Like a mega-mind Great American Novel or hundred-hour Wagnerian opera cycle, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” remains larger than our concept or evaluation of it, larger than its director’s quasi-cosmic ambitions, larger, really, than itself. Any brief history of movies’ most astonishing follies — which translates to cinema’s biggest badass landmarks, if not necessarily the “greatest” by many measures — must include Coppola’s Vietnamization of the American cultural experience. It doesn’t hurt that there are multiple versions, from the Cannes rough cut to the two endings we had in 1979 to 2001’s “Redux” version to the five-plus-hour workprint of which you can still buy bootleg copies online. Add to the pile the new “Full Disclosure” Blu-Ray package, which completely obliterates the need for that tempting illegal workprint by way of hours of new supplements, coordinated and sometimes directed by Coppola, letting loose with piles of excised footage but also giving it all a dense dose of context.
Of course the Blu-Ray transfer is as lovely a presentation as the film has had since it emerged from the printer’s bath in 1979. You get both official versions, but “Redux” is imperative. Unlike most “director’s cuts,” the Walter Murch re-edit restored over 50 minutes to the film that weren’t just fun or worthwhile, but all told reinvented the thrust of the film. In 1979, the pared-down cut had a baroque grandness that many critics took as top-heavy self-importance. But the restored scenes (the Kilgore surf board, the Playboy bunny interlude, the French plantation, etc.) revealed what “Apocalypse Now” was always at its core: a satire.
Not for nothing does writer John Milius, in a new interview conducted by Coppola in his vineyard’s cask room, say that the biggest influence on the genesis of the film was “Dr. Strangelove” — a point even Coppola seems a little enlightened by. Once we could see the deliberate, outrageous humor of “Apocalypse Now,” leaked like gasoline into nearly every major set-piece, what once might’ve seemed like a grandiloquent acid-opera about Vietnam became more Voltairean than Conradian, an explosive, sardonic rip through American neo-colonialism, as it was indelibly infected with hippie excess and civil-rights-era rage and plopped down upon a huge and unconquerable swath of Southeast Asia.
Granted, the Colonel Kilgore sequence was always bitterly farcical; now it’s high comedy, and for a second Martin Sheen’s PTS-poisoned assassin actually smiles. Dennis Hopper’s yackety-yack photojournalist suddenly makes complete sense within the film’s personality (instead of being just a brilliant blast of irony), and Marlon Brando’s lurching, enigmatic rogue-king isn’t the ballooning deity he thinks he is, but just a bizarre product of American military hubris, mutated into a homicidal wacko by the needs of jungle warfare. The load of literary allusions piled into the film (Conrad, Eliot, Robert Frazier, plus, as Milius points out, again to Coppola’s surprise, Homer — think of Kilgore as the Cyclops and the Playboy bunnies as the Sirens) are all about maturation, passage and corruption. They don’t pump up the stature of Kurtz so much as shadow-play the entire, soul-sick project of white American violence, going back centuries.
It’s certainly sweet to have Coppola, still a fecund and talkative cine-philosopher, control the disc’s supplements, going so far as to assemble a short himself, “The Hollow Men,” out of behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes from the Kurtz compound shoot, with Brando narrating Eliot and the Filipino natives tolerantly recruited as corpses, soldiers and body parts. Otherwise, the Milius interview is a pleasure, as always (Milius remains one of the most entertaining talkers in Hollywood, although it’s still something of a mystery as to how he could write “Apocalypse Now” and love “Dr. Strangelove” and still be such an unmitigated jingoist), coming with Coppola’s express agenda to reassert Milius’s role as the “author” of the film’s most famous sequences, and indeed most of its deep ideas.
Sit-downs with Martin Sheen, producer Fred Roos, editors and soundtrack laborers are fascinating (and supplemental themselves to 1991’s making-of doc “Hearts of Darkness,” also included), but the wealth of entire cut scenes (especially a Herzogian chiller known simply as the Monkey Sampan scene) is catnip for the unalloyed fan. Not that some scenes weren’t wise to have been lost — apparently, Scott Glenn’s Colby was once a much more active character, and the scene where he breaks down and kills Hopper’s harmless jester character with a shotgun is wince-worthy.
“Apocalypse Now” was already famous before it was released as being “about” Coppola’s journey through self-destruction, crazed ambition, madness and a kind of auteurist neo-colonialism just as much as it was about its narrative journey and primal themes. (As Milius puts it, Coppola’s high-wire, commit-everything, bankruptcy-causing megalomania redefined what it meant to “be a director.”) But there’s also here, in the sea of new docs and remembrances of the early Zoetrope days, an almost idealized notion of what young-ish filmmakers are supposed to do: band together and break the rules. Making Hollywood movies for these guys began a series of bullshit sessions and spontaneously proceeded as a tumble of crazy accidents.
Typically, Coppola tells how he came to the film’s famous opening — palm trees, The Doors, “ghost helicopters,” slo-mo napalm — by impulsively reaching into a garbage can full of discarded shots and saying, maybe this would work. Only Terrence Malick has gotten away with this kind of epic whimsicality recently (as in, the last 20 years), and on yet another huge, crazily poetic war film. But by all reports Malick didn’t suffer the agonies of his own creation (“The Thin Red Line,” also just out in a supplement-packed box, from Criterion) like Coppola did. It’s possible no director ever has since, and if “Apocalypse Now” still radiates the strange, massive aura of a terrestrial event, it’s probably because for Coppola it was genuinely do or die.
“Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure” is now available on Blu-ray.
[Additional photo: “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” American Zoetrope, 1991]