Art as Process: Apocalypse Now Redux

Forgive the ponderous title. As a veteran reviewer, I do recognize the limits of my role. Ordinarily, I would try to find a mildly entertaining way to remind readers that Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now received a warm if not enthusiastic welcome when it first appeared in 1979. I would conclude by suggesting that the new version is well worth a look. As one who tries to keep up on the critical literature, I would point out that its reputation has grown in stature over the years, and that despite some obvious messiness in places, it is now regarded as an American classic. However, as one who dons September tweeds and boldly marches into the classroom to teach history and criticism, I can’t be content with those modest yet worthy objectives. Bear with me.

Apocalypse Now Redux, the recently released version of the original Vietnam epic, raises so many esthetic, historical and even moral questions that a routine review strikes me as terribly inadequate. The issues become urgent when we try to cope with the possibility that film as an art form is a cultural monument of the 20th century that may well vanish in the first decade of the 21st under the onslaught of new technologies. In addition, postmodern audiences of Web surfers and television-remote jockeys have grown less willing and less able to follow a traditional, cohesive narrative line through two hours to some sort of conclusion. Extraordinary computer-generated special effects have delayed the evaporation of the market for a time, but what happens when these technologies become available to home computers and entertainment centers?


We have to face the imminent prospect that film will cease to be an on-going reflection of contemporary culture, as it has been for the last 100 years, and will increasingly become a window into the past, a vast visual archive of objects that reflect the kinds of concerns and social patterns that made us the types of people we are today, like a Victorian novel. Even now, as film begins to lose its mass appeal, it sits poised on the edge of the academic community, ready to take its place next to Greek tragedy or Renaissance painting, a lovely point of entry into the mysteries of the human spirit, but no longer a living medium.

Now what happens when we tamper with that archive? Or, to approach the question from another direction, when is a work of art finished? Is art always in process, open to the whims of noble revisionists and less noble hucksters out to make a buck, euro or yen? A few distinctions occur immediately.

Performance artsdrama, music and dance, for exampleexist in a continuing state of flux. Each new presentation of the work showcases the personal touch of the artists who mediate the text to an audience. At times, innovation not only reinterprets but even reshapes the original text itself, as for example an adaptation of a Bach organ fugue for full orchestra or a Jane Austen novel into a film. In 1818 Thomas Bowdler edited the naughty bits out of Shakespeare, much to the amusement of contemporary critics. The work was well-intentioned but foolish.

Even stable works of art suffer the whims of fashion. Technicians cleaned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, even though purists worried that the restoration would create a work of art different from the one that had evolved through centuries of soot and candle wax. Which is the more authentic artifact? For every designer who wants to restore a building to its original concept, another wants to change something to make it blend in more with its environment or to serve new purposes.

More than any other art form, film has always been subject to relentless text-tampering. Studios alter the product for the overseas market. Think of the export version of Pearl Harbor, reedited to avoid offending the Japanese, and of the director’s cuts of countless films released solely to generate video sales. Routinely prints issued for theater distribution are blanded down to G-ratings for showing by airlines and network television.

The temptation to tamper is irresistible because it is so easy. Film consists of a series of individual shots and scenes, like a deck of cards that can be shuffled and rearranged, with inclusions and discards at the whim of the re-editor. Dialogue can be dubbed in or dropped. Who should have the final say? Should there even be a final say? In the last 30 years or so, critics have been eager to give directors rights to final cut, but should they have any more say than the authors of the script or the producers who paid for it? This question has kept generations of Hollywood lawyers in Malibu beach houses. If Bowdler cleaned up Shakespeare for his proper audiences, why can’t someone re-edit D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), to remove the racial propaganda that contemporary audiences find repulsive? In that case, would it still be Griffith’s movie?

Francis Coppola’s motives for re-editing Apocalypse Now are his to examine and evaluate, but the end result is the public’s. Apocalypse Now Redux is not a disaster so much as a disappointment. The brilliant sound track of Walter Murch and the spectacular photography of Vittorio Stotaro still provide a thrilling experience, but including 53 minutes of material cut from the original release print pushes the running time to 197 minutes. If anything, the needlessly added tonnage weakens the impact of the whole.

The success of Apocalypse Now demanded a particularly ruthless selectivity, exercised by someone, somewhere. The author of the original script, John Milius of Dirty Harry fame, was an outspoken hawk on the Vietnam war, and he envisioned an action-adventure story of heroic soldiers in action. After sitting on the script for 10 years, Coppola returned to the project but tried to push it closer to its original source material, Joseph Conrad’s novel of 1898, Heart of Darkness. For him, the film would be a meditation on evil and personal redemption. The Milius script and the Coppola concept did not quite match, and Coppola fell into an artistic paralysis trying to resolve the differences. Unable to decide which movie to make, he tried to shoot both of them. After he had gone wildly over budget and fallen behind schedule, wiser heads insisted that he rake through the miles of film he had already exposed and have something commercially viable to show at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979. Coppola had no choice but to make some very painful decisions and leave out some great material.

Redux puts it back in. It includes several scenes that make sense in the written Milius script but were never entirely completed on film. The longest of these consists of an interlude at a French plantation. At dinner the owner fulminates about American policy in Indo-China before and during the war. Milius contrasts French resolve with American weakness, not a popular theme in 1979, when the embers of defeat still smoldered in the American consciousness. Including a 1970’s political commentary in 2001 simply compromises the mythical import of the story. Younger audiences will just be puzzled by this verbose distraction.

During his stay at the plantation, the hero, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), smokes opium and has a meaningless sexual liaison with the beautiful widow Roxanne (Aurore Clement). In the rough-and-tumble Milius script, the encounter is part of an elaborate quasi-comic seduction and counter-seduction, as the lovers scheme to steal supplies from each other. The expository scenes were never shot, however, and the unmotivated episode that appears in Redux provides only a mindless intrusion into the story. The romantic interlude does nothing more than emphasize Willard’s loneliness, a fact that is manifestly clear after more than two hours of voice-over monologue in an open boat in the middle of the Asian jungle.

During his travels, Willard boosts the morale of his crew by obtaining the sexual favors of two Playboy bunnies, performers in a U.S.O. show, in exchange for fuel. In the Milius script it is a frolic of macho warriors, but Coppola shot the sequence in claustrophobic, squalid settings that emphasize the degradation that war has imposed upon everyone involved in it. The scene was wisely dropped from the release print, since the point of degradation had already been amply established by their suggestive dance and the frenzied reaction of the spectators.

Milius was dealing with humanized characters as they might appear through comic-book filters. Coppola and Conrad were dealing with heroic, mythic figures struggling through a cosmic agon with evil in the universe. If the sex scenes trivialize Willard’s quest for redemption, the appearance of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) reading excerpts from Time magazine reduces the character to banality. He is not a lunatic, nor is he a sane human being who has embraced evil; he is evil itself. Olympians do not mumble old news items from Time standing motionless in medium shot.

Apocalypse Now Redux should never have been put into commercial release. Film scholars justifiably celebrate the availability of these outtakes, but they should have been distributed in a critics edition on videotape and DVD, where the original masterpiece could appear intact, with the additions tucked into a clearly labeled supplement.

Many contemporary reviewers, most of whom learned their trade when the cult of the director was at its height, have raved about Redux. I disagree. They do a disservice to the film, to Coppola and to cinema as an art form and as a cultural record.

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