After three years in highly hectic production, Francis Ford Coppola presented a “work in progress” cut of his film “Apocalypse Now” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1979. The film went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, earned eight Academy Awards nominations – including Best Picture – met with worldwide box-office success and has long been considered a major Hollywood film.
More than 20 years later, Coppola chanced to catch his film on television, and began to have second thoughts on how he might rework it. Over a period of six months last year, Coppola and his team edited and remixed a new version – adding some 49 minutes of hitherto unseen footage – and in May of this year presented it once again as a work-in-progress at the Cannes Festival.
Earlier this week, I sat through the re-edited three hour and 20 minute version. I can’t say I feel too differently from how I felt the first time I saw it 22 years earlier. Well, yes, for one thing, this new editing made it seem excruciatingly overlong. I looked up my essay that ran in Commentary in October 1979, nicely titled (the editors’ choice not mine) “Coppola’s Folly,” and find much that is still relevant to the film and to what I think of it, despite its new form.
I open with: “T.S. Eliot, in the very first of his ‘Selected Essays,’ wrote: ‘The difference between art and event is always absolute.’ One might have thought that the author of ‘Apocalypse Now’ – who has taken ‘The Waste Land’ and its notes as his bedside book, who has drawn the whole concept of his plot from the epigraph of ‘The Hollow Men’ (‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’), and whose own ‘Colonel Kurtz’ quotes Eliot with singular portentousness at the film’s climax – would have given this proposition some consideration. He has not. Eliot also wrote: ‘The emotion of art is impersonal,’ and ‘The progress of an artist is … a continual extinction of personality.’ Francis Coppola has evidently not considered these propositions either.”
I go on to quote from Coppola, who was writing how much of what he was working on in the film began to coincide with the realities “of my own life. I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis.” Typhoon Olga hit Subic Bay in the Philippines, destroying over a million dollars worth of sets and equipment. Cast and crew had to move to Manila. Martin Sheen, key figure in the film, had a heart attack. Coppola was terrified of being ruined financially, and owing millions – his house was mortgaged – his marriage was falling apart, drugs and drink played a role, and he still couldn’t find an end to this vastly costly production.
Finally, “Coppola made a startling announcement that it would be released with not one but two endings, one for the 70mm version (calling for special equipment), another for the 35mm. version (with wider distribution. I have never known of a motion picture to be released in first run with two different endings. If for this alone, ‘Apocalypse Now’ has made cinema history.”
I track the plotline. What has been changed? The Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duval) episode has been lengthened, ending with Willard and surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms) playfully making off with Kilgore’s surfing board, as he calls down from his hovering helicopter for its return. A longish insert has been added to show Willard and his crew finding the downed Playboy bunny helicopter, out of fuel. Willard bargains away some fuel in return for two of his men getting to spend time with the bedraggled, neurotic young Playmates under a pouring tropical rain.
The longest insertion of all is the sequence completely missing from the original of Willard and his men being received at a French plantation, where the French characters natter on about the role of France in Vietnam and the futility of the American presence. That dialogue was apparently improvised – and sounds it. A lovely young French widow more or less encourages Willard into her bed. A thoroughly implausible touch is that of having a French accordionist playing popular airs as the people are dining. Those kind of French folk would never have that kind of entertainment at a formal dinner.
Finally, we enter Colonel Kurtz’s territory in Cambodia. Here, it seems to me, the role of Dennis Hopper, whom I in my earlier essay describe as “the film’s most vibrant character,” has been reduced – as has that of Brando as the mad colonel – although he is given a new scene of reading a passage from Time Magazine about how the American people are being lied to by their leaders.
I asked then, and still ask again today: “What is one to make of this ambitious, grandiose work, still incomplete in many ways, produced in such a state of romantic angst by its author, whose stated goals were nothing less than to exorcise the demon of Vietnam and to investigate the ‘moral issues behind all wars?’”
With the passage of 22 years and the calming effect of an existence far less marked by stress, this version seems somehow less hysterical, less frantic, less driven, if not any the richer. I will end, then, here, as I did then: “In sum, ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a film that went colossally wrong, from the egotism of its director, his juvenile megalomania, the callowness of his ideas, and the weakness of his intellectual equipment. At the center of a failed dramatic work is sometimes a simple fallacy (sometimes a flaw in the author’s character) which, once it announces itself, corrupts the entire undertaking.”
“I am tempted to think that in the case of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ it is Coppola’s notion that his practical and artistic problems in merely making a movie were the full equivalent of the voyage into terror and darkness experienced by men who kill and are killed in war. In his most shaming statement about his film, Coppola said he wanted to make the audience aware of the Vietnam War’s ‘sensuousness.’ I can only say that this sensuousness must be deliciously apparent to a movie director far from the deadly blast of incoming artillery fire, sitting cozily in front of his new editing machine, finding ever more beautiful images to dissolve.”