On Apocalypse Now – Final Cut (1979/2019)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a classic among war movies and one of the great works in film history. And yet the somewhat surreal and operatic portrayal of the Vietnam War is an imperfect gem among the crown jewels. So far there have been two official versions of the film – the original theatrical release from 1979 and the Redux version from 2001. But neither was optimal in its execution. Before the film was released in the late seventies, the people in charge had assessed it as strange and not corresponding to the viewing habits of the audience. To counteract this, the film was trimmed down to about two and a half hours and some of the resulting cuts were seemed a bit crude. After 20 years full of praise, Coppola’s estimation changed accordingly and he presented a new version with all previously discarded scenes reinserted. The result was Apocalypse Now: Redux, a bloated version of well over three hours.

For the 40th anniversary, the director once again sat down at the editing table and also had the entire material refurbished. Following the example of Blade Runner, the film was re-released under the name Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.

Let’s start with the technical aspects. Apocalypse Now has always been praised for its spectacular cinematography and rightly so. Vietnam’s scenery is already breathtaking. But Vittorio Storaro’s use of light is sensational. The times of day are perfectly chosen and correspond with the progress of the characters on their way to darkness. The strong lighting of the background in the murky passages, similar to in the film Noir, produce thematically appropriate silhouette-like figures and faces partly cast in shadow. Explosions and flares reveal details only for brief moments in the prevailing chaos. All these images were individually cleaned and transferred to 4K. The soundtrack was also revised. Coppola said, he wanted you to feel the big explosions before you even heard them. In short, Apocalypse Now looks and sounds better than ever.

So let’s get to the new cut version. The Final Cut is a compromise of the two predecessors. In “Redux” some of the earlier cuts were already improved. The arrival of Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in his helicopter was added, as well as Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) theft of Kilgore’s beloved surfboard and the subsequent tracing. In addition, the jungle footage during the river journey was expanded and some moments on the boat were rearranged. These were reasonable adjustments. The first two in particular contribute a small amount of surreality in the face of horror and further enhance the image of the two characters.

Problematic are three scenes, which damage “Redux” to a greater or lesser extent. The most harmless scene is in the last act and shows Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) reading reports about the war from Time Magazine to the captured Willard. It provides some background information on the course of the war and is only 5 minutes long. Unnecessary, but bearable. The second scene is the second meeting of the crew with the Playmates and the third one is the episode on the French plantation. Both scenes disrupt the movie’s arc. The film revolves around Willard’s journey up the river, which represents the internal path to madness. With each stop on land, the crew crosses a new level of horror. Especially in the plantation scene this is not true at all. It’s like an excerpt from another film or an interjection of a filler in a TV series, while you feverishly wait for the actual plot to conclude. Coppola himself considers it important to include the historical significance of the French as Vietnam’s first colonial threat. Yet, this unnecessary and sluggish history lesson, including an absurd romance, has no relevance to the movie and is nonsensical from a dramatic angle. Moreover, it’s far too long. The only effect of the scene is that the movie loses its focus, deviates from its core and thereby diminishes the impact of the end. The scene with Kurtz as well as the one with the Playmates didn’t make it into the final cut. Unfortunately, the plantation sequence did. Howard Hawks once said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad ones”. Apocalypse Now: Final Cut has many brilliant scenes and one that is completely misguided.

So what’s left in the end? Unlike Blade Runner, we didn’t get the definitive version for Apocalypse Now. A polished version of the theatrical release with all the small optimizations, but without the digressions. Regardless of all that, the Final Cut, of course, also contains some of the most memorable moments in film history. The sheer scale of the production and the daring of this project remains extraordinary even 40 years later. Few artists have ever achieved the visionary level of epic filmmaking that Coppola has accomplished. The first act, from the sounds of “The End” to the last notes of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is perhaps the most epic poem ever brought to film. The way in which Walter Murch put together the opening sequence, with its overlapping images, the transitions from helicopters to fan and back, the terrific sound mix and the precisely interwoven suggestions regarding the end, all this draws you into the devastated psyche of Captain Willard. The soldiers are consumed by war and pursue an inner journey to madness on the path of horror. Apocalypse Now beautifully illustrates the hypocrisy and senselessness of the Vietnam War, the dehumanization of the participants and the destruction of morality.