Shoot 'Em All!

Apocalypse Now Redux extends an epic allegory of American megalomania into the 21st Century

Alas, Hollywood was more cautious when production began in 1975, so Coppola played Citizen Kane to the project he adopted: raising the startup funds himself, spending freely, revising the script as he directed it, and amassing some 250 hours worth of footage. (Shoot 'em all! he might have said. Let [editor] Richard Marks sort 'em out!) The results may well mark the creative zenith of the New Hollywood--the Sixties generation's establishment insurgency. But Coppola circled around the material so intuitively that Redux can easily extend an already long movie by 43 minutes--and still leave a five-hour version floating around the Internet (see "Apocalypse Almost," right).

We know now that Coppola's movie became a famously disastrous experiment in Method directing--a running autobiography fleshed out by Eleanor Coppola's Notes and the riveting documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Yet even as Redux deepens this psychodrama, the debate over whether the extended dance mix restores a masterpiece or lengthens a classic failure leaves me cold. Yes, Apocalypse Now is still a great "Vietnam," and perhaps an even greater "Francis." It's just a very bad America, in ways no one seems to notice.

To begin with, the crimes of King Leopold II in the Congo Basin a century ago were a good model for an American director's myopia in the Philippines. Yet Conrad, who had witnessed the horrific Congo Free State firsthand, essentially asked the timeless imperial question: How on earth could a good colonial ivory trader go bad in darkest Africa? Coppola merely chucked the book's power-mad Kurtz into the G.I. acid tests of Michael Herr's Dispatches, with Herr himself penning the Chandleresque narration.

Good morning, "Vietnam": Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
Good morning, "Vietnam": Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

From its earliest scenes, Apocalypse Now strains against this mountain of material. After a night of waking flashbacks and too much Rémy Martin, Capt. B.L. Willard--played by our current president, Martin Sheen--is hauled into a Nha Trang base in 1969 to be briefed on a mission improbable: He must boat upriver through the jungle into Cambodia, where he will "terminate" the command of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, a Special Forces officer once considered "outstanding" and "humane." Kurtz currently commands a rogue army of Montagnards who, in the words of Harrison Ford's throat-clearing intelligence nobody, "follow every order, however ridiculous."

After some careful weighing of words, G.D. Spradlin's general puts the Kurtz situation plainly: "In this war, things get confused out there...and very obviously he has gone insane." Willard ponders what he hears, and he realizes he has missed his cue: "Yes, sir--very much so, sir. Obviously insane." The joke of this eerie scene is that that everyone in the room knows that the war has institutionalized evil. ("Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Willard grumbles in voiceover.) Yet Willard takes the mission anyway, perhaps because he sees in Kurtz an advanced case of himself: a war robot who wants to know what he has been programmed for.

The fact that, in the real world, there isn't any river leading through the jungle to Cambodia is beside the point: Coppola's covert opera is about himself and us, and the fleeting apparitions of the Sixties--with Willard's means of transport aptly ensuring that the backdrop always spins or drifts by. Through Vittorio Storaro's lens pass the kids who died without a clue (Laurence Fishburne's teenage Clean); the collateral damage of the sexual revolution (the Playboy Playmates, given a creepy sex scene in Redux); and the counterculture, as represented by the spaced-out surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms), who adapts so easily to Kurtz's Manson family values. The restored "French Plantation" sequence allows a ghostlike colonial patriarch to inform Willard that "you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history"--apparently forgetting that the U.S. robustly supported the French beginning in 1950. Still, by the time the movie dead-ends into Dennis Hopper and the mountainous inertia of Marlon Brando's Kurtz, we have been primed to see it all as part of the metaphor.

Like an extension of the fevered minute it took Michael Corleone to resign himself to killing Solozzo and McCluskey, Apocalypse Now is about steeling yourself past the point of no return. Yet when Willard puts a bullet through the chest of a wounded Vietnamese girl--an act of resolve that Kurtz himself would admire--the filmmaker pulls away, shielding us like a bad CNN reporter. (What if he had let the girl speak in subtitled Vietnamese, pleading for her life?) Coppola has said the scene was meant to evoke My Lai, but that's a Newsweek-esque obfuscation: Charlie Company worked slowly and systematically, dutifully carrying out its small part in a mass program to eliminate the people from the people's war. Rather, Willard's decisiveness echoes Coppola's: The director shot his "Vietnam" in one of the dominoes that didn't fall, exploiting destitute Filipinos and Vietnamese boat people; he rented helicopters from Ferdinand Marcos, who sometimes diverted the birds of prey to battle real-life insurgents.

George Lucas had written Coppola into his own Vietnam parable, Star Wars, as Han Solo: the reckless mercenary who eventually sides with the rebels. Yet by the late Seventies, Coppola might have come to see Darth Vader's good points. When he introduced Apocalypse Now at Cannes in 1979, he announced: "My film is not about Vietnam: It is Vietnam....We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and, little by little, we went insane." That this defense attorney's plea for the war, himself, and Kurtz was utterly glib only helped to proved his point: Like the U.S., Coppola had confused Vietnam with himself.

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