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Apocalypse Now - The Complete Dossier DVD Review

Published August 16, 2006 in DVD News
By Wayne Aronsen | Image from Amazon.
Apocalypse Now- The Complete Dossier Apocalypse Now- The Complete Dossier
Francis Ford Coppola claims, in the voice-over commentary of this remake, he was watching the 1979 version in a hotel room in the late 90’s and was surprised at how “linear and traditional” the film appeared. Missing were the more “surreal scenes” edited to hurry the film to Hollywood, well over budget and a long time overdue (editing alone took nine months). Coppola’s clock was the young Lawrence Fishburne (Clean) who was hired for the part at age fourteen (no acting experience to speak of) and filming saw him turn fifteen and sixteen; when the film was screened, he had just turned seventeen. You might think Fishburne’s adolescence, spent on the set of Apocalypse Now, WAS his education.

Apocalypse Now- The Complete Dosier DVD Review

So why watch the film again? It wasn’t easy the first time; not the type of movie you pull off the shelf to enjoy with a couple of friends, is it? And Redux is forty nine minutes longer.

Coppola’s journey in making the original film paralleled Willard’s (Martin Sheen); a long and tortuous odyssey, the outward one on a Navy PBR with four crewmen taxiing Willard to kill the mad Captain Kurtz, and the inward one, into the deep corner’s of Man’s soul. Coppola says he kept “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in one hand, and the script in the other.” Apocalypse Now is very much the outline of Conrad’s novel placed in Vietnam, written by Coppola and John Milius.

Redux is an attempt by Coppola to return some of the more surreal flavor to the film; apparently, more to his original intentions, thwarted in 1979 by the fear that the first release might be too nightmarish and fantastic. He may have been right except that Redux (a Latin word meaning returned and added to) only adds slightly to the Kafkaesque original. Remember toward the films end, Sheen’s darkened, slippery face rising from the water, like a resurrected spirit? It doesn’t get much more surreal–even for a war movie.

If you don’t remember the crew, they are all superb: Fishburne (Clean), Albert Bell (Chief)– the small craft’s captain, Lance (Sam Bottoms) and Chef (Frederick Forest–who, according to Coppola took some time to “find his character” in the film). In contrast, Robert Duvall (Lt. Kilgore of the famous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), found his character from the get-go.

I don’t see Redux as any more “surreal”. In fact, the longest addition is the “plantation scene” where the beleaguered Willard and crew (though poor Clean has just been killed) meet a third generation French family right in the heart of Vietnam, which contributes a respite for the viewer; the clear air of civilization pushing aside the deepening mist of depravity ( Coppola has the PBR moving in and out of mist throughout the film). They all dine in the family estate complete with crystal, china, cognac and Louis lV furniture. Here, we get a brief history lesson on the original French occupation of Viet Nam and the tragic slaughter (of the French) at Dien Bien Phu.

The extended family is all French actors: Hubert (Christian Marquand) and Roxanne (Roxanne Sarrault) as the patriarch and the surviving sister. This scene has the most continuity and character interaction of any in the film, almost as if it was removed from some other film. But remember, this is “the heart of darkness”–anything seems to fit because essentially, nothing fits. All is absurdity.

Coppola claims he never intended this to be an anti-war movie (or even, anti-Viet Nam war), but his remarks are a little suspect. He often seems to say things for effect–like his films. Given that he tends to be theatrical, he does have a knack for making movies with a grand and sweeping scope.

For over two hours (not counting the film’s beginning) the boat passes upriver, past the last outpost– under barrage by the VC (who you never see once in the film except for the grisly remains hanging from trees in the camp of Captain Kurtz (Marlon Brando) toward the temple of doom and the mad Captain. With the movement deeper into the jungle, the men are slowly stripped of their humanity and as I watch it, I feel drawn into their primitive behavior and loss of heart until I’m left with virtually no sympathy for anyone except maybe the unseen crew that had to endure the years of filming in the Philippines, through monsoons and heat and boredom. Regression into our own primitive natures made for a good novel in Conrad’s hands. I’m not sure it’s as easy to watch. The imagination is a safer and kinder place.

If your taste is the absurd, you may find some humor: Lance (Sam Bottoms) water skiing behind the PBR; two soldiers surfing under the orders of Kilgore (Duval) DURING a firefight and the same angry Colonel flying his helicopter over the river in search of his stolen surfboard. As Willard says, “I wonder what they had against Kurtz. There was enough insanity and murder to go around for everyone.”

The predominant emotion while watching Redux is loss. Loss of any moral center. Chief (Albert Hall) came closest to it as a character. Milius and Coppola remove hope as the journey continues, like slowly wringing the water out of a damp towel. What do the young men have to hold onto? Anything to alter their consciousness: sex, dope, liquor and rock music.

Conrad’s book was a symbolic journey into the dark nature of man. Coppola’s film sent characters already bereft of morality and stripped away what little they had left. Do we want more? If you can tolerate it, it’s all here–twice. Both versions are available on this collection (1979 and 2001), so if you are a fan, on the order of “The Godfather”, you can spend the whole evening with the spectral soldiers of Apocalypse Now– commentary given personally by Coppola.

I remember watching a Berman film (Persona) with a voice-over commentary (as you can choose in Redux) and I was impressed with the filmmaker’s techniques. But it’s for the sake of the film and ultimately, we have to ask, was it worth it?
Personally, I don’t believe technique in film making can ever replace the beauty of character development. Apocalypse Now doesn’t contain characters; it contains ghosts.

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Wayne Aronsen
Sources: Image from Amazon.

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