Apocalypse Now Redux

11/09/2010

David Phillips gives the lowdown on what is possibly one of the most epic movies ever to have been made


 

Marin Sheen and Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now

Little wonder that, following the unprecedented box office and critical success of The Godfather parts 1 & 2, Francis Ford Coppola was able to find himself in the Philippines with a huge amount of funding to begin his most ambitious movie project to date…Apocalypse Now.

This movie must feature on many a “movies you just have to watch” list; such is its universal acclaim.  The movie itself and the making of it have been dissected and documented to the nth degree: Heart of Darkness, a documentary filmed during the making of the movie is often reported to be superb and the Peter Biskind book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls are two sources to seek out for further detail.  But, if you haven’t seen the movie (don’t be so surprised; some people still have yet to see Star Wars or Jaws) or you haven’t seen the Redux version, what can you expect?  

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now follows Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on his assignment during the Vietnam War to track down and kill the AWOL, and out of control, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Capt. Willard’s mission is an epic odyssey that takes him deep into the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia as he searches for the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz; a man who has elevated himself to a god-like status with a devout and bloodthirsty following since abandoning his last mission.  Willard also has demons of his own to battle; the horrors of war have taken their toll on him.  As he experiences differing aspects of war, right and wrong; he finds himself questioning what is good and evil in the world and what is good and evil from within the soul.
Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now

The movie is largely episodic; as Willard makes his way up river he encounters outlandish characters and situations along the way.  Each episode has an effect on Willard and helps him descend, or ascend, depending how you view it, to the same wavelength as Kurtz; a man who Willard feels he is getting to know and understand as his journey progresses.

Although set during the Vietnam War, it doesn’t necessarily fit easily into the standard war film category.  The subject matter goes far beyond the actions and consequences of a time of conflict and the vision becomes almost dreamlike or, rather nightmarish.  Despite the wanton destruction and carnage there is a view from a higher plane, as though the individual actions or merely part of a wider aspect of the human condition.  From the opening sequence where seldom has destruction become so beautiful the film continues to seemingly drift in and out of consciousness and delves into a meditation of life and death.
 
For all of this cerebral symbolism and contemplation the film does unravel a narrative that holds together a story that is easy to enjoy at its basic level.  Famously, the film contains an early appearance from Harrison Ford, but at barely sixteen it is Laurence Fishburne (billed here as Larry) makes an assured start to his movie career and garners much more screen time.  They are more than ably supported by Frederic Forrest, Scott Glenn, Sam Bottoms and, of course, Robert Duvall in a scene - almost movie - stealing iconic performances that will bring “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” into your vocabulary and make you never listen to Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries in quite the same way again. 
 
Martin Sheen as Capt. Benjamin Willard in Apocalypse Now
Dennis Hopper, in case you were wondering where he might feature enough to have this movie as part of a tribute to him, is utterly convincing as a burnt out war photographer who commits himself to Kurtz’s tribe, but always seems to be on the periphery.  Although relatively short on screen time, this is almost as good as it gets as far as Hopper goes as an actor: perhaps Blue Velvet and Easy Rider (more so as a director) are the only films where he comes close. 
 
The Redux version of the movie was released in 2001 and contains a whopping extra 49 minutes.  The most notable extra pieces are all of the scenes involving the French plantation and some extra scenes involving a further encounter with the Playboy bunnies.  I actually prefer the Redux version, for the main because it makes the overall experience last longer, but it also does help to add depth to some of the characters. 

This movie is a crucial piece of cinematic history from a time when the studios backed the director to the absolute limit and were rewarded.  Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate famously burnt the studio backing the film so badly that this sheer arrogance, bravery and commitment to filmmaking has never since been emulated… 

Apocalypse Now Redux is screening at Broadway on Sunday 19 September at 7pm

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