Cert 15 181mins Stars 5
The last great film of cinema’s last great decade, this latest and supposedly definitive cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Vietnam war masterpiece reveals Apocalypse Now to be not really a war film at all.
An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart Of Darkness, we follow Martin Sheen’s US Army Captain Willard, as he travels by boat up the Mekong river on a mission to assassinate Marlon Brando’s rogue American, Colonel Kurtz.
Director Coppola has overseen an exhaustive remastering of his original negative which has ever been scanned, cleaned, restored and edited into a never-before-seen version. It looks and sounds bigger and more insane than ever, a unique and complete cinema experience, breathtaking and delirious in scope, ambition and achievement.
Shorter than 2002’s Redux version, longer than 1979’s original theatrical cut, it retains all the power, bombast and horror, while adding a greater theatricality and moving the story closer to myth and legend.
The most notable omission and only real significant cut is of the controversial Playboy bunny scene where the Willard’s crew trade fuel for sex with the women.
Meanwhile two key scenes are added. The first is small addendum to the ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ helicopter attack on a village led by Robert Duvall’s myopic commander of the 9th cavalry, Colonel Kilgore.
In this we see Willard’s crew steal a surfboard from the Colonel. It’s a small slapstick scene and the only moment of outright comedy in the film. Importantly it centres on Sam Bottoms’ character, a professional surfer called Lance, now the crew’s Gunner’s Mate.
The comic aspect of the scene underlines the role of Lance the only beacon of hope and innocence in the darkness, the mascot of Willard’s crew and representative of the bland sunny optimism of California.
Structurally, Lance is now more clearly seen as Willard’s foil, and the movie’s dramatic light relief, providing necessary respite for the audience from the horror, the horror.
The second major addition is ‘French plantation’ scene, where the crew attend a dinner party at a rubber plantation. Willard is later seduced by the owner’s widowed sister, and it’s this scene where Coppola most heavily draws on his theatrical background.
Willard is slowly caged in veils by a woman presented as a Siren of greek mythology, and it’s at this point the Vietnam War becomes background to the story, it’s the Trojan War in relation to Homer’s Odyssey, there to provide colour but it isn’t the story itself.
Moving the film into mythology in this manner means when Willard confronts Kurtz, he is framed as a mortal confronting a god, questioning the nature of good and evil, and demanding freedom from our creators to live without their interference. This is as fundamental and timeless a confrontation as exists in Western culture and Coppola’s real area of interest.
The causes and consequences of the Vietnam War couldn’t be further from Coppola’s mind, in this sense he is a very typical US filmmaker, demonstrating the capacity of the US to use the Vietnam War as a proxy to explore it’s own internal divisions and conflicts, rather than focus on the effects on the Vietnamese people, their country and region.
Apocalypse Now was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture. It won a paltry two, for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, which is one less than this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book. As ever this says far more about the Academy than it does about the quality of the films themselves.