By BRUCE DENNILL
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut / Directed by Francis Ford Coppola / 16VL
There are many phrases that come to mind when watching Apocalypse Now (however many times you’ve seen it), but one of the most noteworthy is this: they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.
This is not only a comment on the actual production process, which among much else, involved huge chunks of the script and story being improvised; having the shoot run more than 10 times as long as it was scheduled for; borrowing helicopters from the local government and their army; shooting in monsoon season and having dysentery run through (as it were) the crew; killing a water buffalo live on camera and having director and leading man having mental and physical breakdowns respectively. It’s also an acknowledgement of the scope of the piece – how extraordinarily it satirises and criticises war (and in particular the Vietnam War and the American government that was driving it) and its unrelenting critique of hubris (ironically, given all of production drama) and the collateral damage incurred as a result of pride, whether that’s on powerful people or bit players.
How to best package all of that has long been a challenge for Francis Ford Coppola, who apparently, after the epic shoot, had 240 hours – 10 full days! – of footage to begin editing down. And this on celluloid, with the far more energy-intensive processes required to trim down or streamline enormous swathes of content.
This Final Cut, according to a brief introduction from Coppola before the film starts, is the version the director originally imagined. The original 1979 version featured too little of what he intended, but it was thought that the market could not handle a three hour-plus marathon at the time. His first “director’s cut” – Apocalypse Now: Redux – then had the kitchen sink thrown at it and, in retrospect, Coppola felt that he’d over-corrected. Final Cut sits in the middle of its predecessors in terms of running time, at a breath over three hours, and even though it is a substantial commitment for the viewer, it never feels bloated.
That said, there are still sequences where the film feels like a treatise rather than a war film – even one with a particularly strong message. Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) party’s interaction with the French plantation owners is more history lesson than entertainment – important context for the film’s contemporary audience, who would have had diverse opinions on the Vietnam conflict, but something of a luxury here, further developing Willard’s doubts about his mission to kill rogue colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), but otherwise not adding too much.
Brando’s performance – mired in controversy at the time after the actor failed to learn his lines and improvised his part, and also required that his character spend a lot of time in darkness so as to play down the actor’s weight issues at the time – remains murky and mysterious. The legend created around the character, and the archetype he represents (Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness protagonist and others) helps to make Brando’s time on screen important and significant, but he is not nearly so memorable as some of his colleagues.
That Sheen never became an undeniable A-lister after this project is baffling, though it is perhaps the hardships he endured in getting this job done – battling with alcoholism; having a heart attack while on location – that rather dimmed his appetite for the spotlight. Robert Duvall’s remarkable turn as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore has lost none of its gonzo power, though. In every iteration of the film, his utterly nuts character provides all the proof that Willard needs to be sure that Kurtz is just a tiny part of the greater problem, rather than its focal point.
Watching this film’s massive set-pieces on an IMAX screen gives them even more thrust and energy than they already had, which is saying something given how stirring Kilgore’s Flight Of The Valkyries attack and other battle scenes already were.
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut does deliver as the most compelling version yet, its visionary aspects outweighing its remaining flaws. And sadly, the activism at its heart is as valid as ever. Some lessons will never be learned, it seems.