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On Second Thought: Apocalypse Now (Redux)

I wrote in my review of the original version of the movie that the two-and-a-half-hour cut captured a great deal of the insanity that seems to have been a defining characteristic of the Vietnam War, with the movie feeling like a crazed surrealist trip into madness, a collection of abstract meditations on the American condition that felt compressed at over two hours. If that is the case, Apocalypse Now Redux captures another aspect of the conflict. It’s now less insane, but the instability and absurdity appear more systemic and endemic. It’s bloated, terrifying, harrowing and seemingly eternal.

Much like the war itself.

Back into the Heart of Darkness...

I don’t necessarily intend that to sound like a scathing criticism, but the biggest single difference to the film in the two cuts is the length. The original moves relatively quickly, even at a runtime that might seem excessive for another film. This particular cut of the movie adds an hour on to the runtime. Over three hours is quite a long amount of time to sit through something, even something brilliant and powerful and masterfully constructed. Even operas have intermissions, and perhaps this print of the film should come with one built in. You definitely notice the time as you watch it.

Not necessarily in a manner of complaint, because the film is always interesting and engaging, but just because that’s the way our bodies work. The movie feels long in a way that it didn’t before, which I think makes it another accurate reflection on a conflict that lasted far longer than intended when Kennedy originally dispatched “advisors” to the South Vietnamese government. The war is a horrible, terrifying place, one filled with agony and despair, and I think that two-and-a-half hours perhaps represented some sort of threshold. After that point, it just seems to become too much. Which is undoubtedly the deserved effect (we’re meant to shocked and exhausted by the sheer act of watching the crew of the riverboat slowly unravel before our eyes), but it doesn’t make for an easy watch.

Do the additions open up the movie's key themes?

There are a few big changes to the movie, and a significant number of smaller changes that one might not even notice. I honestly appreciate both, and I think that you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of these actually detract from the film, but I think they serve different purposes. The smaller additions actually do a great job of elaborating on Williard’s character as he heads upstream to meet Kurtz.

We get some nice character-building moments as Williard gradually wins the crew over, a dynamic which seemed to move strangely along in the original cut. Here we see how people like Chef and Lance might come to respect this “spook” who has effectively signed them up for certain death. It’s moments like stealing Kilgore’s surfboard (“it was a good board and I liked it”) or arranging some rather shady R&R that help Williard seem just a bit more human than he does in the original version of the film.

Surf's up!

To offset that, we also get some more insight into Williard’s strange connection with Kurtz. The scenes of Williard examining his target’s records on the journey up-river seem to be shuffled around, edited differently and even slightly extended, so that we’re more keenly focused on Williard than the boat around him. We also get some more elaboration of Kurtz’s philosophy on the war, as narrated from his own notes:

[Read aloud] As long as our officers and troops perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilettantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence.

[In the document, but not read aloud] The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy… The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war…

[Read aloud] We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…

These thoughts elaborate both on the early meditations Williard had about the US soldiers and their North Vietnamese counterparts, and on Kurtz’s proposed “hallow men” later on. “Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker,” Williard suggests in his opening narration from a Saigon hotel room, “and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger.”Coppola’s original cut suggested that the American soldiers weren’t able to devote themselves fully to the war because of their very human urges, and tht’s expanded upon here.

Play it again, Kilgore...

We still see Kurtz risk his men to go surfing with Lance. We still see a USO show devolve into mindless violence. This time we also get to see those performers later on. The key theme seems to be that the American soldiers are too human to do the things that need to be done, and one can see it play out a bit more in this cut, with Kilgore more concerned about how the napalm ruined the surf than the loss of his men.

The largest single addition to the script, and the one that perhaps adds the largest amount of thematic material, is the sequence set amid one of the remaining colonial French garrisons. It actually feels right at home in the heart of the movie, with the pleasant dinner in cultured surroundings seem even more strange and startling coming after we’ve witnessed the collapse of two separate US military outposts. It’s as if Williard and his men are venturing further back to primal Vietnam.

Up the river...

It’s a section which tries to contextualise the American conflict in the greater scheme of history. Here, Williard meets a bunch of French settlers reflecting on the collapse of France as a colonial power. “You don’t understand our mentality,” the host insists to the American soldier, as he lists off a series of embarrassing defeats for France on the international front. He bemoans the fact that French soldiers can’t even go home as heroes, a boldly prophetic statement about how many Vietnam War veterans would be treated by the anti-war movement. “Why can’t you Americans learn from our mistakes?” he begs his guest.

It also offers another suggestion for why the Americans could not win the war. A female at the estate remarks of Williard, “You are tired of the war.” It’s a nice little observation that ties into points Williard himself made earlier: many of the serving soldiers (understandably) just want to go home. In fact, attempts to make them feel at home make them feel even more longing for their actual homes. Reflecting on a victory by Kilgore’s troops, Williard observed, “They choppered in T-bones and beer and turned the LZ into a beach party. The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” Perhaps the Vietnamese just wanted to win more. They “only had two ways home: death, or victory.”

Get to the choppa!

The additions enhance the scope of the film, but I’m not convinced enough to declare that they improve it. For example, it seems like quite a lot of the material that has been inserted is already covered elsewhere, at least thematically. It seems strange, for example, to have Williard and his crew stumble across two bases, one after another, without a clear command structure in place. I’m sure Vietnam was like that, I’m not pretending it seems unrealistic or impossible, it just seems like it’s covering the same ground.

Consider the dialogue on landing at one base:

“Where’s the C.O.?”

“He stepped on a mine about two months ago.”

“Who’s in charge here?”

Compared to Williard’s observation at the next base:

“There’s no f**king C.O. here.”

Williard is treated to some local Kurtz-y...

That said, the new scenes do allow for a nice juxtaposition with the Playboy models and the soldiers. “Some of the things they made me do,” one playmate suggests, “I didn’t want to do.” She claims, “They said it was expected of me.” I wonder how many soldiers might have felt the same way in the middle of that particular quagmire. As I said, there are nice additions, and even those that exist purely to reiterate a point already made in the original cut are interesting of themselves, but I’m not convinced that they make the film better overall (when measured against the time they add).

The director’s cut is a great film. It is. It’s just as compelling and powerful as it was the first time. It’s probably even moreso, because there’s more material there to devour and think about. It does feel epic. However, it also feels somehow tougher to get through, it feels like the runtime weakens my interest and prevents me from fully engaging. So you gain some depth, but you lose some of the tighter pacing and the stress it puts on the audience’s attention span. It’s a trade-off – not necessarily a simple one.

I would recommend the cut, but probably not as your first view of the film. I’d honestly watch the original cut, and see if that is of interest. If it is, then perhaps the director’s cut will only enrich the viewing experience.

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6 Responses

  1. I made the mistake of watching Redux first. I have to say that it made the original cut more disturbing because there is no hideaway at the French settlement. Just war.

    • I don’t know. I think the trip to the French settlement works much better thematically, as the group leave US controlled zones. The trip up river becomes not just a literal journey into madness (with the toy arrows and Kurtz’s cult), but (in Redux) a trip into history itself. In Vietnam, it seems, time becomes sort of “bendable” and distorted, like, I suppose, perception and conscience do.

      But I do agree the film is perhaps too long. It’s needs an intermission, but I’m trying to figure out where it would go. In Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut, I had my intermission at the point Rorschach went to prison. In Lord of Rings (Extended) flipping the DVD handily provides you with one. Whereas here, I’m hard-pressed to think of one. After they leave US territory seems perhaps a little too much towards the end, but it’s the best I could figure.

  2. Great Article Darren-

    I am glad that most people don’t get Redux-

    It is obviously more than just “longer” the french plantation scene is vital to the story FFC wanted to tell-

    i’ll re-read this later and maybe comment again-

    I just found your blog, so far so good, i am getting so sick with other sites, slashfilm and aicn have turned into fanboy wasteland- keep up the great work.

    • Thanks James, that’s a lot of pressure and I honestly hope I don’t let you down. I will warn you, I can geek with the best of them, but I try not to let that intrude… too much.

      And I’m always nervous to discuss a classic like this, you know? It’s just so big and vast and just… easy to get lost in. Like Vietnam itself, which is a place where sanity itself is hard to keep ahold of as it slips through various absurdist trips.

  3. My issue with REDUX is that it makes the second act more lucid. In the original cut, as they travel further and further up the river, the movie more and more begins to resemble a nightmare. Shoehorning in those comparitively straightforward scenes (The French Plantation, Kurtz reading the Time Magazine articles) makes the film less surreal. They’re all good scenes individually, but I don’t feel like they fit the rest of the film.

    Great analysis as always Darren

    • Thanks Tom! I think you have a valid point. I think a lot of the chaos is lost. Although I think the French plantation scene is still quite surreal (with the accordian!), but just not as much as the stuff around it.

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