Two Versions of One of the Great Movies of All Time
Beginning with winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola stunned the film world in 1979 with his brilliant Apocalypse Now. Years later, the footage shot in the 1970s was reedited and released in 2001 under the title Apocalypse Now Redux. The main difference between the versions is that Redux contains 49 minutes of footage not included in the earlier release. Both versions are available on the two-disc DVD set Apocalypse Now—The Complete Dossier, and I particularly enjoyed watching the extended version with the option turned on where "Redux Marker" is displayed when footage unique to the 2001 version is shown.
Story of Assassination Set Against Backdrop of Vietnam War
The principal characters in Apocalypse Now are American military personnel in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The protagonist is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who is given a bizarre mission: he is to travel up the (fictional) Nung River and assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade holed up in Cambodia with his own private army of mountain tribal people who worship him like a god.
My reading of Apocalypse Now is that Coppola was trying to get us to come to grips with the irrational, primitive underpinnings of human nature. Beneath our civilized veneer, we are driven by subconscious yearnings. In particular, I think he wanted us to contemplate the issue of the ritual slaying.
One of the Most Memorable Sequences in Cinema History
I can never forget the spectacular sequence where an air cavalry unit, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), transports Willard, a patrol boat and its Navy crew to the river. Kilgore takes on this job just so he can surf in the South China Sea with a world-class surfer who is a member of the boat's crew. But delivery of the boat involves attacking an enemy-held village, and the helicopters swoop in with loudspeakers blaring Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." Soon fighter jets drop bombs, and Kilgore rhapsodizes, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
The French Plantation Segment
The most important segment in Redux that is absent from the 1979 version of the film is the 25-minute sequence where Willard visits a rubber plantation run by a French family for 70 years. At dinner, there's some expository dialogue that helps put the Vietnam War in historical context. Then Willard retires to the bedroom of a beautiful French widow (Aurore Clément), and they smoke opium together. The segment ends lyrically with the widow slipping out of her clothing and slowly pulling the mosquito netting around the bed she will share with Willard. I believe we get insight into Coppola's intentions for his movie when the widow tells Willard, "There are two of you, don't you see? One that kills and one that loves."
Was There an Ending With an Air Strike on Kurtz' Compound?
When I saw Apocalypse Now in a theater years ago, the end credits were shown over footage of massive explosions in Kurtz' compound. But on the DVD, the end credits are simply white letters over a black background. So, were there multiple endings or what?
Material on the DVD covers this issue. At one time the filmmakers released a theatrical version of Apocalypse Now that had end credits shown over behind-the-scenes footage of sets being blown up. The problem was that to many viewers, including me, this footage looked like a continuation of the movie's narrative in which an air strike was in progress on Kurtz' compound.
When it was realized that Coppola's intended ending was being muddled by this version of the end credits, the sequence now on the DVD was substituted. With this change, the film's ending is unambiguous: Willard switches off the radio without ever calling for an air strike, and therefore we can assume there won't be one.
Excellent Audio Commentary by Francis Ford Coppola
The DVDs provide feature-length audio commentary by Coppola on both the 1979 and 2001 versions of the film. However, his remarks are the same where the footage is identical. My recommendation is to listen to the track for the Redux version since that gives you his complete commentary in one pass.
I found Coppola's commentary informative and fascinating. He mentions that an early draft of the script was titled The Psychedelic Soldier. He states he originally cast Harvey Keitel as Willard, but replaced him with Sheen because he wanted an actor who came across as more passive. Coppola says they got their helicopters from the Philippine government, which would sometimes take them away without warning because of insurgents' threats. He talks about costuming Brando in black pajamas and shooting him very carefully to hide his obesity. And Coppola discusses filming the ritual sacrifice of the water buffalo by the Ifugao tribesmen.
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