Apocalypse Now Redux

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forest
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

When "Apocalypse Now" first appeared in August 1979, the film industry had just come to grips with the "blockbuster mentality" fostered by the wild successes of such popcorn pictures as "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "Superman." The decade that began with the X-rated "Midnight Cowboy" winning the Best Picture Oscar ended with Steven Spielberg crudely lampooning World War II (in "1941") and Paramount forking over forty million dollars just so "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" would honor its immovable premiere date. What Francis Ford Coppola sprang on audiences that summer still resonates to this day. So much so that when Coppola retooled the film, now dubbed "Apocalypse Now Redux" and released theatrically last August, critics who lambasted the film the first time around now waxed nostalgic for Coppola’s artistic audacity and lamented Hollywood’s current over-reliance on "pre-sold" properties. The fact is United Artists, the studio that bankrolled the project, nearly killed it and Francis Ford Coppola practically went insane making the film.

What makes "Apocalypse Now" and its newly minted offspring so compelling is that the madness of the narrative and characters somehow filtered into the actors and technicians depicting it. The result? Film as Rorschach inkblot, a collage of image and sounds that literally target the subconscious. To my knowledge, only two films I know evoke the same effect: Hitchcock’s "Psycho" and David Lynch’s "Blue Velvet." For example, many 1960 patrons swore that the shower scene in "Psycho" was in color (it’s not). To review films like these, the reviewer runs the risk of revealing more about himself than about the essay’s subject.

For all intents, "Apocalypse Now" freely borrows from Joseph Conrad’s dense psychological novel "Heart of Darkness." (During the film’s initial run, there was great confusion about John Milius’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay. The credits do not reflect Conrad’s source material, and the Writers Guild nominated them for Original Screenplay, while the Motion Picture Academy cited them with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.) Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) receives orders to "infiltrate and terminate" the command of renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The Army brass fear Kurtz’s methods have become "unsound" (that line is straight out of Conrad) and his actions have warranted the Army charging Kurtz with "murder." Traveling inconspicuously by PBX boat, Willard undertakes a hellish and surreal river journey through the Vietnam War itself. As he approaches his enigmatic objective, Willard slowly pieces together what devolved Kurtz from brilliant military tactician to wholesale slaughterer. Substituting the fin-de-siecle Belgian ivory trade from Conrad’s novel for 1968 Cambodia, Milius and Coppola sought not only to expose the horrors of Vietnam, but also illuminate those dark corners of the human psyche that revel in carnage, the animal instinct that nourishes warfare. "Apocalypse Now" did not content itself with simply regurgitating General William Tecumseh Sherman’s proverbial "War is Hell" mantra, they dared to make Willard’s voyage sensually and beatifically horrific, challenging the viewer not to succumb to Kurtz’s and possibly Willard’s descent into "inhuman" savagery.

Take the justifiably famous "Ride of the Valkyrie" scene. Willard encounters a seaside village in the midst of decimation by a helicopter "cavalry" unit led by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, in a performance that should have won the 1979 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Kilgore fancies himself a Western-style avenger, painting "Death From Above" on the chopper’s nose and leaving "death cards" on his victims. He barely acknowledges Willard and his mission until he learns that one of Willard’s PBX boat crew is a famous Malibu surfer (Sam Bottoms), plugging into Kilgore’s idolatry of the sport. Kilgore still won’t give Willard the time of day… until he finds that their next destination offers great surfing conditions. Against the dawn’s early light and Wagner blaring in full surround, the viewer sees nothing less than a community sentenced to death just because they have a "six foot peak." Yet through Coppola’s staging (everything we see is real, long before the days of CGI tomfoolery) of the battle scenes, the mad grandeur of the Wagnerian chords (not to mention its historical baggage) and the cumulative effect of Walter Murch’s editing (he edited the original and supervised "Redux’s" restoration), we cannot help but be swept up in Kilgore’s fervor, climaxing in his immortal utterance: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." The insensitivity of the line borders on the pathological, yet every time I’ve seen the film with an audience (seven, for the record), people laugh. Not because it’s funny, because there’s no other way to deal with horror made so… routine.

"Apocalypse Now Redux" represents Coppola having twenty plus years to preview the film and mull over audience comments. Forty-nine minutes of new footage appears, stretching the already lengthy narrative from 2 ½ hours to over 3 ¼ hours. The most effective inclusion is a scene (Chapter 24) where Willard comes across a plantation owned by French civilians. Their refusal to leave their "rightful" home or even acknowledge the existence of the conflict mirrors the popular American mindset at the time. When the film was released, the historical explication during the scene was unnecessary. A generation later, it provides the perfect thumbnail sketch of the political forces that shaped America’s eventual Waterloo. Not so effective is the scene expanding on the Playboy Bunnies that appear during the nightmarish "concert" scene. Finding the Playboy helicopter grounded, Willard trades fuel for sexual favors. The intentionally disjointed interplay between crewmen Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Lance with the seemingly dazed playmates gives no new information about the characters or the environment. Unfortunately, Kilgore’s character gets some embellishment and not for the better. In the original, Kilgore commands fearful respect through his own brand of insanity. In "Redux," shots of Kilgore helping children he just shot up or searching for a "lost" personal item robs the character of its thematic bite. Kilgore the first time around was frightening; in "Redux," he’s just right of buffoonish. We also see more of Willard, like joking with the crew and even having a dalliance with the French plantation owner’s wife. I enjoyed spotting and identifying the additions and revisions (the "Satisfaction" water skiing sequence occurs much later in "Redux"), but for me the newer version really isn’t a better experience than the 1979 version. Just different.

Like the original, Paramount Home Video has released "Apocalypse Now Redux" on DVD. (Miramax Films released "Redux" theatrically.) Unfortunately, the DVD offers no supplements other than a theatrical trailer. While I generally don’t comment about what content providers put in their DVDs (I figure since they own the pink slip on the material, it’s their call to include documentaries, <$commentary,commentary track>s, etc.), the lack of extras is a disappointment. The original DVD release seems stuffed by comparison, offering photos of the original hand out program and footage of the Kurtz compound destruction with commentary by Coppola. No, I won’t rant about the exclusion of the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary. ("Hearts of Darkness" is an excellent 1991 documentary about the making of the film.) Yes, it would have been nice to include it to make an authoritative two-disc set. It wasn’t. Now get over it.

What it lacks in goodies, "Redux" on DVD certainly makes up in audio and video performance. The 2.1 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer will knock your pixel socks off! Colors read bold and robust, solidly rendering Vittorio Storaro’s Oscar-winning cinematography. (Regarding the debate about the <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio of the film for video. The film was shot at 2.35, yet Storaro and Coppola opted for a more video-friendly 2.1 frame. Frankly, I never felt peripheral screen information was missing, nor am I about to second guess two of film’s genius practitioners.) The release prints from the theatrical run were dye transfer prints, also known as "imbibition" or IB prints. When projected, colors and details are saturated and sharp. I assume the transfer was mastered from a dye transfer print, as the image looks sparkly clean and free of blemishes. Detail delineation is excellent, down to the smallest palm frond. Despite Storaro’s semi-psychedelic color schemes, fleshtones read nice and natural. <$pixelation,Pixelation> still crops up (the original DVD release exhibited some digital compression artifacts, especially in the first scene with the dust flying around the napalm explosions), but less pronounced this time around.

Anyone who saw "Apocalypse Now" during the initial 70mm run likely remembers the rush from hearing the helicopter literally travel across the auditorium in the opening scene. (Murch and Coppola were way ahead of their time with the film’s six-track Dolby Stereo sound mix. Even though 1978’s "Superman" is generally acknowledged as the first film to utilize split surrounds, it was "Apocalypse" that codified the process for future sound designers.) Murch and Coppola remastered the soundtrack for the new release. Not only is the <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio intact on the new DVD, but in some respects sounds even better than the original DVD. "Redux," just like its predecessor, offers a very aggressive soundfield, with active surrounds, wide dynamic range (you don’t have to strain to comprehend Brando’s occasional mumbling passages) and dramatic front, back and side audio pans. The LFE channel finally gets the workout it deserves, especially during the "arc light" sequence. (I felt the LFE was a little thin on the first DVD.)

As previously stated, the only supplement is the theatrical trailer for the new version. Presented in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, the trailer does a decent job of making the film vital for today’s post-MTV crowd.

So, if you’ve never seen "Apocalypse Now," start with the original. For the improved audio and video, "Apocalypse Now Redux" works as a companion piece to one of the most influential movies ever. Highly recommended for collectors of Coppola, ‘70s cinema or just plain great movies. Purchase…with extreme prejudice.