Before feeling the need to write about Zack Snyder’s Justice League and that director’s need for various cuts of his films, I was going to write about the “Final Cut” of one of favorite films of all time: Apocalypse Now. It turns out writing about Snyder made for a great transition to Francis Ford Coppola, who recently got to re-edit one of his past films, The Godfather: Part III. That new edit made people revisit a famously reviled film and many came away with a more positive reaction (myself included), which is fairly similar to what is currently going on with Snyder’s version of Justice League. Since I’ve already written about Coppola’s new edit of Part III, I figured I’d write about his latest edit of Apocalypse Now, which came out a year and a half ago. The difference with Apocalypse Now is that the film has been considered great since its original release, yet Coppola has revisited the film twice. I want to get into why Coppola can’t leave the film alone (and if that’s a bad thing), why I love the film in general, and which version is my favorite.
The Final Cut - “Why the Fuck Would He Do That?”
Apocalypse Now is arguably more famous for the drama behind the scenes than what ended up onscreen. I’m not about to attempt to get into everything that happened (especially when there are numerous special features you can dive into, including the excellent documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse [which is included with most versions of the film]), suffice it to say that Coppola ended up as figuratively and literally upriver as Colonel Kurtz. So if the filming of Apocalypse Now was such a trial for the filmmaker, then why keep coming back to it?
I would like to make the case that making the film was truly like a war for Coppola, and he simply can’t shake the experience. That might be true, but I don’t like how that trivializes actual war. More likely, Coppola has felt the need to re-edit this film because he famously feuds with studios and felt like he had more freedom as time passed to do what he truly wanted to do. With Apocalypse Now, he originally released the Redux version, which basically just included a ton of stuff that ended up being cut from the theatrical release. Apparently, Coppola didn’t consider this a director’s cut so much as a kitchen sink version of the film.
When the time came for a 40th anniversary screening of the film, Coppola was asked which version he wanted them to screen. This is when it occurred to him that neither the Redux or the theatrical cut were his preferred version of the film. And now we have the “Final Cut.”
I believe Coppola when he claims the Redux wasn’t a director’s cut, but I do think the theatrical cut was the movie he wanted to release at the time. My theory is that Coppola’s taste has changed over the years, and this means his preferred cut for his movies has changed. It’s no different than a viewer revisiting a movie from the past and having a different reaction to it; the difference is that the viewer doesn’t have the power to change the movie.
Coppola certainly butted heads with studios over the years, but he actually had a lot of freedom when it came to Apocalypse Now. Why else would he be allowed to extend production so far beyond the original plan? Not to mention, he put up a lot of his own money to get the film made. Because of this, I think the theatrical was what he wanted to release at the time. And forty years later, he wanted to change things up. But should he even do this?
Director’s cuts tend to be the better versions of most movies. They are often an attempt by the studio to correct their mistake in hampering the original vision of the director. This is why you get the celebrated versions of Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, etc. Typically, a director knows what the best version of the film is. But what if a director does this to a movie people already like and that is already successful? Most famously, George Lucas has revisited the original trilogy of Star Wars to the point that fans have been campaigning for years for the theatrical cuts of those films to get a proper release. They feel his tinkering has fundamentally changed the films they fell in love with.
I had a similar reaction to Redux. I found the included scenes to ruin the pace and/tone of the theatrical cut. The difference here, though, is that every time a new cut of Apocalypse Now is released on the latest technology, it also includes the theatrical cut. That’s where Lucas, and now Disney, messes up. Change the films all you want, but give fans access to what they loved originally. I don’t care if Coppola and Lucas change their movies once a year, as long as I have access to the version I prefer.
Part of me thinks that directors should generally leave their movies alone, unless the movie was taken away from them, and a director’s cut is the only way to achieve their vision. I like the idea that once a piece of art is out there, it belongs to the world. But the movie fan in me wants to see new versions of films, as long as each version of the film is preserved. I’m down for Coppola’s next “final cut” of Apocalypse Now, if he wants to change it again. I have my copy of the theatrical cut no matter what, so I’m good.
The Voice-over...the Voice-over...
It would probably make more sense for me to move on to which version of Apocalypse Now is my favorite, but I feel the need to explain what I loved about the original cut before I can explain what I don’t like about the two newer cuts.
I love Apocalypse Now for all the reasons you would expect. I find that it captures the absurdity of war while also remaining entertaining. All the famous lines are great, and I just dig movies where characters have to go on a metaphorical and literal journey into the unknown/jungle (this is probably why I’m also a huge fan of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God). But what makes Apocalypse Now stand out to me is Martin Sheen’s voice-over.
In a film with surfing in a war zone and some of the most iconic lines in film history, my favorite moments are of Willard going through Kurtz’s file. When I watched this when I was much younger, it was the first time I encountered a movie with a voice-over that included cussing. “Why the fuck would he do that?” is still one of my favorite lines from the film. It made me realize that good voice-over can add a realism and darkness to a film that couldn’t be accomplished otherwise. How else could Coppola convey Willard’s surprise at Kurtz’s actions in that scene in an effective way.
I get defensive about the voice-over in Apocalypse Now because narration in films in general is frowned upon. Its use breaks the classic rule: show, don’t tell (which is why I titled this section as a play on “The horror…” line). I get that, but the narration in this film is telling. Yes, it’s exposition, but it’s setting up Kurtz’s character while also revealing Willard’s through his reactions and attempts to understand Kurtz. A line early in the film explains why the voice-over is necessary: “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.” The voice-over is Willard’s confession, and we’re the absolving priest for listening to it.
Obviously Coppola felt strongly about the narration, as well, since he gives a credit just for the narration to Michael Herr (who also received the same credit for Coppola’s The Rainmaker), who’s an authority on Vietnam since he was a war correspondent who went on to write Dispatches and the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket. Coppola realized how important the voice-over would be, both for the story and for the authenticity of the film.
In that regard, I find it perfect. The voice-over provides plenty of character development while also placing you in the mind of a soldier. For me, it draws me into the film completely. Once Willard’s narration begins, I’m in for the whole film. Or the whole theatrical cut, I should say.
Favorite Cut - “You’re Looking at the [Redux]. Sometimes He Goes Too Far.”
In general, when I love a movie and a version with more footage comes out, I get interested. If I loved two plus hours of this, then surely I’ll love another hour of it. But that just isn’t the case for me with this film.
Coppola kind of admits this by even creating the “Final Cut.” This cut is his way of saying Redux was just too much. But it’s not just that it’s too much, it’s that the majority of the added material seems to be from a different movie. I want to break down three major additions to Redux: stealing Kilgore’s surfboard, meeting up with the Playboy bunnies, and the...ugh...French plantation sequence.
Due to the voice-over, Willard comes across as a very serious killer. He’s not completely joyless or emotionless, but he’s there for a job (which would explain his killing of the injured woman on the boat and the crew of the PT boat not exactly loving him). This is a bit different from John Milius’s script, which presented itself more as a version of The Odyssey AND Heart of Darkness. Updating The Odyssey into a more modern setting, no matter how dark, still leads to goofiness (just look at how it works in the Depression in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and that clashed with the Heart of Darkness storyline. So when Milius’s Odyssey stuff is left in, it makes the film feel like two separate stories with two different main characters.
With The Odyssey adaptation in mind, that makes Kilgore the Cyclops, who is defeated by the wittiness of Odysseus. In this case, it means Willard has to steal Kilgore’s surfboard to defeat him. That kind of bold movie might work for Odysseus, but for Willard it’s uncharacteristic. What had he done so far to suggest he would do such a thing?
Yes, he clearly had a disdain for Kilgore, who he sees as fighting a different kind of war. Stealing the surfboard in itself isn’t necessarily against his character; his reaction is, however. Willard jumps onto the boat with the board, laughing. Later, he jokes around with the guys on the boat as a chopper flies by playing a recorded message from Kilgore pleading for his lost eye...I mean, surfboard. It creates a bonding moment with the guys on the boat that disappears in other scenes.
After besting the Cyclops, Willard and his crew must deal with the Playboy bunnies, sirens who keep them from their mission. Once again, this is simply not in keeping with other scenes. It feels shoe-horned in to fit this Odyssey theme.
Finally, and worstly, we get the French plantation scene. In an already long movie, the film grinds to a complete halt as we deal with the Lotus Eaters of Milius’s script. The French serve as an unnecessary history lesson for the film and as a warning to Willard, and America, to respect the Vietnamese resolve. Once again, this takes away from the stronger Heart of Darkness aspect of the film. As a loose adaptation of Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is a film about war in general and the madness and abuse of power that comes with it. Including the French makes this movie just about the Vietnam War, which turns it into more of a historical document than a statement about war itself.
Most importantly, the French plantation sequence is just way too long, and it makes the film lose focus. I get that that is part of the point, but when there’s already a great theatrical cut of this film, why fuck it up with a French dinner scene?
When the “Final Cut” was announced, I assumed this would be the first thing to go. Nope. Instead, Coppola mainly just got rid of the extra Playboy bunny stuff. Because of this, I do prefer this cut to Redux, but neither of them are even close to the theatrical cut.
What I wished Coppola had done instead was make a cut of the film that omitted as much of the Heart of Darkness stuff as possible and inserted all The Odyssey stuff. There might be a way to make two completely different versions of this film with a completely different main character. I would find that infinitely more fascinating than just adding shit in that doesn’t jive with the rest of the movie. I like The Odyssey stuff in itself and thematically, but I hate how it clashes with the film I know and love.
I’m glad to have these two alternate cuts of Apocalypse Now, but I feel that most of the stuff added could’ve just been presented as deleted scenes. Perhaps others really dig all the extra stuff, but for me, whenever I watch Apocalypse Now in the future, it will always be the theatrical cut.
Why Do I Own This?
Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies of all time. Until recently, I would tell people that it was my singular favorite film ever (now, if I’m forced to pick just one, I go with The Thing). So I’ve bought this movie multiple times. I had the original cut on DVD, then I got the “Complete Dossier” version, then I got the “Full Disclosure” version, and now I have the “Final Cut.” Let’s hope it truly is final because buying a movie this many times is pretty fucking stupid.
Random Thoughts/Favorite Quotes*
*Just assume I dig all the famous quotes, too. I just don’t feel the need to type out all the lines everybody loves.
On IMDb trivia, it claims that Martin Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez, provided the voice-over while Sheen recovered from his heart attack. But this is the only place I have found this info, so I doubt this was the case. But if it is true, well done, Joe Estevez!
I'm a huge Doors fan, so any film that starts with "The End" is a winner in my book.
"If his story is a confession, then so is mine."
G. D. Spradlin is perfect casting for a general that's giving nefarious orders while sounding folksy as fuck.
"...this [...] army of his that worship the man like a god. And follow every order, however ridiculous." Sounds familiar…
I love the absurdity of the general and CIA dude having this discussion with Willard during a meal.
Jerry the CIA dude is perfectly normal looking, which makes him kind of terrifying.
Originally, the soundtrack was going to be nothing but Doors songs. I would totally dig that, but I can't imagine this movie without its score now. It's so perfectly eerie.
Aside from some diegetic music, the music of the film is fitting for a horror film, which it is.
"Airborne? He was 38 years old. Why the fuck would he do that?"
Kilgore's salute and general disdain towards Willard always amuses me.
Kilgore's interaction with the dying VC soldier perfectly encapsulates his character. Honorable enough to give water to a dying enemy, but enough of a dick to get distracted while doing so and pour the water just out of reach of the soldier's mouth.
I always forget that R. Lee Ermey is in this (Kilgore's helicopter pilot).
"What do you know about surfing? You're from goddamn New Jersey!"
I've watched this movie dozens of times, but I can never tell what the Playboy promoter guy throws on the ground before he takes off on the chopper.
Willard is seen as so brutal for killing the injured woman on the boat, but I don't think it's any worse than the initial shooting.
The pure chaos of the situation at the bridge that keeps being destroyed and rebuilt is terrifying. I'm sure all war is chaotic, but that seems particularly insane.
Ugh...the French plantation section.
So we’re two hours in and we still haven’t seen Kurtz onscreen, so let’s stop to eat dinner and smoke opium with the fuckin’ Frenchies?
The annoying sounds Harry and Lloyd make in Dumb & Dumber don't have shit on the noise Lance makes when they're going through the fog.
Chief kind of gets on my nerves (I think he cuts Clean too much slack and always seems to be harsh on Chef), but I respect his decision to try to choke out Willard as he dies.
"The heads. You're looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far."
Kurtz talking about the Ohio River always interests me because I live in a town on the Ohio River. I’ve never come across an abandoned gardenia plantation, but I have been on the river many times and come across stretches where there is nothing on either side and felt an odd peace being in a place with no signs of civilization. I hope I’m not becoming like Kurtz…
“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”