Revisiting Apocalypse Now

Watching what is billed as the final cut of Apocalypse Now is a revelatory experience. It puts watching movies on TV to shame and shrugs off 99% of any other cinema that I’ve seen in recent years. The level of craftsmanship, engagement with the theme, everything about it screams cinema – it really does define the cinematic experience. So much so that it should be required viewing in 70mm for anyone who cares a whit about movies.

The amazing thing is that there have been so many Apocalypse Nows. It was before my time but the original released at Cannes to get Coppola the breathing room to finish it was one. The original theatrical cut another. And god knows how many more over the years where little things like the finale was tweaked. The original theatrical release is still weighted just right.

This cut is mostly about cutting the bloat from 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux which weighed in with an additional 49 minutes of scenes cut from the original release. That version added in visit to a French plantation, another encounter with the Playboy bunnies, and a few others which only scratches the most completionist of itches. The actual experience is bloated and unforgiving.

The new cut keeps the French colonists but cuts it considerably. It’s crafted to be a quick and more elegant sequence  which makes it less painful but the politics of it really beat you over the head. It feels as if they couldn’t let it go, too much emotional baggage was tied up there. Fortunately they kept the scene where Willard steals Kilgore’s surfboard. That really completes the entire Valkyrie sequence.

More than anything this cut revels in the pleasures of the big screen. There are few experiences like the Ride of the Valkyries scene, the dizzying confusion of it all. Helicopters wheeling everywhere. Sound washing over and through you. It’s easily one of the most impressive things ever put on film. Even the more prosaic scenes express so much more than you can ever describe – the cuts between food, fidgeting fingers, and glances as Willard gets his orders is enveloping and exploding with information. And then there are the overtly expressive scenes, Martin Sheen’s face coming in and out of focus, Brando’s face in light and dark. They are so easy to parody and yet sitting there in the dark, they make a point that you can’t quite describe.

In contrast to my recent tour of other Vietnam movies, the thematic substance of Apocalypse Now still shines through. I struggle with the boundary between glorification of war and portrayal of its terror in all of these movies but this one feels like it manages to point up the craziness, recklessness, and terror of war without losing sight of the humans in the middle of it nor their twisted leaders who insist on dressing it up as something that its not. Even Kilgore’s character comes out better than normally typed, he is definitely crazy but realizes that the war he’s in is also crazy.

The Doors are still strange and out of place but I’m learning to live with that.


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