In the last fifteen years, I have made three or four different attempts to watch Apocalypse Now. In all those attempts, I was never able to get through the entire film. In each case I fell asleep at different points and never once saw the film all the way through.
Was this a commentary on the film? I wasn’t really certain, to be honest. Perhaps it was just the timing. Maybe I was particularly tired on those days. So, when the opportunity came for me to really watch the film, I took it. Last week I sat down and watchedApocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier, which was released this past Tuesday on DVD. This two-disc set includes the original theatrical cut of the film, as well as the extended Apocalypse Now: Redux which was released in 2001.
The choice I had to make, however, was to pick a version of the film to watch. This decision was made rather quickly, once I discovered a clever little feature on this DVD set. When you watch Redux, you can opt to have a marker appear on the lower right hand corner which will indicate which scenes were inserted into this longer version of the film. With that tool, I was able to understand what was different, and how it affected the movie.
Apocalypse Now follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he is assigned with a deadly mission: travel deep into Cambodia and find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an AWOL officer accused of murder. He is to find Kurtz, and assassinate him. But the journey through war-torn Vietnam on a riverboat proves tragically dangerous, and what he finds along the way is madness and death.
This isn’t even remotely a traditional war film. It has elements of war, with some realistic moments and dialogue, but this is more a surreal, emotional exploration of warfare than anything else. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness”, the film is about the mentality of war, the effects on individuals and the feelings it creates and destroys. It stands in stark contrast to most any other Vietnam-based film such as Platoon or Hamburger Hill. There is a beauty to it, though, one that I never appreciated before. It’s a little slow at times, and odd in others, but what Francis Ford Coppola created is a unique experience. Apocalypse Now has become more famous for the drama that surrounded its creation than the story itself, but at the same time it is highly influential, with moments and dialogue that have been remembered and parodied.
As I watched Redux I found the biggest difference between the two films was undoubtedly the depiction of Sheen’s Willard. The scenes which were not in the original film were all the moments where Willard is at his most human. He smiles, he talks, he laughs. Heck, he steals a surf board from Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. These lighter character moments make up much of what Coppola reinserted into the film. There is also the bizarre Playboy Bunny scene, and the longest sequence to be put into the film, the French estate. What I took most from these scenes was how they altered the Willard character, who in the original cut is more or less morose and consumed with his own internal issues than interacting with the other soldiers on the boat.
The DVD includes some terrific extras, one of which is the great audio commentary from Coppola himself. His comments are interesting and honest as he looks back at his work and the trials and tribulations he encountered along the way. There are also several deleted scenes, including a bizarre “Monkey Sampan” scene. The behind the scenes featurettes cover a lot of ground, most notably the technical issues of the film, such as the revolutionary sound, the soundtrack and more. There are also, on the second disc, retrospectives on the film from Coppola when he showed Redux at Cannes in 2001, and a reunion of cast members who discuss their experience on the film. The editing of Redux is also detailed, as is the development of Now’s visual look. Lastly, there is the Redux marker, which I personally think is one of the best extras I’ve seen on a film that includes an extended version. It really should be a standard on all films that include extended versions, because I thought it was a wonderful tool to understand the difference between the original cut and its new version.