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Apocalypse Now Redux

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Apocalypse Now Redux

Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Rated: R
RunTime: 197 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genres: Action, Drama, War

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

High school history teachers know how important it is to relate the past to the present and, assuming that the youngsters are at least dimly aware of current events, the teen scholars can then relate better to times elapsed. The same can be done with literature. You can associate a past event with one that took place at a different time, thereby giving the reader a better feel for the subject. Something like that was tried most successfully by Francis Ford Coppola when he used Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella "Heart of Darkness" to illuminate his epic 1979 picture "Apocalypse Now." Conrad's story deals with a manager of a trading station in the Belgian Congo, a Mr. Kurtz, who goes to the Congo with high ideals and a self-imposed mission to civilize the natives but is instead converted by them to savagery. Kurtz's conversion to darkness is narrated to the reader by Marlow as an impartial observer who makes the trip to the center of Africa which becomes, symbolically, a journey toward the essential meaning of life. When the manager visits Kurtz, an admirer of the latter tells him that Kurtz had become corrupted by the very natives he had hoped to enlighten. "Instead of his changing them," said the man, "They had debased him into an atavistic savage."

Coppola sees the story of Kurtz as a parable to explain what happened to the Americans during the ill-advised Vietnam War and now, with forty-nine minutes put into the film, minutes not seen before, we become enlightened to four basic changes in the original story which is now called "Apocalypse Now Redux."

The many reviews that have been published and also posted online for the original 1979 "Apocalypse Now" are easily accessible thanks to the miracle of Internet-based, archival storage. There's no need here to re-invent the wheel, to repeat what you can easily find on web sites like,, and Suffice it to say that Coppola's is (to be only partly facetious) a road-and-buddy movie more than a conventional war film, featuring a group of American vets traveling up a river on a mission to assassinate a modern Kurtz; a colonel (played with appropriate mysticism by Marlon Brando), with his assassin, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), learning quite a bit about war and life through the schizophrenic rantings of Kurtz. Coppola's motif is not to show that war is evil (that's, like, duh) or that the Vietnam War was especially profane, but that nothing stinks more than lying. This point is driven home most convincingly by Col. Kurtz as he reads some articles printed in news magazines, particularly "Time," in which the president of the United States, having sent a scout to the 'nam to find out how the Yanks and their Vietnamese allies were doing against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese troops said that things were smelling better. "How do they smell to you, soldier?" asks Kurtz to his captive captain, rhetorically. Seeing is believing. Reading Time magazine, listening the president...forget it.

Four items have been added to the movie, and what is most refreshing about the additions is Coppola's view that the American audience is now mature enough to absorb and delight in the additional footage though it brings the movie up to three hours and sixteen minutes. (Well over three hundred hours were actually shot in the Philippines, with digital editing partly used to wade through all the celluloid in order to go with what best serves the vision of the director, the writers--and the performers, who in the particular instance of the French plantation scene did some improvisation.) We've been told over and over by pessimists and elitists that movies have had to be dumbed down for the modern viewer. Without dismissing this charge as baseless, we can nonetheless say that for the more sophisticated film buffs who could enjoy a war movie that is more surreal than traditional with periods more meditative than combative, this new version deepens the original.

Here are the changes...First is the plantation sequence, which to some might appear to come from another movie. As Willard proceeds up the river into Cambodia on his secret mission to assassinate Kurtz, he suddenly runs into the bizarre sight of a French plantation in the middle of the jungle, apparently unhurt by the enemies of so-called Western imperialism. Clean (Laurence Fishburne) had just been buried, courtesy of the French hosts, and during the long, wine-soaked banquet which was cooked French-style by a Vietnamese chef and served by native Vietnamese, the French get a chance to discuss their views of the war with the more naive Americans. The French, we learn from the head of the family Hubert deMarais (Christian Marquand), have a good reason to stay. France is not their home: Indochina is. But as deMarais heatedly explains in French-accented, perfect English, the "Americans are fighting for nothing." The plantation scene features an unusual seduction by the young French widow Roxanne (Aurore Clement), making one wonder why any part of this vista of what the poet Matthew Arnold called sweetness and light could be omitted.

Change two involves the Playboy playmate sequence in which a group of playmates are choppered in to entertain the boys. This time, Coppola puts back in an arrangement in which the helicopter runs out of fuel and Willard trades a couple of can of fuel for the Playmate of the Year. The scene is metaphorical: these beautiful women are exploited for their surface beauty in much the way that the landscape of Vietnam is raped--and yet in the latter case our presidents had called the action a moral one.

Change three makes up for a time-saving cut in a sequence featuring Marlon Brando, who expounds on greater length about the insanity of war. Perhaps the director originally felt that showing too much Brando (so to speak) would take away from the aura of mystery surrounding him: that allowing him more footage would run the risk of humanizing him too greatly.

The final big change adds to the jokiness of the plot, specifically with a bunch of guys who steal the prize surfboard of their commanding officer, Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Putting the footage back allows Coppola to contrast the young men, fresh into their adventure and enjoying their kidding around, with the later horror of death and destruction.

It's amusing to see some of the performers as they looked twenty-two years ago. While Martin Sheen seems to have aged the least, Laurence Fishburne comes across a positively adolescent (not surprising since he was only fourteen when the filming began). Harrison Ford is barely recognizable in his twenties and in his brief role comes across lacking the fine lines of character that he had developed over time.

Then as now, this film cannot really be compared with more traditional war films like 'The Longest Day," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," or "Saving Private Ryan." "Apocalypse Now" is at once more mystical, more reflective, more suited to a war that has been blamed for tearing America apart. Contrasts aside, it ranks as one of the most moving of its genre.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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