Coppola gives ‘Apocalypse Now’ new life

Matt Donnelly

Worthy of much more than an updated DVD, “Apocalypse Now Redux” breathes fresh air into the original and puts the epic 1979 Vietnam war story back on the big screen for a new audience.

And now that Francis Ford Coppola has re-edited “Apocalypse Now” to include almost 50 minutes of deleted scenes, the question is whether all those members carrying a copy of the original will be able to trade in the old model for the new.

Probably not. The demand would be too great.

Coppola is just the latest of his generation to revamp and re-release one of his more personal films: William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” came out last summer with a new ending, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” contained multiple deleted scenes on DVD, and George Lucas had a few more seconds of “Star Wars” he thought the world should see. Even Coppola has tinkered with “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” on a few occasions.

But of these movies, none benefits from new footage or the big screen more than “Apocalypse Now.” From the first shot, Coppola gives the audience imagery so intense that the movie becomes surreal, such as Col. Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) helicopter raid to the sounds of Wagner or Col. Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) jungle asylum.

Ten years from now, viewers will return to “Apocalypse Now Redux” rather than its predecessor. Unlike other recent retakes on older movies (“Planet of the Apes,” “Psycho”), “Redux” says something new about the material and even outdoes the storytelling of the original.

“Apocalypse Now” tells the story of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), who is sent into the Cambodia during the Vietnam war to find the renegade Col. Kurtz and his army of natives. Willard’s famous orders are to terminate Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice.” “Redux” tells the same story, but with more emphasis on Willard’s character and his voyage through Vietnam to find Kurtz.

Some of the added scenes introduce new characters, while others draw out existing scenes to give the story more depth. Most of the scenes work to lighten the mood of the movie, making it more contemplative. In one scene, the company finds the Playmates from the USO show stranded down river. In another, the company spends an evening on a guarded French plantation.

New scenes also make the film more specific to a time and place. Fans who enjoyed “Apocalypse Now” for its attempts at a timeless message might feel let down by a few conversations that deal directly with America’s role in Vietnam and its interpretation by the rest of the world. However, these new scenes let some of the hot air out of Coppola’s more heavy-handed symbolism and make the situations more human – and the message more specific. A scene where Willard receives a lecture from the owners of a French plantation about the history of engagements in Vietnam is one of the more powerful tracts against the war ever filmed.

Coppola and his crew went colossally over their budget for money and time while making the original, sending Coppola himself to near madness. The film’s release at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme D’Or, is cited often as one of the great moments in the festival’s history. Coppola brought the movie back to Cannes this year as a kick-off for the re-release. Though it didn’t win Coppola any more awards, many critics at the festival heralded it among better films shown – for a second time.

“Apocalypse Now Redux” might be the most exciting movie of the summer as well. It’s interesting to note how just 49 minutes of quality footage can outperform 100 minutes of the worst summer drek.