Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Rating: B-

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall

I’m yawning just thinking about this movie. Because if ever a movie felt like it was attempting to replicate the feeling of slogging through a South-East Asian jungle, this extended version of Apocalypse Now would be it. I seem to remember the original film always felt like it was quite long-winded, Captain Benjamin Willard (Sheen) meandering his way upstream from Vietnam into Cambodia, in order to assassinate rogue Colonel Walter Kurtz (Brando). For Kurtz has gone a bit mad. Or perhaps regained his sanity. Either way, the Colonel is no longer obeying orders, and the previous soldier sent in to address the situation never came back. If Willard doesn’t, then an air-strike will do the trick, though I wonder why the military didn’t go the air-strike route to begin with. They’re clearly fond of them.

There’s your basic plot, and that’s part of the problem – because as plots go, it is indeed basic. It should perhaps be considered a road movie, with the road replaced by a river, and the car by a boat full of GIs with itchy trigger-fingers, none but Willard knowing where they are going. It’s more about the friends they make along the way. These range from enthusiastic Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall), who delivers the film’s best-known line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” to a trio of Playboy models, flown in for a morale-boosting appearance which goes wrong. Then there’s Kurtz, burbling not much more than nonsense, in his territory deep in the jungle, to a kingdom of inexplicably enthralled natives.

Even in the theatrical cut, running 147 minutes, there are spells where this feels more a chore than a pleasure. Certainly, some sequences entirely deserve the high praise they have received. I’d like to have seen a whole movie about the fascinating Kilgore, and the scale of the spectacle is undeniable. It helps having an enthusiastic military at your command, and a country like the Philippines, willing to let you blow up miles of jungle for your movie. This is when I feel the film is at its most memorable, capturing the insanity of war in general, and particularly the American execution of the conflict in Vietnam. Once it becomes Willard and his men going up-stream though, it becomes a lot weaker for me. The Captain isn’t a sufficiently compelling character to hold my attention, and it all feels very reactive.

You can contrast this to Aguirre, Wrath of God, which Coppola has acknowledged was an influence, and certainly has some overlap in themes. It runs barely half as long as the regular cut of Apocalypse Now, and perhaps as a result, packs a considerably greater wallop. Kinski slowly going insane is far more engrossing a spectacle than Sheen, and it’s more plausible as well. Willard has done this kind of assassination on multiple occasions before (admittedly not of Americans), so it’s hard to see why he falls apart on this occasion. The Redux cut adds a whopping 49 minutes, and I feel it makes the problems worse. The interminable sequence on a dilapidated French plantation is particularly bad, and Coppola was entirely right in cutting it out initially.

I might argue the saga of how this was made is more interesting than the end product. It was listening to the DVD commentary on YouTube which got me interested in seeing the whole movie, and makes for an enthralling saga of narrowly avoided disasters. Coppola was largely spending his own money, with basically no oversight, and no real idea of how he was going to end his film. It’s remarkable the end product reached mere coherence, though given a million feet of film were shot during the production, any editor worth their salt should be able to assemble something competent. But I’d call it an all-time classic of a 90-minute movie, unfortunately with a 202-minute running time, and certainly inferior to Aguirre.