The anticipated theatrical release of `Apocalypse Now' arrives in the midst of mourning
By MATT NANIA
Scene Movie Editor
The current mood of the country is understandably not one befitting the release of a war movie. As people are praying for peace, as citizens are shocked by innumerable casualties, as even the slightest allusion to anything related to the terrorists attacks gets censored, along comes Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War film "Apocalypse Now," updated, re-mastered and re-cut with 49 minutes of additional footage.
Released in early August in major cities and areas around the nation, South Bend theaters will receive its prints this Friday.
It's hard to believe that any person is "in the mood" for a war movie given the fact that the U.S. is currently on the brink of war itself, but considering "Apocalypse's" pedigree — it won numerous awards and has been long heralded as one of the greatest films ever made — it would be remiss if coverage was not provided of what is certainly one of the biggest and most-acclaimed releases of the year.
A moviegoer's decision to see or not see the film will largely depend on their immediate feelings towards cinema of this nature, but there is no doubt that "Apocalypse Now" will attract audiences this weekend.
Young audience members and film students who have previously only been able to watch the picture on video and DVD will finally get the chance to experience the film theatrically. Older moviegoers, who may have seen it when it was originally released in 1979, will want to see the restoration and new footage. Perhaps the public at large, interested in momentous cinema not available since the '70s, will attend the screenings.
On top of the release itself, "Now's" history adds even another layer of intrigue. At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where the film claimed top-prize, Coppola made a strange comment about "too much money and too much power" and slowly going insane during the production. Although it probably sounded pretentious at the time, to some extent that's exactly what happened.
By 1976, Coppola's "Godfather" films had made more money than any film in history, and the director was flushed with power, youth and genius. He took on a novel — Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" — that even Orson Welles had abandoned, convinced that he could do it better.
Originally scheduled to be shot over six weeks, the production ended up taking 16 months to complete and was punctuated with a number of crises.
Coppola replaced Harvey Keitel, originally cast as Captain Willard, with Martin Sheen two weeks into shooting. A typhoon (filming took place in the Philippines) destroyed some of the sets, causing a delay of several months. Sheen had a heart attack. Marlon Brando (who had been cast as Colonel Kurtz) threatened to quit. Another actor, Sam Bottoms, was on speed, LSD and marijuana, as was Coppola himself.
Needless to say, it's a rare thing when an artist goes mad, gets drunk on his own power and genius, undergoes such a daunting production, and still creates a giant-sized masterwork.
Adapted for the screen by John Milius, "Apocalypse Now" is a magnum opus. As it begins, with a long, quiet shot of a row of trees, The Doors' "The End" slowly coming up on the soundtrack, helicopters buzzing by almost noiselessly, and finally the row of trees being suddenly decimated, the viewer knows he's watching something remarkable. For nearly its entire running time, "Apocalypse Now" is simply a fascinating film.
Captain Willard's (Sheen) story sends him up a Vietnam river to find and kill the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Brando), but "Now" is more about the journey than the destination. Each stop along the way takes Willard and his cohorts, Chief, Chef, Clean (14 year-old Laurence Fishburne) and Lance (Bottoms), farther and farther out of reality. In one of the first scenes, crazy Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) screams at his men about surfing, gives a canteen of water to a dying Vietnamese (then snatches it away, distracted by something else), and doesn't even bother to flinch when bombs go off a dozen yards behind him.
As the film continues, things get more hazy and dreamy, as if the drugs are kicking in, culminating in a surreal and nightmarish finale. Some critics claim this last act doesn't work, where Willard hangs around the Kurtz compound waiting for something to happen. However, the illogical, unreal ending the movie gives us is the perfect solution. Anything conventional would have been insulting.
The experience of watching "Apocalypse Now" has a tremendous sensory impact, most notably in the early battle sequence in which an Army Air Cavalry attacks an ordinary village overrun with Viet Cong. This sequence is both depressing (innocent children and civilians are destroyed by men who view combat with brainless machismo) and exhilarating (it is a brilliant show of logistics, firepower and the cinematic use of objects in open spaces).
Even later, as the film slows down to a groggy march up the river, punctuated only by occasional stops for recreation, fuel, protocol and burial services, we are held hypnotized by a force that we would be hard-pressed to explain.
It is this spell that makes "Apocalypse Now" resistant to any kind of conclusive deconstruction. In that sense, it has a place among but a few works of the film medium.
Now, in 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch have released "Apocalypse Now Redux" to the public with 49 minutes "restored" to the film. These extra sequences — an extended French plantation scene, another surfboard incident, more time dedicated to the Playboy playmates, and an episode showing Kurtz in the daylight — will hopefully be every bit as masterful as the rest of the film. But they have unfortunately been criticized of detracting from the flow of the original.
Coppola's famous declaration at the Cannes Film Festival press conference — "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam" — has an element of truth to it. Unlike the war films we are accustomed to seeing, "Apocalypse Now" doesn't comment on the war, or on war in general, so much as recreate its madness and desperation.
As Kurtz says, "Horror has a face and a name, and you must make a friend of horror." The trek up the river, into the heart of darkness, is no more and no less than a journey to an epiphany, and not a happy one.
Given how these past few weeks have altered our perceptions of violence and destruction — our epiphany came at the highest price — "Apocalypse Now's" message of terror seems all too prescient.
For film enthusiasts, what's also notable about the release of "Apocalypse," even if it has been retailored, is how it will put all of this year's other offerings to shame. Come Friday, it will be the only veritable masterpiece playing in multiplexes, the only movie not made by marketing committees and, truly, the only film worth seeing.
Contact Matt Nania at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, September 27, 2001