“Apocalypse Now” review, part 2: Original vs. “Redux”

Film title appears within movie's action

APOCALYPSE NOW: the film’s title appears as graffiti as the Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) greets WIllard (Martin Sheen) on his arrival at Kurtz’ (Marlon Brando) compound (image source: old BFI website).

[a continuation of yesterday’s post]

As originally edited for release in 1979, Apocalypse Now closely parallels the plot and themes of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness (1899) — so much so, in fact, that the film has been called an adaptation of this text. However, the film goes well beyond fidelity to Conrad, whose work is more of a scaffold that Coppola and Milius used to create a similarly-themed narrative specific to the Vietnam War than an icon to be faithfully recast in the context of a more modern setting and conflict.

"Don't look at the camera!"

Coppola’s cameo appearance in the film (image source: tvtropes.org).

There are many scenes in the movie to admire for their execution. There is often a particular feature of a scene, such as a line of dialogue, a physical gesture or glance, a particular camera angle, or a reference or allusion, that is key to its success.

One of these “small  touches” is Coppola’s own appearance in the film as the director of a news film crew that is shooting war footage “for television.” This small segment of the overall scene, in which Willard and the PBR Street Gang crew meet up with LTC Kilgore’s Air Cav battalion as it is completing an assault on an ostensibly VC-controlled village, highlights the surrealism and absurdity of attempting to capture the horror of combat in Vietnam on film, while also satirizing the hypocrisy and complicity of the filmmakers themselves.

They make their way across the beach, weapons in hand.
Explosions go off around them; there is smoke everywhere.
Suddenly they are stopped by a VOICE.

Go on, keep going. It’s for television. Don’t look at the

Willard and the two who are following stop incredulously,
their M16s still in hand.

Go on, go on, keep going. Don’t look at the camera.

A NEWS TEAM, dressed in fatigues and combat dress. A
director, cameraman, and soundman; the director keeps waving them by.

(to Troops)
Just go by like you’re fighting. Don’t look at the camera. It’s
for television. Just go through. Just go by. Keep on going.

Willard, Lance, and Clean run by, staring into the camera
the entire time.

– from Apocalypse Now Redux: An Original Screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

The Redux version of Apocalypse Now is fascinating for a fan of the original movie to view. It is also a lesson in why editing is vital to the success (commercial and artistic) of a movie (or any other text, for that matter). Redux clocks in at about three hours, which is much longer than the average 100 – 120 minute running time of a feature film.

However, Redux also shows how directors and editors have to make difficult choices about what to keep and what to cut. Due to excellent editing, the pace of the original version builds steadily to a crescendo, which is precisely what the average movie viewer wants. Nevertheless, a lot of what Coppola and Milius wanted to say with this movie was lost on the cutting room floor.

One aspect that suffered is the depth of the movie’s investigation of the motivations of its central characters, which was a prime concern to Conrad. The narrator’s tale of his search for Kurtz describes not only the metamorphosis of the latter under the influence of his impressions of and experience in Africa, but also reveals his own transformation through his encounter with Kurtz,  Apocalypse Now also sets up a similar relationship between the corresponding characters, CPT Willard and COL Kurtz.  Through these relationships, both novel and film concern themselves with the attitudes of white colonists towards indigenous peoples in “dark” lands previously undisturbed by white Europeans and their descendants, the white Americans.


Willard’s dinner with the French colonists (image source: cinema-fanatic.com).

The French colonist scene, for example, adds to much to the movie’s discussion of the causes and consequences of French and American involvement in Vietnam.  It does so by introducing French characters who have differing perspectives on themselves as colonists and on the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. This scene also provides an venue for Clean’s funeral and for a tragically romantic encounter between Willard and a French colonist’s widow.

There is much more to say about this movie than any blog post or series can capture — enough for a book-length project, at least.  In fact, several longer treatments for Apocalypse Now have been published. For further reading, check out The Apocalypse Now Book (2001) by Peter Cowie.  Eleanor Coppola, the writer/director’s wife, who was also credited as the film’s documentarian, wrote Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now (1995). There is also the Coppolas’ documentary on the making of the film, Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), which is available on DVD.