A common joke at Cannes this year was that the best film on view was not only 22 years old but had already won the festival’s top prize. Apocalypse Now Redux is not exactly the same film that won the Palme d’Or in 1979. Francis Coppola has gone back to reedit all the original material to incorporate 53 minutes he was forced to excise due to commercial pressures at the time of the film’s initial release. The result makes not so much for a different film but a much more coherent and satisfying one.
The story unfolds as in the original, with captain Willard (Martin Sheen) being despatched up river to kill Kurtz’ (Marlon Brando), a renegade American colonel who is fighting his own unconventional Vietnam war from an outpost in neighbouring Cambodia. One of the many advantages of this extended version is that we learn more about Willard’s companions on the boat, with the dynamics of the group now emerging with greater clarity and force. Similarly, the set-piece of the insane Playboy bunny show, staged in the middle of nowhere for the troop’s entertainment, is now followed by a fascinating scene in which their helicopter has crashed and they have a disturbing encounter with Willard and his crew. Even more crucial is the addition of the legendary French plantation sequence. Occupying 25 minutes, this episode is important for articulating specific historical and political details, such as the French experience in Vietnam and how little the Americans learned from it.
These and other additions all go to make Apocalypse Now an even richer film than it seemed in 1979. All the original qualitiesoVittorio Storato’s beautiful cinematography, Michael Herr’s voice-over commentary, the unforgettable set-piece of the helicopter raid on the villageoare as effective as ever. What was criticised at the time, such as the film’s combination of literary and poetic references (from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Elliot’s ‘The Hallow Man’ to Sir James Fraser’s The Golden Bough) and action-adventure pyrotechnics (Coppola himself likened it to an Irwin Allen spectacular) now looks more like a strength than a weakness in the context of Hollywood’s current lack of ambition.. U.S.A., 1979/2001. Colour. Technovision. Dolby digital stereo. 203 min.