apocalypse now final cut

As a kid, I was obsessed with helicopters. There was no real reason why, save for the fact that they seemed more magical than planes. Helicopters seem so implausible, like they shouldn’t work, some sort of mechanical beast that defied nature’s rules. The fundamentally feel out of context when you see them in the sky, and with the smallest interference to their aerodynamic components, catastrophe strikes. I liked shows like Airwolf about a fancy flying machine, or even the forgotten Clint Eastwood film Firefox, and on M.A.S.H. you’d see them every week with their giant, dragonfly glass bubbles flying over the canyons of California meant to evoke the Korean conflict.

There is no war more associated with the helicopter than Vietnam, and no better metaphor for America’s involvement than the technical might of the whirlybird that embodies all the achievements and progress and horrors of “modern” civilization, a fragile dominance that rests on thin, spinning blades. Similarly, there’s no better cinematic representation of these birds than Apocalypse Now, a film that barely stays in flight, whipping and spinning around, yet managing, implausibly, to be one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time.

I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one

Director Francis Ford Coppola famously argued that his troubled production wasn’t a movie; it wasn’t something about Vietnam, it was the war, with all its excesses and idiocies and triumphs and catastrophes. He fired his star Harvey Keitel after a few days of shooting (Steve McQueen and Al Pacino had turned down the role prior to production), replacing him with Martin Sheen, who would eventually have a heart attack midway through the filming. The film’s shooting schedule doubled in scope, and the director had to balance his days with the needs of a tyrannical Philippine leader’s ongoing conflict with communist guerillas.

All of this is told in Hearts of Darkness, the treasure of non-fiction filmmaking that’s just as rightfully celebrated as the film it documents. Part of the joy of that doc was seeing some of the sequences that the 1979 cut excised, including an extended section that takes place at a French Plantation past the Do Long Bridge. There a turbulent family resists all changes to their lifestyle despite their inevitable downfall. We first got a taste there that there was even more of this story of madness and mayhem, not simply deleted scenes but entire Odyssean journeys yet to be seen along the trip up river.

In 2001, Coppola, along with longtime collaborator Walter Murch, revisited these sequences and added 49 minutes to the original running time, resulting in an almost three and a half hour long epic that played for a brief time theatrically. Regardless of whether you responded or not to the additions, it was an opportunity to see a cleaned up version of the film in a proper theatrical context, complete with the pioneering quintaphonic soundtrack where the sounds of the helicopters circle the theatre as The Doors’ somber song “The End” begins the adventure.

18 years after that Redux, and 40 years to the day after the film’s original theatrical premiere (following its “work in progress” screening at Cannes the previous May) we are treated to IMAX presentations of what’s promised to be the “Final Cut” of this extraordinary work.

apocalypse now final cut trailer

It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions.

There never really was a definitive original cut of the 1979 film. The 70mm roadshow version eschewed credits (you were handed a printed document with the info), the Cannes cut was tweaked after the fact, and the 35mm theatrical version incorporated the explosions of the Kurtz compound that were shot but never intended to be seen, mostly a way for production to demolish their standing set. Yet what we broadly think of as the original cut remains the most effective telling of the story, with the right amount of excess and precision that makes its 153 minutes practically fly by. Everything else added has been bonus, and while for fans of the film these are welcome asides and expansions, for first time viewers the original version is ideally the journey to first take.

Revisionism on this magnitude isn’t new – there’s talk of Stanley Kubrick going into booths to snip release prints of segments he didn’t like from his films – but the cynical may think this is mere repackaging of something that already had its kick at the can. Lawrence of Arabia’s restoration cut, for example, is definitive, with scenes that had to be dubbed by surviving actors decades after providing positive context to the film. These were elements excised not because of artistic but due to commercial or political constraints, and their inclusion makes the film more whole. Blade Runner is more complicated, where the various iterations dramatically rethink the entire ending of the film. As for Star Wars revisionism, well, that’s another debate for another time, yet one should remember that it was Lucas that was originally going to shoot Apocalypse, and he took many of its themes an incorporated them into his space opera where a larger mechanical force is obliterated by what at first is considered a more “primitive” foe. 

There was nothing absent with Apocalypse, nothing lacking in its rumination on the fragility of morality and the madness of war. Nor was there much bloated in the original cut, things that should be excised to make the pace work a bit better. The original cut is a near-perfect film, one that should be treasured forever, celebrated for all its gory excess and made available, whatever amendments are made for additional cuts. There’s nothing either Reduxes can take away from this version, unless through some truly misguided reason the original becomes more and more challenging to see.

That caveat aside, the magnificence of seeing a film of this scope on a proper IMAX screen, laser projected from the 4K DCP, is truly cause for celebration. Essentially the 2019 version is a redux of the Redux, cutting back some 20 minutes of the 49 added, and tightening up some of the additional segments. 

The plantation sequence remains the most overt addition, one that Coppola himself admits in Hearts of Darkness that it never worked. It’s a brilliant thematic addition, even if in execution it feels as much an addendum as it ever did. Worse, it makes manifest some of the political and moral aspects that were far more subtly alluded to in the original, making overt as text what was perfectly coherent subtext. 

For such a psychologically rich film it’s easy perhaps to find reasons thatCoppola may want the scene to be part of what he considers (inaccurately) a definitive cut. First, thanks to the digital cleanup that helped rescue it, it really is a quite beautifully shot segment, the opening mists with the beret-wearing soldiers a thing of haunting beauty. The dinner table debate feels as odd and unsettling as the compound littered with human heads that follows, showing that even in a land of proper wine glasses and Parisian service there is a blackness at the core of this colonization. But it may also be more simple than that – the two young children that are there to recite the poem are Roman and Gian-Carlo Coppola, the former now a celebrated director, and the latter Francis and Eleanor’s son who died at the age of 22. For a sequence that’s dripping with misguided nostalgia, simply having his departed child on screen may be reason enough, an indulgence surely understood within that context.

The other major addition shared between 2001 and 2019 is the stealing of Kilgore’s surfboard, upping even further the insanity of that sequence where the smell of napalm wafts over the morning battle. I love this sequence as a standalone bit of goofiness, but it interrupts the flow of the (sublime) segment on the beach, even if it does make the mangos and tiger sequence even more of a welcome tonal shift.

Other than that there remain a few more segments that extend certain scenes slightly, including moments where they arrive at the final compound with some additional superimpositions evocative of the opening scenes. These are minor, and overall simply reemphasize elements that were already extant.

There are two significant elements that are in Redux that have been removed from the 2019 cut. The most major is one involving the Playboy Playmates that have been stranded after their copter has run out of fuel. The crew bargains for sex with the Bunnies, granting some good character beats for the other members of boat. It’s a segment that speaks to both the barbarism and radical pragmatism of war, with the notion of morality as muddy as the rainsoaked land.

Redux added a segment of a “ghost” sampan filled with wild monkeys, a twisted vision that’s a mirror to the Mai Lai-like massacre that happens earlier. The Montagnard’s also sing “Light My Fire”, a more diagetic use of the Doors that’s interesting but hardly integral.

One segment I always liked – Kurtz reading Time Magazine – has also been dropped. If it were me, that’s likely the only element, along with the additional poetry readings that remain in the 2019 cut, that slightly add to the character that Brando so indelibly inhabits.

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