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'Apocalypse Now Redux'

'Redux' is a timeless trip into the heart of darkness

Friday, September 14, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The horrendous irony: At 10 a.m. Tuesday, precisely as Pittsburgh film critics assembled to screen "Apocalypse Now Redux," the World Trade Center towers were crashing down in a real apocalypse -- now.

 
    'APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX'

RATING: R for violence, language and some nudity

STARRING: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford

DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola

CRITIC'S CALL:

 
 

It would be nearly 3 1/2 hours before we could quit the former and return to the latter nightmare. It will be years before history makes sense of either apocalypse. But the dark heart of madness connects them and makes Francis Ford Coppola's monumental Vietnam epic more urgently powerful than ever.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979), co-written by Coppola and John Milius, is a loose resetting of Joseph Conrad's novella, "Heart of Darkness," in Southeast Asia. Special Agent Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent far upriver through Vietnam into Cambodia with orders to find and kill renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) -- a brilliant but insanely out-of-control officer who has become god-like lord of a Montagnard military cult in the jungle. Kurtz has illegally executed a number of South Vietnamese officers he deemed spies -- though "charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500."

Willard's on-site introduction to the assassination gambit comes from the only slightly less insane Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a wild man who wears a Custer-style cavalry hat and plays "Ride of the Valkyries" as he destroys hamlets and struts through the carnage ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning!").

Willard gets his boat and four-man crew, wonderfully played by Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall and Laurence Fishburne. They -- and we -- are occupied for the duration with the harrowing, surreal plunge of their boat and the movie, deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.

Twenty-two years ago in 1979, with horrendous cost overruns (the original $16 million budget swollen to $32 million) and huge studio pressure to make it a "normal" war film, Coppola edited it down to two hours 32 minutes. This new version -- at three hours 16 minutes -- involved not just restoring the cuts but re-editing the entire film from its 1.25 million feet of original dailies.

Most significant of the 49 never-before-seen minutes: (1) the French plantation sequence -- Willard's seduction and explication of the 150-year French folly preceding the 15-year American one; (2) the expanded Playboy bunnies sequence -- after a USO show gone haywire, the girls are not just choppered away to safety but suffer a grim followup in which their bodies are bartered for fuel; (3) a new Brando scene -- his reading of Time magazine clips on Nixon's new "intelligence analyst" report on the war, clarifying how the American public was lied to and providing a crucial rationale for Kurtz's chaotic behavior.

These additional scenes enhance the continuity and shore up the logic of the narrative's 2 1/2-hour delay in giving us our first glimpse of Brando. The new scenes do not, on the other hand, make Dennis Hopper's over-the-top journalist character any more logical ("Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in 'life'?") or explain why Col. Kurtz or anybody else would tolerate his obnoxious presence for more than five minutes.

Sheen's superb performance will forever hold its place in film history -- the paradoxical personification of guilt and innocence. Equally superb is the riveting cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (Oscar winner for this as well as "Reds" and "The Last Emperor").

But most superb is the direction of Coppola, an astonishingly talented artist who gave us the script of "Patton," the "Godfather" trilogy, "The Conversation" -- and this "Apocalypse," inspired by Conrad's statement, "I hate the stench of a lie." It is less an "anti-war" than an "anti-lie" film, he says -- "that a culture can lie about what's really going on in warfare -- people brutalized, tortured, maimed and killed -- and somehow present it as moral."

I remembered this picture as horrific and, being a wimp, dreaded seeing it again. Saturated by the disgusting film gore of the intervening 20 years, I'd forgotten this was not an example of that: There is blood and violence, but no wallowing in it for shock value -- and no "special effects." There is far more (and more terrifying) fear and anticipation of violence than violence itself. So many hearts of darkness full of so much evil, so much murder justified by a "higher" cause: Andrew Jackson's 100,000 Native Americans, Booth's Lincoln, Hitler's 6 million Jews, Stalin's countless Slavs, America's Hiroshima civilians, Sirhan's Bobby, Lt. Calley's My Lai peasants, LBJ-Nixon-Kissinger's Asian commies (begetting Pol Pot's 2 million Cambodians), Milosevic's Croats and Kosovars, the Orthodox Jew who killed Rabin, Bush and Thatcher's Iraqi civilians -- and somebody's untold victims in the World Trade towers.

From Brutus to Baumhammers to Bin Laden, "Apocalypse" -- then and now -- asks which murders your politics or religion approve? Billy Graham blesses our troops, an ayatollah blesses theirs. Which victims deserve their deaths: Huey Long or JFK? Viet Cong or Green Berets? My son or your daughter? One is as sensible and senseless as another.

God and humanity weep at what armed madmen do in the name of God and humanity.

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