PART I -- A Veterans Reunion
After watching Francis Coppola's newly restored, 197-minute Apocalypse NowRedux, it is a shock to show up at a New York hotel room and see the actorswho played sailors dressed in civvies.
I had been prepared to conduct individual interviews about their struggleto develop and maintain characters during the most tumultuous shoot in moviehistory. But as they wandered in one by one to discuss their feelings aboutthe movie and Coppola's new expansion of it, they made clear that in themid-'70s their lives had merged with a production that itself had merged withthe turbulence of the Vietnam War.
They had no trouble re-conjuring a woozy, volatile gestalt as they gotreacquainted with each other and with Aurore Clement, the French actress whoplays a gentle siren on a French plantation in a sequence restored to thefilm. Hugging and patting each other on the back, speaking of their childrenand of comrades gone or rarely heard from, they took on the aspect of aVietnam Vets Against the War reunion.
Apocalypse Now Redux, which opens in theaters Friday, adds 53 minutes toCoppola's 1979 film. The expansion beefs up the interactions between MartinSheen'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 totalimmersion in going upriver and facing the Sisyphus-like battles epitomized bythe Do Lung Bridge -- which gets bombed to the ground and rebuilt daily. Theyconveyed all the freedom and danger of floating beyond military or civilizedconstraints.
Sheen's tormented assassin Willard and Marlon Brando's satanic / godlikeKurtz had to carry the weight of the movie's meaning. Robert Duvall'sWagnerian surf nut Colonel Kilgore was the central figure of its satire. Butthese lucky, talented guys embodied its experience. They are and always havebeen the anchor of the movie.
When they signed on to Coppola's Vietnam, they wound up in a hitch thatlasted half the 1970s. Filming in the Philippines started in 1976 andstretched out, over 15 months, to 238 days. Post-production went on for twoyears. Two years and two decades after its August 1979 premiere, this newversion required them to hit the soundstage again, to loop lines neversuitably recorded.
Whatever you think of the movie (and I've always been a skeptic), the storybehind it is the greatest saga of '70s moviemaking. A writer-director at thepeak of his clout and artistic power, coming off The Godfather, TheConversation and The Godfather Part II, made an epic about the Vietnam Warwith a strategy that mirrored the U.S. military. He brought cutting-edgetechnology into a terrain that could barely support electricity. He firedHarvey Keitel as Willard after three weeks. A typhoon destroyed sets andhalted filming for six months. Filipino fighter planes portrayed U.S. jetsonly when they weren't putting down insurgents elsewhere. Keitel'sreplacement, Sheen, suffered a heart attack. Apocalypse Now also had the mosttortured and public finishing process on record: Even when it shared theGolden 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, itranked 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 themorning," spoken by gung-ho Kilgore, is probably more famous than any line tocome 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 thatpitched battle can be horrifying and beautiful and also manic and inane.Apocalypse Now injected images of napalm-seared rainforests, of soldiersfighting in flare-streaked gloom and sailors gliding through psychedelic haze,into our common consciousness of this doomed jungle war. The whir and clink ofchopper blades invades our inner ear whenever we think of Vietnam, thanks tosound designer and editor Walter Murch's groundbreaking quintaphonic audiomix.
But ultimately, this wasn't enough for Coppola.
His friend Paul Rassam, of France's Pathe pictures, saw bits of the excisedFrench plantation sequence in the extraordinary documentary Hearts ofDarkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, and began urging Coppola to reinstate it.Murch and Coppola biographer Peter Cowie say Rassam's enthusiasm ignitedCoppola's own feeling that, back in 1979, he had shortchanged one of hisgrandest achievements, creating a compact version of an inherently expansivework. Eventually Coppola persuaded Murch to help him put together ApocalypseNow Redux. Lovers of the old movie will love this one more. Others will findit fascinating.
Just listening to the film's actors reminisce evoked the movie's atmosphereof blood, sweat and more sweat. Forrest ambled into the hotel room first. Heremembered acting at the first premiere like an enlisted man getting hispayout: "They put us up in a big hotel suite and we were happy that we wereout of the jungle and finally the film was going to come out. Oh, man!" Hischaracter, Chef, is supposed to be a saucier, but he said: "I didn't have achance to learn how to cook. Francis paid some French guy to teach me cookingdown in the Philippines; he'd come over every day and show me how to make abechamel sauce. But the electricity would go off in this little village everyday, about noon. Everything was spoiled. I couldn't learn because we couldn'ttaste."
Then Albert Hall arrived, recognizable now as the all-business judge on ThePractice and Ally McBeal -- a character that his by-the-book patrol-boatskipper Chief might have grown into had he survived the war. "I was looking atit Friday night," he said, "and that sampan scene, that's incredible." Thescene is a mini-My Lai massacre that starts when Hall's Chief orders Forrest'sChef 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 inthe such-and-such!' "
Hall: "Francis told you to give me some lip. 'Cause when I first said, 'Geton that boat!' you just went on that boat. And Francis said, 'Don't just go onthe boat -- give him some lip.' I remember that scene, man."
Coppola originally cut Clement out of the movie. But she is at the centerof the biggest addition to Apocalypse: a 25-minute sequence set on aplantation where French colonials work the land and withstand history. TheFrench explain to the Americans that they've been in Vietnam for fivegenerations and have as much right to be there as white people have to be inthe United States. They're fighting for what's theirs; the Americans, theysay, "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-starswith her casual elegance and enthusiasm. "Oy yoy yoy [or "Ai yai yai" in heraccent]," she exclaimed. "You see," she said with a laugh, "We are stillalive, my friends."
Sam Bottoms entered and completed the circle. Still looking like aCalifornia beach bum, albeit a bearded and weathered one, Bottoms shared astash of location photographs, and reminiscences that brought home theidealism and the all-hands-to-the-pumps ethos of Coppola productions in thatera.
He talked about his late uncle, John Chapman, who took bit parts as one ofKurtz's followers and one of Kilgore's men, as well as being assistantdirector on the second unit ("and by the end, I think, production manager,too"); he showed pictures of Pete Cooper, a big guy who doubled for Brando.
Bottoms remembered how rumors of Brando's arrival rippled through thecompany: Marlon's coming to Manila. Now he's in Pagsanjan! Now he's making hisway to the set! Now he's on the set! "It was like, where is he?" Bottoms said,then added, gesturing to Forrest: "We went to the boat, you and me, and walkeddown to the forward part -- and there was Marlon sitting on our boat. And itwas like -- how did he get through the set? But he had a way. He went througheverybody."
"A very simple man," said Clement of Brando; she is still grateful for hisfluent French. "I didn't understand a word Francis was telling me, and Marlonhelped me. He would tell me, 'Francis wants you to do that and that and that.'"
Near the start of the French plantation sequence, Chief gives Clean aproper military burial. Even now, Hall can summon up the poignancy of thescene: "This was my boat, these were my children," he exclaimed. "I had lostone of my children and Willard was responsible for it, so you already havethis duel of emotions." Clement's character, Roxanne, recognizes Willard as alover and a killer, and gives him opium: her late husband's cure for hisemotional wounds.
In another new scene, Willard arranges for the men to have sex with Playboybunnies from the movie's notorious version of a morale-boosting extravaganza.The girls are now stranded with a medical evacuation (Medevac) unit, andWillard barters with their manager to exchange boat fuel for their favors.Here, a small enigma from the original is explained: Lance gets the makeupthat he uses as camouflage or war paint or psychedelic decoration from hisbunny's kit.
Bottoms called inventions like that "the bridges," but couldn't quitereconstruct where and how they were erected -- not surprising, consideringthat he started improvising with his bunny when the worst typhoon in 40 yearsrampaged through the Philippines. The scene was shot at different times,Forrest's part of it months later at one of Coppola's Napa vineyards. What wasdifficult, Bottoms said, "was to maintain the arc of the character without ascript continuity: It was like, where am I now? Do I have a banana leaf on myhead?"
"Up through Martin Sheen getting his mission," said Hall, "that was in thescript. Once you saw the boat take off, Francis was into the rich resources hesaw on location. We had all those cats who had been in Vietnam saying this iswhat we were doing there. And Francis looked at the Ifugao -- the nativepeople in the Philippines -- and said, wow, we can incorporate them into theshow!" The small, dark-skinned Ifugao were perfect to portray Kurtz'sMontagnards -- ethnic Cambodians living in Vietnam -- and their ritualsacrifice of a caribou gave Coppola the key to his ending.
Clement summarized the two versions of Apocalypse this way: "The first onewas sharper, tighter. The second one has more humor, more sentiment." ToBottoms, "the incorporation of the women's characters and the history of thewar really fills out the 'novel' of the movie." Hall said, "Francis madeexcellent choices with the new stuff; both the characters' arcs and the arc ofthe story are fuller." For Forrest, the new film "humanizes everyone."
PART II -- Walter Murch: The Architecture of 'Redux'
To Walter Murch, it makes sense that Apocalypse Now has attained an oddlyprotean existence. Murch feels that the play of memory and consciousness isintegral to the substance of the movie.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Murch referred to the findings ofneurosurgeon Paul McLean, who argued that each section of the brain representsan evolutionary stage. He quoted McLean's joke that "when a psychiatrist asksyou to lie down on a couch, he's asking you to lie next to a horse and acrocodile. When you're hungry, the crocodile commandeers the other brains;when you're in love, the limbic brain takes over and uses the other two. And Ithink what Francis was getting at with Kurtz is this: The crocodile is adangerous beast, but how much more dangerous would it be if it had thereasoning power of a human being?"
According to Murch, who has worked in various capacities on all ofCoppola's greatest pictures (winning an Oscar for the sound on Apocalypse Nowand performing the intricate audiovisual stitchwork of The Conversation),"Francis started talking to me about editing this about five years ago. I wasunavailable and afraid."
Murch had both designed the sound and joined the editing team for the firstversion, and was reticent to undo "the balance we'd achieved," particularlywith materials that were aging. He had a philosophic objection, too: "To use ametaphor, Francis makes wine -- and the wine you make in 1979 will always bethe wine you make in 1979. It's a record of the grapes, the weather, theeconomic climate, and what you were like back then."
In 1998, though, Murch re-edited Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil usingdetailed notes by Welles. "That may have emboldened me without me knowing it,"he said. When Coppola pitched him again, Murch decided: "Maybe I'll learnsomething."
He brought in his assistant on Touch of Evil, Sean Cullen, who made surethat what they'd need was available and cataloged, either in Coppola's ownstorage facility in Napa, Calif., in a Los Angeles vault, or at the mysteriousNational Underground Storage system in Pennsylvania. They ended up with maybea half-ton of material.
Coppola has said that in 1979 his main fear was of releasing a film thatwas too "strange." Murch says, frankly, "For 'strange,' substitute 'long.' "The goal back then, he said, was: "How short can you make this film and stillmake it deliver the goods -- be both of a piece and satisfying to anaudience?"
The new scenes are more fixed historically and psychologically; withoutthem, Apocalypse Now has a focus that's subjective and surreal. But, Murchsaid, "The thinking wasn't that those scenes were too real, let's cut themout; it was, 'let's cut them out because we can.' The bones of the movie werebroken in order to fit it into a box that was 2 1/2 hours long."
Murch's task was to reconnect the skeleton -- in one case, with wisps ofcartilage. Crucial bits of the scene with the Playboy bunnies were neverfilmed. But Murch provides new textures and rhythms with footage of the menbickering and fighting and Willard wandering around the site. He intercuts theaction between Chef and Lance and their respective bunnies, and ends itabruptly with Clean pounding on the door demanding his turn. A corpse tumblesto the floor, revealing for the first time to the audience (and possibly tothe soldiers) that they've had their fun in a morgue.
Murch's intercutting brings home the point that exploitative sex fantasiestrap men and women alike. Chef has to pose his bird-loving bunny like acenterfold before he can have sex with her; Lance's gal, the Playmate of theYear, bemoans her alienation at having to pretend to be a sex goddess. But thescene also contributes to a more subtle heightening of the movie as a whole:Clean doesn't get his time with a woman. Later, when the patrol boat happenson that fated sampan, and a woman skitters to the rear while Chef is searchingit, Clean is the one who starts shooting.
"The guy that pulls the trigger on the sampan is the jumpiest and mosteasily frustrated," said Murch, "and now we know why."
The sampan scene demonstrates the across-the-board collaborations thatCoppola encouraged in that era, when he consistently enlisted strong-mindedco-creators like Murch. Despite Hall's recollection that the scene wasimprovised, Murch actually suggested the idea behind it, as well as itsgeneral structure.
"It was in July of '76," Murch recalls, "after the typhoon. Francis ... hadcome back to the States and was working on the script. He asked me to help himout. What struck me that was that the patrol boat seemed to sail up the riverat its pleasure; it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do -- patrolling --and the men weren't interacting with the Vietnamese. I thought they shouldstop a sampan and have something bad happen as a result -- something like themassacre at My Lai."
In a way, Hall was right: The actors were the ones who whipped up thehysteria of that scene, climaxing when Chef discovers that the sampan's hiddencargo is a puppy -- a twist that caused the appalled film critic Pauline Kaelto grumble, "Oh no, Francis, not a puppy!" Murch doesn't think the puppy wasin his draft, but he has a theory about why that scene pulls most audiencesinto the movie.
"People being killed in a film can elicit a certain emotion," said Murch,"but when that puppy is grabbed and used in a tug-of -war between Chef andLance, people go 'Augggh!' It's not too tough on the puppy, but people can'tstand to see it, because they know that the puppy didn't agree to be in thefilm." A bedrock innocence from outside the picture intrudes on it, clinchingviewer involvement.
Murch's instinct for spotting the narrative crux of an issue and weaving itinto a fabric with poetic images and sound made him invaluable for thispicture's final editing-room rewrite. In Coppola's initial vision, as thepatrol boat went upriver, it also went back in time, slamming into the 19thcentury when it entered the French rubber plantation. The sequence wasoutlandish in concept, convincing in execution; according to Clement, Coppolaeven insisted on having the ideal wine (Chateau Latour) for dinner.
The challenge Murch faced was fitting this sequence between beginning andend points that were too dead-on realistic. Since the plantation comes onscreen after the chaos at the Do Lung Bridge, viewers inevitably asked, "Wheredid the French get their supplies? How did they communicate with the rest ofthe world?" Sifting through unedited celluloid, Murch found footage of theFrench emerging and disappearing in deep mist. He also located gorgeous shotsof Clement's character Roxanne closing the mosquito netting around the Frenchfour-poster bed she shares with Willard, and meshed them with a portrait ofWillard "materializing out of the fog, in a thoughtful pose, pondering whathappened or what he dreamed." Murch was able to create an interlude thatexists in a dynamic limbo.
Murch adopted the principle that no change should simply add a newdimension to the film -- it must also perform honest narrative labor. A newscene at Kurtz's compound, in which Kurtz reads U.S. reportage about the warto the imprisoned Willard, provides context about Americans' politicalillusions and also brings a phase of Willard's stay in Kurtz's empire to anend. Kurtz feels he has caught Willard in his psychological and intellectualweb -- physical confinement is no longer necessary.
"That scene brings up another thing that's changed in the film," Murchsaid. "In 1979, our impression was that Brando was very fat because we hadanother Brando in mind; now that we have seen him being so much fatter, heseems fine."
Brando is an example of Murch's belief that "in a weird way, the filmchanges whether or not we alter a single frame. It's because of the marriagebetween the culture and the images and sounds. When we scored Kilgore's aircavalry charge to "The Ride of the Valkyries," we were being derivative,because Griffith had used it over half a century before. Now people havederived other uses of it from us. And now 'everybody' knows 'I love the smellof napalm in the morning,' and they come waiting for that line."
PART III -- Why 'Apocalypse' This Time
In 1994, Tim Roth acted in a more traditional adaptation of Coppola'ssource novel, called, like the book, Heart of Darkness. He was so great asMarlow that when I interviewed him for Planet of the Apes, I thought he mightcriticize Coppola's transformation of his gentle, intelligent observer intothe assassin Willard. Instead, he said, "Apocalypse Now is an extraordinarypiece of work. I wish I'd been around to be any part of that. All theperformers in it were peaking at just the right time. I'm sure it was a toughshoot, but that being said and done they can all look back and be proud of it.Especially because it doesn't date."
Peter Cowie agrees. He's just written The "Apocalypse Now" Book, anunprecedented and illuminating behind-the-scenes exploration of the movie withmaterial culled from Coppola's private archives. Author of a biography ofCoppola and a study of the Godfather movies, Cowie decided that a book onApocalypse was worth doing because Eleanor Coppola's amazingly revealing bookNotes and the documentary Hearts of Darkness concentrated on the productionphase. Cowie reasoned he could bookend that story with the genesis of the filmand its post-production.
As a result of his complete access and Coppola's total comfort with him,Cowie succeeded splendidly, coming up with the kind of detailed record of'70s-style guerrilla moviemaking that got lost in the sensationalistic blur ofPeter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Cowie doesn't ignore Coppola'saffairs and family strains and quasi-breakdowns, but never scants hisprodigious physical and intellectual labor.
"At the time, The Deer Hunter could have seemed more imposing," Cowie saidon the phone from London. "But it has dated badly. Apocalypse Now, because itdid not focus on the Vietnam War per se, has not dated at all. Kids like thefilm for the way it pushes the envelope of cinema. I think of it like TheRight Stuff: The material itself may grow old but the way it's done is soexhilarating that people will respond to it continuously."
Of Coppola's urge to reassemble his film, Cowie said: "Nagging away at theback of Francis' mind was the feeling that critics had rejected the filmbecause it was inchoate -- because they thought, in the final analysis, thatit didn't make sense. Oh, they'd say, there are great scenes with Kilgore andthe helicopter attack in the first third or two-thirds of the film, but whenBrando comes on screen and starts rambling the whole picture coagulates. Theaim in this new version was not to put in spectacular new sequences but torestore an overall balance.
"When the new version screened at Cannes this year, no matter what peoplethought of the film, everyone agreed it made more sense. And it was taken as astrong pacifist statement. Now there's no doubt at the end that Kurtz is afigure of the damned and that Willard is our hope: he refuses to call in anair strike on Kurtz's compound and goes back to lead Lance to a better life."
One of the few people outside Coppola's Zoetrope company to see the movie's5 1/2 -hour rough cut as well as its current one, Cowie said: "The only thingI missed was more with Brando. There were some particularly good Brando scenesin which he talks in French with some of the Montagnards and makes thesechillingly offhand, almost Nazi-like comments as to how he runs his fiefdom."
Cowie also reported that no matter how much improvisation occurred onlocation, "Nearly all the essential ingredients were there at an early stage."For him, two factors turned the creation of the film into a crucible.
First, "It's the only epic made entirely on location -- there were noscenes shot in a studio." And second, "Most great epics have had strongproducers, whether Sam Spiegel [for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwaiand Lawrence of Arabia] or Sam Bronston [for Anthony Mann's El Cid and TheFall of the Roman Empire]. The co-producers on Apocalypse Now were Francis'employees, part of his loyal caravan of pilgrims. At a certain point theycouldn't pound the table."
Yet in the end, Cowie said, "Apocalypse Now has become extremelyprofitable: It continues to sell well on video and TV, and Francis controlsit, which is an extraordinary asset."
To Cowie, it exerts an irresistible cinematic allure: "Watching ApocalypseNow always brings me back to the time when I was a young critic and it wassuch fun to see what Fellini and Satyajit Ray were doing, or how Antonioniwould glide his camera slowly around an outcropping of rock. Its images arecompelling because it depicts war visually in a way that had never been done."
To Murch, the film's style is inextricable from the content. I asked himwhether he thinks the movie depicts the inadequacies of American culture, withits combination of potent technology and simplistic ideology.
"Inadequacies is a good word," he said, "given what we were trying to do inthe place we were trying to do it. 'Let's bomb them back into the Stone Age'-- that slogan was an expression of our culture in the '60s. And we learnedwhy that slogan doesn't work. You can't 'bomb them back into the Stone Age'because 'they' can absorb the punch and you are enervated as a society bydelivering that punch."
Murch said these arguments go back to Heart of Darkness: "After all, Conradbegins his novel with a group of friends on a boat in the Thames estuary.There, outside London, the apex of civilization, one of the men wonders whatit must have been like to be a Roman legionnaire at that spot 2,200 years ago,getting ready to go upriver into a land where he knows savagery will close allaround him ... and the savages are the ancestors of these friends. I know theword 'savage' has all sorts of connotations now, the ways 'God' does.
"But there is a pure meaning at the center of it. I think what Conrad isgetting at, and what the film is also getting at, is that the white man whogoes back to savagery is more savage than a savage. Savages aren't brutal,terrible people; they are people in a culture at a certain stage ofdevelopment. The problem comes when somebody who has all the cultural muscleand sophistication that Kurtz has starts harnessing boldly colored passionsand not exercising restraint. That's when you get into trouble."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun