"Never get out of the boat!" exclaims Chef (Frederick Forrest), part of the Navy patrol crew taking Martin Sheen's Captain Willard upriver. "Never get out of the boat!" he repeats after a tiger ambushes him and Willard. Then Willard takes up the slogan and embellishes it: "Not unless you were going all the way." My problem with the Vietnam War phantasmagoria once known as Apocalypse Now - expanded and billed as Apocalypse Now Redux - is that I've never been able to get on the boat or to keep going all the way without it.
But Apocalypse Now Redux, which adds 53 minutes to Francis Coppola's 1979 cut (for a total of three hours and 17 minutes), has brought me closer to the boarding process than I've come before.
The new print and stellar presentation at the Senator Theatre account for part of my response. Seeing the film rendered in a dye-transfer process that restores the full blacks and bristling spectrum of vintage Technicolor, with a sound system equal to a spectacular, poetic audio mix, you thrill to the craft and ambition of Coppola and his team. They seem to re-invent every moviemaking method pioneered in the second half of the 20th century.
The whir of the ceiling fan in Willard's Saigon hotel room blends with the whoop-whoop-whoop of helicopter blades, enveloping you in an existential Sensurround. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's fogs and vapors have an exotic impact akin to visual incense (remember Aromarama?). Flares and mortar fire, arrows and spears come at you from unseen vantage points and pin you to your seat, as if you were seeing them in 3-D.
Once again, an air-cavalry colonel named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) brilliantly conveys the craziness of post-"Good War" Americans bearing illusions of righteous entitlement into booby-trapped terrain. He takes one of "Charlie's" beaches mostly because it has the best surf in 'Nam - and "Charlie don't surf." With his air-cav squadron he rains hellfire down on a tiny village and calls in needle-nosed jets to finish the job with napalm. The firepower is stupendous, heightened even further by the "Ride of the Valkyries" on the soundtrack. This is Coppola's Wagnerian extravaganza, with streamlined, fire-breathing dragons.
I continue to think what Coppola achieves is an epic emptiness. But in movies, as in physics, the bigger the vacuum, the more power it has to suck you in. This picture is as wearying as it is fascinating - even with the clarifying additions of Redux.
Marlon Brando's Kurtz, the madman who's carved out his own kingdom in the Cambodian jungle, is seen in half-light and heard in whispers. He talks of embracing horror in order to win the war. He forces Willard to face human aggressiveness in all its unadorned malignancy.
But is that the message this picture delivers? Or is it that military action is a power trip? Or that Vietnam was a psychedelic, rock and roll conflagration with its own malignant purple haze?
Coppola and co-writer John Milius looked for inspiration in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, then turned the book on its head. Conrad, so prescient about the corrosive evil of imperialism, still wrote at a time when the worst thing a white ivory-trader like Kurtz could do was "go native." But Coppola was depicting a war in which many felt the "natives" had the moral high ground. And if Conrad's narrator, Marlow, hoped to bring his good-and-evil genius back from the jungle alive, Coppola's narrator, Willard, is supposed to go upriver and leave his Kurtz there, dead. Conrad's concepts don't give Coppola the poetic unity he needed for a movie this episodic and sprawling; the disjunctures between the novel and the film are more expressive than the meeting points.
The movie's jabbing originality is what sticks in your memory. Marlow is a Buddha-like humanist. Willard is a military hit man, getting rusty in Saigon waiting for his orders. "They arrived like room service," he says in the voice-over, written by Michael (Dispatches) Herr. When I heard those words again, they reminded me of how the '60s counterculture mixed its pacifism with love for the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler, for visceral comic-book art, and for rock anthems like the Doors' dirge "The End" (the Apocalypse Now pictures' theme song). Apocalypse Now Redux is as much a record of the protest culture that surged against the Vietnam War as it is a dramatization of the Vietnam War itself.
The additions have been hailed for their rhythmic improvements and lucidity, or damned for their elongation and derailment of an already lengthy and oddly paced film. Actually, from episode to episode, the additions strengthen the movie - but in ways that emphasize its overall weakness. The least complicated fillip features Willard and his boatmen stealing Kilgore's surfboard. In doing so they gain some lighthearted esprit de corps and offset the Sturm und Drang surrounding Kilgore.