original run. But it does make the movie seem less pompous, revealing, if only in the awkwardly staged (and unfunny) humor of the medevac camp (Coppola has never had a steady hand with overt comedy -- he is better when he keeps the satire dry) and the desperate posturing of the French plantation owners, the more human side of the film. To see Kurtz calmly read to children allows us to reevaluate the complexity of his character. Of course, so much of our fascination with Kurtz is due to the perfectly measured performance of Marlon Brando: watch the way he moves in and out of the light and punctuates his seemingly disordered ramblings with small gestures. This is a performance that, in spite of the scope of Kurtz's (and the film's) ambitions, works all the better on the intimate scale of a television screen. In this way, Kurtz's role as reluctant martyr, tacitly authorizing Willard to butcher him at the climax (and thus assuring that only Kurtz is fit to ultimately judge Kurtz), takes on new resonance. If Kurtz is unsound, it is only because he has chosen to be: better to be mad by choice, then mad at the behest of others. Only in this way can you have some control over the chaos.
While the newly remastered print looks stunning (showing only the requisite softness due to age), thanks to a complete reworking of its Technicolor elements, and the newly added scenes to this expanded version of the film are incorporated smoothly, Paramount has chosen to add virtually no extra content to this disc. An ideal package would have been to offer this film with Hearts of Darkness (like Warner Brothers licensed the PBS Citizen Kane documentary to include with that film) and, of course, a Coppola commentary track (he's still probably recovering from the marathon Godfather commentaries), the least Paramount could have done would be to offer, well, anything. Instead, we get just a theatrical trailer for Redux -- and nothing else.
Those unfamiliar with Apocalypse Now might want to start with the traditional cut of the film, since the some of the new material in Redux does tend to crowd the film with awkward moments even as it tries to embellish further on the characters. Apocalypse Now does remain a powerful film in either form, but I wish Paramount had done more than simply release this bare bones. It may be pretentious and occasionally ponderous, but even in its ultimate failure to really make a final judgment on Vietnam, it cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. And these days, when filmmaking ambition only seems to extend as far as how many scenes can be turned into commercials for the soundtrack album or the Lego set, Apocalypse Now Redux may be, ultimately, the Coppola of old waging war against our very cultural mythology.
Paramount is judged and found wanting. As for Coppola, it seems that time has revealed his particular punishment for his ambitions: his work since this film has been inconsistent at best. He is still clearly smarting from the wounds from this film. Perhaps one day, he will come to terms with it. After all, there is still a future in store for Apocalypse Now.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 202 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Re-release Trailer
* Tim Dirks' Analysis at Filmsite.org