All too often, expanded special editions of movies are nothing but barefaced attempts to squeeze the last drop of milk out of a proven cash cow. With Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, however, it’s a case of a cow that had never been properly milked in the first place. When Coppola’s beleaguered production was originally released in 1979, what we saw was a significantly compromised film, shorn of a whopping 49 minutes in order to make it a more tractable length (three-and-a-half-hour movies lose at least one show a day, cutting into the revenues) — and a little less disturbing. The new version is for all intents and purposes a different movie. It is the movie that Coppola originally made, and possibly his one truly great film. It also looks better than ever, in a stunningly saturated Technicolor dye-transfer print that captures every nuance of cinematographer Vittorio Storraro’s amazing color pallet. (Unfortunately, the print that arrived at the Fine Arts has an emulsion scratch during the early portions; while this distracts for awhile, it doesn’t alter the impact.) No, the additional footage does not make the film appreciably more comprehensible, though it does make the movie’s path seem more logical and significantly deepens the story’s themes. In a rare moment where Coppola’s penchant for overstatement seems to have rubbed shoulders with the truth, the director once remarked that his film wasn’t about the Vietnam War, but that it was the war. And Apocalypse Now Redux certainly has that feel. The images, the story and the feeling it evokes are almost hallucinatory. You leave the theater addled and a little shaken — like you’ve just come down from a particularly unpleasant high or a fever dream. It isn’t an ordinary movie-going experience, nor is it a pleasant one (I’d be a little leery of anyone who “enjoyed” the film in the normal sense). It is, however, a singularly powerful experience, and one that oughtn’t be missed by anyone who truly cares about film. The plot is, of course, the same in either version: Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent up river to Cambodia to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a much-decorated soldier who has gone mad and set himself up as a kind of god. What differs in the new version of this Vietnam retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness lies in what Willard and we encounter on that trip. While there are numerous — some quite telling — smaller changes in the film, the essential additions are a disturbing second encounter with the Playboy centerfold models (where pathetic sexual favors are granted in exchange for two drums of diesel fuel), a lengthy and important scene on a French-owned plantation and an additional scene with Brando’s Kurtz that finally brings the character into a focus he never had in the earlier version. The plantation sequence is by far the longest single addition. While the scene was originally removed because it was believed to slow the movie down too much, it’s hard not to think that there were other reasons for its initial deletion, given its controversial lectures on imperialism and the family patriarch’s (Christian Marquand) offhand revelation that, in essence, America created the Viet Cong they are now fighting. The additional sequence with the Playboy “bunnies” was not in the original film mostly because it was never properly finished. Coppola’s editor, Walter Murch, somehow managed to assemble a workable version, however. Again, it’s a sequence that may well not have made the original cut, since it is utterly nightmarish, depicting the women chattering away about trivial matters while stranded in an Army camp with no commanding officer and being used for barter. One added scene featuring the “bunnies” shows a coffin holding a naked corpse knocked over and lying open on the floor. These deletions in a film its director considered “too long” and “too strange” in 1979 are understandable, if regrettable. But the removal of the key scene where it becomes obvious that at least part of the “horror” that drove Kurtz mad lay in the press-release lies of the mainstream media is harder to fathom. Once more, the probable answer is that the scene was considered too inflammatory. Whatever the reasoning at the time, we now have Coppola’s film as it was meant to be. Ironically, it’s probably the most audacious and daring film to come out of Hollywood this year — even if it is 22 years old.
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