Some film directors have an unfortunate habit of revisiting their earlier successes and producing new versions of them. But is it always the wisest move?
Apocalypse Now is a good case in point. It’s rightfully acclaimed as one of the greatest war (and anti-war) movies ever made, but Francis Ford Coppola will keep returning to the well and tinkering with his masterpiece. Now here we are on the 40th anniversary of its release and he’s gone and done it again, assembling a version that weighs in at a hefty three hours and two minutes.
I first saw the original in 1979, when it was a mere at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. It had been a weird kind of day. Cycling through Manchester, I was kicked off my bike by a football supporter through the open window of a passing car. Understandably shaken, I found a young policeman, helpfully hiding in a shop doorway, who told me that a visiting football team was running riot in the city centre. He advised me to ‘lie low’ for a while.
A bit further along Deansgate, the ABC Cinema was showing Apocalypse Now, and a war movie felt somehow appropriate. So in I duly trooped and was promptly blown away by what I saw. Coppola’s transposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the jungles of war-torn Vietnam felt masterful. Indeed, I watched it again only a few weeks later at the infamous Aaben cinema, where it was given added mystique by the fact that pretty much everybody at the screening was smoking dope. Er… far out.
But then in 2001 along came Redux and, with it, an extra forty-nine minutes of footage that had been excised from the theatrical release, including the French Plantation Sequence – three words that still strike horror into my heart. This seemingly interminable section where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) eats a meal and is given a long lecture on Vietnam’s troubled history by the plantation owner has the unfortunate effect of stopping the film dead in its tracks. Was I the only movie fan who, on seeing the words ‘The Final Cut,’ fervently hoped that Coppola had actually shortened the running time by taking a large pair of scissors to this bit?
No such luck. There’s even more of it now. And it fatally wounds the film.
The problem is, it’s followed by the (already glacially slow) final set piece and any goodwill that the previous two thirds has earned itself evaporates all too quickly, as we watch Marlon Brando sitting in the darkness and mumbling incoherently. Also, it must be said, that the ending – based on Conrad’s colonial-era novel with its white saviour storyline – looks a little dodgy when examined in the cold light of the present day.
A pity then, because – as ever – the film looks absolutely gorgeous, especially on the huge Imax screen. Many of the scenes have passed into movie legend, together with quotes from John Milius’s script (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ – ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ – ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ to name but three). The helicopter battle scenes are unparalleled and the film expertly portrays the complete insanity of war, depicting Willard’s upriver journey as a dark descent into his own battle-damaged psyche. Oh, and there’s also fun to be had watching out for early performances by Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles.
The original Apocalypse Now is undoubtedly a brilliant and unforgettable piece of cinema. This version (and it almost hurts me to say it) squanders its own strengths by giving its director free reign to put back things that were, for very sound reasons, removed in the first place. Those with weak bladders take note: time your toilet break to coincide with Willard’s arrival at the French plantation.
And take your time. Trust me, you won’t miss anything.