To some film goers, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is the ultimate Vietnam movie. To many more, it is one of the great disappointments of the 19705. That decade, after all, is regarded by critics today as the moment when American film came of age, and Coppola, with The Godfather and The Conversation , went a long way toward bringing that about. Apocalypse Now , released in 1979, was expected to put a cap on the era while summing up America’s stillfresh horror over the war. Instead, viewers were presented with a rambling, often brilliant, but maddeningly indecisive movie that only deepened the mystery about what happened over there.
But Apocalypse Now is getting a second chance. A restored version is being released theatrically by Miramax, with video and DVD versions to follow shortly. It has been painstakingly assembled by Coppola and the film editor Walter Murch, and if you thought the original was a big gulp at 2 ½ hours, wait until you wade into this 3-hour-and-26-minute version.
Every film fan knows the story of how the most honored and powerful director in Hollywood plunged into a Southeast Asian jungle armed with a John Milius script, a small army of actors and technicians, and a then-unthinkable budget of nearly $13 million. By the time he stumbled out 8 months later, he had nearly killed two actors (Harvey Keitel was worn out and replaced by Martin Sheen, who suffered a heart attack), tacked millions of dollars onto his budget, and produced a truckload of film that offered no logical or even coherent ending. “Emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty,” wrote Frank Rich in Time , and many viewers agreed with perhaps half of that, finding the film emotionally powerful but finally unsatisfying as an explanation of America’s descent into a disastrous war.
The new version is bound to stir up the debate all over again, for though it may offer a much clearer picture of the director’s original concept, it ultimately brings into focus that concept’s faults. Most of the restored 53 minutes deal with Willard’s stop at a French plantation before heading farther upriver to “terminate” the insane Colonel Kurtz (played by Marion Brando). The segment gives Apocalypse Now more historical grounding, contrasting America’s involvement in Vietnam with the French period. But the new footage only points out what should have been obvious upon the film’s initial release: The analogies the movie makes between our war in Vietnam and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are forced and facile.
However ill-advised the American policy was, it wasn’t inspired by colonial aims but by ideological ones, and Coppola seems no closer to illuminating those now than he did a quarter-century ago. Apocalypse Now is still a great visceral kick, and the staggering energy that went into the doomed project, combined with Coppola’s visual artistry, keep you from seeing through a script that has no real heart, dark or otherwise.