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Apocalypse Now isn’t getting better, just longer

BY PETER KEOUGH



Apocalypse Now Redux
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by Coppola, John Milius, and Michael Herr. With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall. A Miramax Films release. Opens this Friday, August 10, exclusively at the Boston Common.

To see this film again evokes nostalgia for the now lost Hollywood renaissance of the ’70s, a time when cinema seemed about to fulfill its potential as a medium for visionaries, prophets, and geniuses. From its technical tour de force of an opening to the wry cameo inclusion of yet-to-be superstar Harrison Ford to the devastating resolution that thrusts us into the heart of American darkness, it is the consummate masterpiece of Francis Ford Coppola.

Okay, so much for The Conversation. Why couldn’t Coppola have re-released that film? Instead he burdened the overhyped, overrated, self-indulgent farrago Apocalypse Now with a graceless title emendation and 49 minutes of previously (and wisely) discarded footage. Result? Three-plus hours of histrionics, with the supplementary material underscoring the weakness of the older, shorter version. Forget Heaven’s Gate: by the time Michael Cimino did in United Artists with that monster (which in retrospect looks better than Coppola’s), the New Hollywood had already met with its Apocalypse.

Don’t get me wrong. Movie openings don’t get any better than this one: the screen full of pulsing jungle, the slowed whir of rotors, the splash of napalm just as Jim Morrison intones, " This is the end . . .  " Maybe that should have been the end — this could have been the first great music video. Okay, give the film another hour or so: certainly the " Ride of the Valkyries " sequence is up there with some of the best filmmaking of the ’70s, and just about every scene with Robert Duvall as crazy Colonel Kilgore deserves to be seen again and again.

Once Kilgore departs, though, the movie loses not just its way but its reason for being. As Martin Sheen’s inescapable Captain Willard relates in his thuddingly redundant, Michael Herr–penned voiceover narrative, " If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. " Well, what I have against Kurtz is that he’s pretentious, boring, and anticlimactic. We need to travel hundreds of miles in a riverboat and through nearly as many miles of celluloid to be terrified by the spectacle of Marlon Brando soaking his shaven head and reciting T.S. Eliot? Even Dennis Hopper jabbering away works better as an embodiment of the derangement and " moral terror " underlying our Vietnam adventure.

So what the movie needs is less Kurtz and more Kilgore. The added footage does include some of the latter in the form of a disembodied voice in a lame follow-up to the surfing scene. But the added footage of Kurtz — Brando reading from Time magazine! The torpor! The torpor! — merely confirms my suspicion that Coppola didn’t know what he was doing. He was just making shit up as he went along, and because he was supposed to be a genius, it was, ipso facto, art.

So check out the restored " Bunny " scene, a follow-up to the M*A*S*H–like USO show and its facile pairing of war and lust. Here the Playboy centerfolds last seen fleeing gang rape by an entire military base (though the departing helicopter with GIs clinging to the runners does evoke the famed image of the fall of Saigon) show up in a mud-filled, Beckett-like scenario to undergo further misogynistic abuse from the director. Or the embarrassing " Plantation " scene, as Willard and his river rats come ashore at the last bastion of French colonialism, an old family estate manned by crusty veterans of Dien Bien Phu who regale a bored-looking Willard at the dinner table with a rehash of Vietnam History 101. " Zere are two of you, yes? " the lovely war widow later says to him as she bares her boobs and lights the opium pipe. " Ze one zat kills and ze one zat loves? "

As Dennis Hopper would say, that’s deep, man. This is the " richer, fuller and more textured film experience " Coppola is talking about in his " Director’s Statement. " And most critics are buying it. But I think Coppola realizes he was snowing everybody from the start and has been trying ever since to make things right. Apocalypse Now has always been a work in progress, from its initiation in 1976 through typhoons and heart attacks to its 1979 release and its subsequent alternate — with explosions or without? — endings. Maybe now Coppola realizes that the problem with his film was that he had nothing to say, that Apocalypse Now was in fact Apocalypse never.

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001