Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' is back, bigger & mostly better
For its 40th birthday, the film will enjoy a limited IMAX, 4K restoration release that comes in at 183 minutes
Forty years after its initial 153-minute version cemented its place in cinema history and won its director Francis Ford Coppola the Palme D'or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Apocalypse Now returns for what is billed as its final version.
This is after the last publicly released version of the film in 2001, Apocalypse Now: Redux, which saw Coppola reinsert several scenes that had not made it to the original cut and brought the total length of the film to 202 minutes. For the past 18 years, dissatisfied fans who believe that the 1979 version is still the best have had to live with the fact that Redux has been the only publicly available version of the classic strange and magical nightmare-of-war masterpiece.
Contingent to the legend of the film has been the journals of the making of the film published by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, and the release in 1991 of the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which she directed with George Hickenlooper. It is considered one of the best films ever made about the production of movies.
If you've read Eleanor Coppola's book and watched the documentary you can understand why the director continues to return to his magnum opus. Even though he was coming off the phenomenal commercial and critical success of The Godfather, The Godfather II and The Conversation, making it nearly bankrupted him and almost drove him mad.
Lead actor Martin Sheen had a heart attack and the production ran millions of dollars over budget, thanks to natural disasters, the absurd interaction with the Filipino dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the overinflated body and ego of Marlon Brando. Coppola has not made a film to equal this since.
For its 40th birthday, Coppola's Vietnam War-set adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will enjoy a limited IMAX, 4K restoration release that comes in at 183 minutes and looks and sounds better than it ever could have when it was so painfully born.
After that, there's an even better surprise for devotees, because a box set will be released. It will include this version, Redux, the original cut and the documentary, and is sure to be the last word on one of the strangest and most inspiring testaments to the power of the medium.
It's a shame that actors Brando and Dennis Hopper and voiceover narration writer Michael Herr are not around to see it, but their contribution is here forever carved in larger-than-life crisp colour and immersive sound. This is an opportunity to see Coppola's tormented, twisting vision as you've never seen it before.
The story is elegantly simple. Special US forces operative Captain Willard (Sheen) is sent by his superiors to Vietnam to commandeer a small boat crew and take them upriver and into Cambodia with the intention of eliminating rogue madman and former military hero Captain Kurtz (Brando). Along the way, the information that Willard learns about Kurtz and the experiences he and the crew have in the Vietnam war will forever change them and the audience's assumptions about war and what exactly it's good for.
By the time it was released, the war in Vietnam had ended but it was still fresh in the minds of Americans. Apocalypse Now provided a chaotic and nightmarish vision that has never been equalled, except perhaps by Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line almost 20 years later.
Technological advances have ensured that in this version, Vittorio Storaro's cinematography has never looked quite so eerie and intimate, nor has Walter Murch's sound design been so immediate and immersive. On the sheer scale that IMAX provides, Sheen and Brando's performances provide a quiet but burning portrait of two men who are increasingly drawn towards a point of convergence as we wait for their inevitable and terrifying confrontation.
All the visually dazzling scenes and classic one-liners are still here. The unbeatable opening in which Willard's crazy confrontation of himself in a Saigon hotel room is intercut with footage of helicopters flying over Napalm fires in the jungle to The Doors' nihilist anthem The End. The helicopter mission set to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.
WATCH | The trailer for 'Apocalypse Now'
Robert Duval's maverick surfing-obsessed commander telling us about his love of Napalm in the morning. A hysterical encounter with a tiger in the jungle that reminds you never to get off the boat. Brando's eventual appearance as the shaven-headed, shadow-lit, TS Eliot-reading madman and his realisation of "the horror, the horror" of it all.
Though Coppola has removed the misogynistic second encounter with the Playboy bunnies that was included in Redux, he still for some inexplicable reason has held onto the originally excised but also Redux-included scene involving a dinner at a far-flung French plantation, marred by stodgy performances and a heavy-handed exchange of didactic and ill-advised politically thin positions. While it's significantly shorter this time around, it still very obviously drags down the pace of the film; if you need a bathroom break, this is the time to take it.
Besides that, there's not much to fault in this version and if you've never seen the film on the big screen, this is the only way to do it - on a bigger screen than is necessary, but welcome, with sound that will put you firmly in the mindset and journey of its characters and in 4K clarity that is equal to any of the far less intellectually challenging blockbusters churned out today.
After that, wait for the box set, set aside eight hours or so and take a ride into the evolution and deserved celebration of one of cinema's greatest achievements. It's a film that will continue to find a place in the hearts and minds of generations to come whenever things get weird and strange and seemingly beyond the boundaries of comprehension.
• 'Apocalypse Now' is on circuit at all IMAX cinemas in SA: Bay West, Cape Gate, Cradlestone Mall, Eastgate, Gateway, The Grove and Mall of Africa.
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