Gone native

Redux revisits legend of Apocalypse Now

Ten years ago, directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper made Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a documentary about the epic amounts of money and time consumed during the infamous Apocalypse Now production. Now, more than two decades after Apocalypse Now's 1979 debut, comes yet another addendum to one of the most trouble-marred productions in movie history.

While Hearts of Darkness was the chronicle of a production spiraled out of control, Apocalypse Now Redux (in which 53 minutes have been restored) is the evidence.

Drowning in its own messages, there's a reason, this Redux suggests, why much of Apocalypse wound up on the cutting room floor. But this redux classic is absolutely essential viewing for fans of the film, the legend of its making and students of the triage of filmmaking's methodology, in which great chunks of material are excised so the rest may live. Apocalypse Now Redux is a more fractured, uneven film with more explicit, easily understood political messages. Those overt messages make the film feel more topical and issue-oriented but less seductive and enduring as a work of art.

One of the first of the Vietnam subgenre of films that offered scathing, violence-laced indictments of the war, Apocalypse is principally a film about the hypocrisy of an American military designating "good" and "bad" killing. Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent upriver into Cambodia to assassinate a lapsed Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has created a personal kingdom in the jungle and taken the military's agenda of organized murder to its genocidal extreme. As Willard journeys further up river and deeper into his nation's political folly, he is, like the hero of Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness" (on which the story is based), forced to contemplate his own complicity in a corrupt, murderous enterprise.

But the astounding cinematic power and visceral rush of Apocalypse is still in how profoundly the film allows its audience to glory in death and play God along with its soldiers. In perhaps the film's most memorable scene, where helicopters sweep over water to launch an attack on a Vietnamese village, Coppola propels his audience with giddy, heart-pounding abandon, into the perspective of the killer, soaring on the Wagnerian high of all that power and speed.

Despite retaining such signature, nearly fascist seductions, Redux is more clearly the vision of a liberal-minded, countercultural filmmaker, and is therefore a bloodier Apocalypse infused with the anti-war imagery of "baby-killing." There are more scenes of bleeding and dead children in this version, which both reiterate Coppola's anti-Vietnam message and enhance the sense of moral sickness and despair that accompanies the film.

Apocalypse Now in its '79 version often seemed to treat the Vietnam War more as setting for an incisive glimpse into human evil and created a film of metaphorical depth and artistic staying power. Redux is often bogged down by Coppola's politics, explicated in a bombastic, preachy manner.

In one illustrative scene Willard stops at a French plantation where generations of colonialists refuse to give up their occupancy of Vietnam. The parallel of French colonialists and American occupiers is overtly stated in an uncomfortably prolonged scene where Willard joins the family for dinner, one of several strange detours on this more perilous reduxed passage. For those who were unable to pick up on Coppola's sense of Vietnam as an abortive, failed war, one of the Colonialists tells Willard outright: "Why don't you Americans learn from us ... you can't win."

By adding more detail in this Redux, the morose tone of the journey and our understanding of its noirish, stoic, often-impenetrable antihero is altered immeasurably. Willard's morally conflicted proximity to his prey, Kurtz, is disrupted in Redux with goofy scenes of comic relief where Willard — at great cost to our memory of his almost comatose sense of encroaching doom — plays the buffoon. After his meeting with the gung-ho, surfing-mad Kilgore (Robert Duvall), Willard steals one of the colonel's surfboards in a zany, lighthearted moment. That small but remarkably significant scene drastically changes the film's tone and our understanding of its central antihero. It interferes with the verisimilitude of the film and the character we know, much like a later scene, where the Playmates seen earlier in a USO show are stranded on the river and must barter their sexual favors for helicopter fuel.

In an interview last year, actress and Playmate Cynthia Wood described that excised footage as Coppola's effort to inject some sexual politics into the film. Whether that was just a director telling an actress what she wanted to hear or a failed attempt at linking war's exploitation of young men with the exploitation of women in the pornography industry, the initial editing out of the scene seems, in hindsight, like a good idea. This reinserted scene is slapstick-cheesy — making the Playmates into foggy-headed tarts — with no trace of a message about sexism, but a distractingly weird detour on Willard's passage.

The effect of these added scenes is spine-tinglingly weird. To see so familiar a film document changed so significantly is as disconcerting as learning that history was wrong on a couple of points: George Washington was gay and the British discovered America. This Apocalypse Now Redux is absolutely mesmerizing for showing how ingrained our 20th-century common culture of movies can be and how eerie it is when that cultural document is tampered with.

Whether one agrees or disagrees that this version is an improvement upon the original, the pleasures Apocalypse Now Redux provides are many. But first and foremost it provides an opportunity to see a still fascinating film on the big screen, where so many of the film's nuances, its overwhelmingly refined use of sound and image, register far more effectively than in the video versions we have grown used to.??