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Apocalypse Now: Final Cut Wraps Up Coppola’s Vision of the Vietnam War

Photo courtesy Lionsgate

In April 2019, director Francis Ford Coppola premiered the definitive version of his 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, at Tribeca Film Festival. Finally at peace with this version, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is meant to be the happy medium between the original release and the 2001 Apocalypse Now Redux, an extended version that included deleted scenes and ballooned the film’s running time to a hefty three hours and 20 minutes. (Not to mention the 289-minute bootleg VHS version that has floated around home-video obscurity.)

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut arrives in theaters nationwide on the heels of its 40-year anniversary with a brand-spanking-new 4K restoration from the original camera negative footage and a runtime of three hours and two minutes. 

That Coppola has continued to tinker with his darkly psychedelic vision of the Vietnam War after all these years should surprise no one, considering the disastrous circumstances under which it was made in the first place. Now the stuff of studio legend, Coppola’s three-year stint of production hell included a typhoon, Marlon Brando’s drunken unpreparedness and unprecedented weight gain, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, thousands of dollars of film equipment being destroyed, and major script rewrites. 

Coppola attacked his mythic collection of “a million feet of film” in the editing room like an explorer hacking away at bushes in the jungle (or an even more brazen comparison would be Sheen’s character Captain Benjamin Willard slaying Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz in the film’s final climactic scene), but to appease an audience and an already-irritated studio, the 1979 film was hastily signed, sealed and delivered to the box office without much of the exposition Coppola and co-writer John Milius crafted. 

This year seems to be the time that lengthy features get rereleased with expanded runtimes and extra footage. Earlier this summer, director Ari Aster announced, only two weeks after his sophomore feature, Midsommar, arrived in theaters, that a three-hour version would be released. Similarly, after less than two weeks in theaters, Quentin Tarantino hinted that a four-hour cut of his latest film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood was under way. (Speaking on behalf of my own butt, which had to sit through that nearly three-hour feature, Tarantino’s words ring more like a threat.)

So does Apocalypse Now: Final Cut seem worth the ballyhoo, the trouble, the expense and the butt soreness? It definitely holds up in its sobering diatribes against power and the inhumanity of war. The film begins with a drunken, disoriented Willard holed up in his Saigon hotel room awaiting a new mission. He’s then tasked by military intelligence officers to “terminate with extreme prejudice” U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Kurtz, an exemplary military official who has been ordering his commanding army to enact obscenely odd and grotesque acts of cruelty from his position in Cambodia, including the murder of two suspected Vietnamese double agents. 

Willard embarks on his secret mission with a colorful crew, including a teenaged Laurence Fishburne as the South Bronx-born soldier “Clean”; an Orange County surfer named Lance (Sam Bottoms); New Orleans-native “Chef” (Frederic Forrest); and Chief (Albert Hall), the boat commander with whom Willard often clashes over authority. On their way up the river to Kurtz, the crew encounter a range of strange and affecting scenes and questionable characters, from Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore to Dennis Hopper’s crazed countercultural photojournalist, who praises Kurtz’s cryptic ramblings as poetic. 

The additional footage includes the controversial French-plantation scene, which featured Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo in a cameo, and a humorous sequence in which Willard and crew steal a surfboard from surf-loving Kilgore, as well as Kilgore’s search for it afterward. I haven’t seen Apocalypse Now since college, but this version felt more complete and fresher, with its superb audio-visual elements bolstering specific scenes, such as Kilgore’s depraved napalm raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” If one is wanting to revisit it, the movie theater is the perfect place to take it all in, as the piercing artistry of Coppola’s film permeates the senses.

After all these years, Coppola’s reworking of his original work speaks to the way he needs film to communicate messages with his audiences. Apocalypse Now is and always will be an enduring dialogue about the torment of empires, as much on the part of the ruler as the ruled, about the desecration of nature and its effects on an entire civilization. It doesn’t aspire to bring in the Vietnamese perspective, unfortunately, but Kurtz’s misery as a self-imposed demigod and Willard’s disillusioned first-person narration serve as fitting condemnation of it all. Coppola can finally relish that this film’s legacy fits his singular vision.

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut was directed by Francis Ford Coppola; written by John Milius and Coppola; and stars Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. At the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org [1]. Mon.-Thurs., Aug. 22, 1, 4:30 & 8 p.m. $7-$10.50.