Apocalypse Almost

SHHHHH--DON'T TELL Francis: He'll have a cow the size of Napa Valley and start suing everyone in sight (me first, probably). But Apocalypse Now addicts should know that the entire Kurtz compound is within their reach. Forget about the measly 43 minutes added by Coppola and his editor Walter Murch for Apocalypse Now Redux. Available on the Internet (I won't say where, but you'll figure it out), there's a five-hour work print of Apocalypse Now--call it Apocalypse Almost--that's a must-have for film geeks in a seen-it-all, post-DVD era, and for anyone interested in the mysteries of the creative process. Indeed, this 300-minute cut, never intended to be seen by anyone, provokes the awesome emotions one experiences leafing through a novelist's warts-and-all notebooks, or seeing a master painter's early rough sketches of a later-completed masterpiece.

Coppola and Murch intended their Apocalypse slop print to be a "rough assembly" in the most literal sense: There's no sound editing to speak of, and no optical effects (the opening blasts of napalm and Martin Sheen's upside-down head are presented clumsily in succession); and even the temporary music has a crudity you wouldn't find today in a film student's micro-budget thesis project (when things get slow, Coppola just slaps on an old mono recording of a Doors tune). The classic moment of Colonel Kilgore's choppers taking off for battle here features a bugler whose bugle makes...not a peep. Awkward as this is to watch, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing those four jillion gallons of napalm exploding with cheesy grease-pencil marks all over the footage: It makes you feel like you're right back there at the editing table in San Francisco, circa 1979, sweating it out with Coppola and Murch as the Cannes deadline looms!

Simply put, there's much in these five hours that never should have seen the light of day; hell, there's much that never should have been put before the camera. Spiffed-up versions of some of these lost sequences appear in Apocalypse Now Redux, but in Apocalypse Almost, you can see them in all their uncut non-glory. For instance, where Redux features Captain Willard's crew struggling to knock boots with a pair of Playboy Playmates, Almost lets the real dingaling of the two (Colleen Camp) ramble on for ten full minutes about the pain of centerfold fame. (Picture a soliloquy written and acted by the women performers in Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and you'll have some idea of the viewer migraine that ensues.)

Almost does shed new light on the central performances--and adds dimensions to them that don't exist in any other Apocalypse. At one point, Sheen's Willard announces himself to Brando's Kurtz--in an apparent allusion to the 1971 rodent thriller Willard and its sequel, Ben--as "Capt. Ben Willard." (The sly joker John Milius must've penned that one: In a single line, he makes Sheen's character into a two-time rat.) Elsewhere Willard, seemingly stoned out of his gourd, is seen bonding with the crew by performing a savage JFK impersonation (which itself savagely predates Sheen's 1983 TV-miniseries performance in Kennedy). And Brando, whose improv antics are seen at gustatory length in the five-hour cut, seems all the more poignantly lost, covering his incomprehension of the character with a cultivated voice and lots of long, seemingly confused pauses. As for Coppola, one Almost moment reveals the bankruptcy of his editing choices even in the so-called director's cut. When Kurtz reads pages of malarkey from Time magazine to a passel of kids, we get one glimmer of brilliant writing inexplicably passed over in Redux, with Kurtz quoting a Pentagon pencil pusher's summary of the Vietnam quagmire: "Hey--we're not living in a dreamworld!"

On the Apocalypse set, Coppola had the resources to shoot whatever came into his head. And there are tidbits in Almost--like Brando's impromptu ramblings about Robert S. MacNamara, or an ox running full-bore into the camera during a firefight--that, for better and worse, approximate the fevered jumble in the director's skull. Henry Kissinger famously joked that, during the Nixon administration, Americans never knew they were often two martinis away from nuclear holocaust; Apocalypse Almost suggests that, in 1979, United Artists never knew it was just a cut or two away from Heaven's Gate.

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