Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is one of those classic 70's films that I've wanted to see for a long time, but could never commit enough time to watching. The theatrical version is two hours and thirty-three minutes long, but Apocalypse Now Redux - an extended director's cut, reedited in 2001 - is a ridiculous three hours and twenty-two minutes in length. If you've seen either movie and are interested in the differences between the two cuts, Wikipedia covers them pretty extensively. I had nothing to do today, so naturally I decided to go big or go home.
Apocalypse Now Redux
Co-written and Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne
Although I've actually seen more of Coppola's filmography than I previously thought, I wouldn't by any means classify myself as a Coppola expert. If I had to choose, The Conversation would be my favorite film of his. That's just a bit of background info for you, letting you know where I stood coming into this flick. I'd heard about the insane circumstances surrounding this movie during its troubled production (chronicled in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a documentary I hope to see very soon), and I'll admit that those stories, not some admirable respect for Coppola's work, were the catalyst for me wanting to see this film. I wanted to see if this was the 1970's version of Cleopatra, another film with legendary behind-the-scenes problems which ultimately cemented the movie as one of Hollywood's largest cinematic failures. For the record, I don't think Apocalypse Now Redux belongs in the same category as Cleopatra; this extended version is an intellectual look at the psychology of war, mirroring many of the messages of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" novella on which Apocalypse Now is based.
The movie follows Captain Willard (Sheen) as he searches for Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a supposedly insane military officer gone rouge in the jungles of Cambodia during Vietnam. Willard is borderline crazy himself; he returned home and found he couldn't cope with normal society, eventually divorcing his wife and coming back to the military. When he receives orders to eliminate Kurtz, he "took the mission, because what the hell else was [he] going to do?" What follows is a dizzying depiction of the toils of war, a quest with stops along the way reminiscent of an ancient Greek epic.
All of the acting in this movie was astoundingly good, especially considering the circumstances the actors were enduring at the time of filming. Martin Sheen gave the best performance of anything I've seen him in, defining the prototype for a cinematic Vietnam soldier that influenced countless other films (including my favorite Vietnam film and one that starred Sheen's son Charlie, Oliver Stone's Platoon). You can see his influence in non-war related films too; Robert Carlyle's character in The Beach was clearly channeling a crazier version of Sheen, and I'd venture to say that Willard and John Rambo would share some of the same philosophies. Brando - famously showing up overweight and unprepared - was captivating as the almost-mystical Kurtz, floating in and out of the shadows as mysteriously as the character's history. And the always-excellent Robert Duvall played perhaps the strangest character in the film: a surfing-obsessed lieutenant colonel who doesn't flinch in the midst of war and is only concerned about finishing his task quickly so he can get back to surfing.
Harrison Ford barely registers as a blip on the radar, disappointingly showing up for under ten minutes as one of the officers who gave Willard his orders. A young Laurence Fishburne exuberantly plays "Mr. Clean," a soldier on Willard's ship as they travel deeper down the river. Albert Hall - whom many of us would recognize as the coach of the Chicago Cubs in the baseball classic Rookie of the Year - was fantastic as the ship's captain, Chief. And Dennis Hopper shows up near the end, as a rambling American photographer snapping pictures of Kurtz's camp. Side bar: Dennis Hopper has played so many crazy characters that I'm starting to believe he might actually be insane in real life.
But how was the movie itself? The Odyssey-esque parallels were interesting at first, but quickly tried my patience with drawn-out scenes seemingly irrelevant to the main plot. One of these, a dinner scene at an inexplicable French plantation along the river (?), struck me as almost wholly unnecessary to the entire movie: yes, there was some veiled commentary about America's role in the war, but the fact that the film is, you know, A WAR MOVIE already illustrates those sentiments pretty damn effectively. After an implied sex scene with a member of the family (featuring some of the cheesiest music I've heard in a long time), Willard is back on the metaphorical road with no mention of the event for the rest of the film. There were also two separate instances in which Willard asks young men to identify their commanding officer, and both times they either blow him off or assume that HE was their commanding officer. We get it, Francis - Vietnam was wild, chaotic, and lawless. I'm not trying to downplay the events of real life, I'm just saying there's no need to replicate the same theme twice, especially in a three and a half hour cut of the movie.
The cinematography and editing were almost completely responsible for the film's eerie vibe, using lighting in ways similar to a film noir toward the conclusion. Another noir archetype used was the narration of Willard's character throughout the movie, and I'd venture to say this was some of the most effective voice over work I've ever heard. The tone, the delivery, the cadence - everything fit perfectly with the character and provided the audience with a look into his thought process as he tries to retrace Kurtz's path and discover his motivations. The editing was a bit showy at times, erring on the side of the excessive when it came to superimposing images over each other and crossfading into similar shapes (ex: a human eye fades into the eye of a stone idol).
In any case, this movie is widely considered a masterpiece and I'd be hard pressed to fully disagree. I can nitpick things here and there, but the passion and determination it took to get this film made is on full display in every frame of the final movie. Coppola's uncompromised vision is a great piece of storytelling, told with style, flair, and a sense of importance that doesn't ever seem mismatched with the events of the plot.
So is it worth seeing? If you consider yourself a cinephile, it's probably required viewing. If you're looking for something fun to watch at home, this one isn't for you. I'd wager that most of the people reading this blog won't care for it too much, if not because of its sometimes heavy-handed messages then for its ludicrously long length. That being said, I think I enjoyed the movie a bit more than this review would indicate, so if you're on the fence about seeing it, I'd say take the plunge and check it out. It's worth watching, and I'm sure most of you will at least dig the iconic "Rise of the Valkyries" helicopter assault. Until next time...