PART I -- A Veterans Reunion

After watching Francis Coppola's newly restored, 197-minute Apocalypse Now Redux, it is a shock to show up at a New York hotel room and see the actors who played sailors dressed in civvies.

I had been prepared to conduct individual interviews about their struggle to develop and maintain characters during the most tumultuous shoot in movie history. But as they wandered in one by one to discuss their feelings about the movie and Coppola's new expansion of it, they made clear that in the mid-'70s their lives had merged with a production that itself had merged with the turbulence of the Vietnam War.

They had no trouble re-conjuring a woozy, volatile gestalt as they got reacquainted with each other and with Aurore Clement, the French actress who plays a gentle siren on a French plantation in a sequence restored to the film. Hugging and patting each other on the back, speaking of their children and of comrades gone or rarely heard from, they took on the aspect of a Vietnam Vets Against the War reunion.

Apocalypse Now Redux, which opens in theaters Friday, adds 53 minutes to Coppola's 1979 film. The expansion beefs up the interactions between Martin Sheen's Captain Willard and his Navy patrol-boat crew: Albert Hall (Chief), Sam Bottoms (Lance), Frederick Forrest (Chef) and Laurence Fishburne (Clean). Even the original version was rooted in their ability to express total immersion in going upriver and facing the Sisyphus-like battles epitomized by the Do Lung Bridge -- which gets bombed to the ground and rebuilt daily. They conveyed all the freedom and danger of floating beyond military or civilized constraints.

Sheen's tormented assassin Willard and Marlon Brando's satanic / godlike Kurtz had to carry the weight of the movie's meaning. Robert Duvall's Wagnerian surf nut Colonel Kilgore was the central figure of its satire. But these lucky, talented guys embodied its experience. They are and always have been the anchor of the movie.

When they signed on to Coppola's Vietnam, they wound up in a hitch that lasted half the 1970s. Filming in the Philippines started in 1976 and stretched out, over 15 months, to 238 days. Post-production went on for two years. Two years and two decades after its August 1979 premiere, this new version required them to hit the soundstage again, to loop lines never suitably recorded.

Whatever you think of the movie (and I've always been a skeptic), the story behind it is the greatest saga of '70s moviemaking. A writer-director at the peak of his clout and artistic power, coming off The Godfather, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, made an epic about the Vietnam War with a strategy that mirrored the U.S. military. He brought cutting-edge technology into a terrain that could barely support electricity. He fired Harvey Keitel as Willard after three weeks. A typhoon destroyed sets and halted filming for six months. Filipino fighter planes portrayed U.S. jets only when they weren't putting down insurgents elsewhere. Keitel's replacement, Sheen, suffered a heart attack. Apocalypse Now also had the most tortured and public finishing process on record: Even when it shared the Golden Palm at Cannes (with The Tin Drum) it was called a "work in progress."

Yet the picture ended up making money and winning awards; most recently, it ranked No. 28 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movies.

More important, it entered the culture. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," spoken by gung-ho Kilgore, is probably more famous than any line to come out of the real war. It carries the absurdism of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove into a naturalistic military context. It brings home the idea that pitched battle can be horrifying and beautiful and also manic and inane. Apocalypse Now injected images of napalm-seared rainforests, of soldiers fighting in flare-streaked gloom and sailors gliding through psychedelic haze, into our common consciousness of this doomed jungle war. The whir and clink of chopper blades invades our inner ear whenever we think of Vietnam, thanks to sound designer and editor Walter Murch's groundbreaking quintaphonic audio mix.

But ultimately, this wasn't enough for Coppola.

His friend Paul Rassam, of France's Pathe pictures, saw bits of the excised French plantation sequence in the extraordinary documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, and began urging Coppola to reinstate it. Murch and Coppola biographer Peter Cowie say Rassam's enthusiasm ignited Coppola's own feeling that, back in 1979, he had shortchanged one of his grandest achievements, creating a compact version of an inherently expansive work. Eventually Coppola persuaded Murch to help him put together Apocalypse Now Redux. Lovers of the old movie will love this one more. Others will find it fascinating.

Just listening to the film's actors reminisce evoked the movie's atmosphere of blood, sweat and more sweat. Forrest ambled into the hotel room first. He remembered acting at the first premiere like an enlisted man getting his payout: "They put us up in a big hotel suite and we were happy that we were out of the jungle and finally the film was going to come out. Oh, man!" His character, Chef, is supposed to be a saucier, but he said: "I didn't have a chance to learn how to cook. Francis paid some French guy to teach me cooking down in the Philippines; he'd come over every day and show me how to make a bechamel sauce. But the electricity would go off in this little village every day, about noon. Everything was spoiled. I couldn't learn because we couldn't taste."

Then Albert Hall arrived, recognizable now as the all-business judge on The Practice and Ally McBeal -- a character that his by-the-book patrol-boat skipper Chief might have grown into had he survived the war. "I was looking at it Friday night," he said, "and that sampan scene, that's incredible." The scene is a mini-My Lai massacre that starts when Hall's Chief orders Forrest's Chef to search a river boat.

Hall: "We developed that as we went; there was no script for that."

Forrest: "You said, 'Search the boat, Chef! Search the boat! See what's in the such-and-such!' "

Hall: "Francis told you to give me some lip. 'Cause when I first said, 'Get on that boat!' you just went on that boat. And Francis said, 'Don't just go on the boat -- give him some lip.' I remember that scene, man."

Coppola originally cut Clement out of the movie. But she is at the center of the biggest addition to Apocalypse: a 25-minute sequence set on a plantation where French colonials work the land and withstand history. The French explain to the Americans that they've been in Vietnam for five generations and have as much right to be there as white people have to be in the United States. They're fighting for what's theirs; the Americans, they say, "are fighting for the biggest nothing in history."

A lustrous blonde best known for her performance in Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Clement wandered into the hotel room and delighted her co-stars with her casual elegance and enthusiasm. "Oy yoy yoy [or "Ai yai yai" in her accent]," she exclaimed. "You see," she said with a laugh, "We are still alive, my friends."