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‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’: Coppola’s Surreal Vietnam Epic Returns

Aug 15, 2019

About a mile out, the man says, they’ll put on the music. The kid looks confused: music? Just a classical piece — the boys love it. “Put on ‘PSYWAR OP,’” he barks into his headset. “Make it loud.

The reel-to-reel starts up. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” from the German composer’s The Ring of the Nibelung opera, begins playing over loudspeakers. The soldiers look around, confused and bemused. The camera keeps shooting a group of helicopters, already in attack formation, from below — you’d think they were prehistoric birds of prey. The troops staring out from these metal beasts are in profile, stoic and larger-than-life, pure Riefenstahl 101. And from where you’re sitting, the command to “make it loud” seems redundant. It feels deafening, overwhelming. It feels like you’re on the whirlybird when that first missile launches, the bobbleheaded copilot bouncing in his seat, guns firing, people on the ground falling, explosions everywhere. Noise seems to be swirling around you, from static-y voices on intercoms to heavy artillery blasts. You’re in the middle of pure chaos.

It’s one of the most famous extended sequences in American filmmaking. John Millius wrote it, based on experiences he’d heard from folks who’d come back from ‘Nam after being in the shit. Gerald B. Greenberg edited it. The legendary Walter Murch designed the soundscapes. Akira Kurosawa allegedly loved it. Francis Ford Coppola says he’s watched it many, many times over the last 40 years, “in various states of dread and fear.” You may have seen these moments on a plane, in a train, on a boat, with a goat. (Just, please, do not say “on your phone.”)

But sitting in a cavernous theater in downtown San Francisco and viewing Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, a 4K restoration-cum-remix of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War magnum opus, it almost feels as if you are experiencing this attack for the very first time. It goes without saying that most movies are best seen on a big screen, with an audience and in the dark. When you’re talking about this surreal, psychedelic vision of life during wartime, however — a phantasmagoria of gung-ho surfing obsessives, gyrating Playboy bunnies, ghostly French colonialists and Marlon Brando in greenface — you’re talking about a whole other mindfuck when its madness is presented in IMAX. Which is all the more reason to catch this rejiggered masterpiece when it gets a brief theatrical run in select theaters starting August 15th. (A Blu-Ray release hits shelves, virtual or otherwise, on Aug. 27th.) It is, in terms of storytelling and scope, a completely different trip up the river, through your acid-fried skull and into the heart of darkness.

So about that “Final Cut” subtitle…

Back in early 2017, James Mockoski, the archivist at Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, approached the director with the idea of doing something special to commemorate the film’s upcoming 40th anniversary. The ’79 negative was in decent, though slightly beat-up shape, as was the material used for the expanded 2001 version known as Apocalypse Now Redux; according to mix engineer Colin Guthrie, the “original six-track master audio given to the studio and kept by Zoetrope … both were lost.”

They each knew the restoration process would be laborious — “frame by frame, moment by moment,” as Guthrie says — but thanks to advances in digital technology over the last decade or so, not impossible. The two men began comparing the elements they had from the various prints and home-entertainment reissues over the years. The idea would be to clean up the images and substantially improve the sonic fidelity, with the goal being a far better looking and sounding Apocalypse Now compared to previous re-releases, especially in regards to the audio’s low end. (At Zoetrope’s “mixing barn” in Napa the day after the San Francisco screening, Guthrie plays the newly restored “Operation Arclight” bombing sequence with massive speakers pointed at a couch in the center of the room, and the rumble of the bombing raid makes you feel like your seconds away from encountering the mythical brown note firsthand.)

“I didn’t intend to make a new [Apocalypse Now]…but I felt that this being longer than one and shorter than the other was the right blend.”—Francis Ford Coppola

Mockoski and Guthrie figured they could not get only everything into shape, but could, in the former’s words, “push things in a different direction… into becoming more of an immersive viewing experience using technology that wasn’t around in 1979, especially once Dolby and IMAX  came on board.” (The Final Cut theatrical run will include screenings in the IMAX format, though not exclusively.) The question was whether Coppola was interested in going back into this particular jungle once more. He’d already revisited the film and radically added close to an hour of footage, giving us the second Redux version. Yet the idea of just putting a spruced-up, albeit technically superior print of the movie out for the anniversary seemed like too much of a nostalgic indulgence. And which cut would he choose for the anniversary, anyway — original recipe or extra-crispy?

“When we were releasing the film in ’79,” Coppola says, sitting in one of his Northern California winery’s large, museum-like spaces above the tasting areas, “we knew it was too long, and too weird. The film was surreal — my feeling was the war was surreal, so anything trying to get to the heart of it was going to be out-there. But distributors kept telling us, ‘Make it shorter, make it less weird.’ So we did. Then, when folks were making my wife’s documentary [1991’s Hearts of Darkness], they had access to all of the hours and hours of footage. And by that point, the mainstream has sort of absorbed what we were doing in Apocalypse, so it didn’t seem quite so weird anymore. Ironically, it was the distributors who came to me and said, ‘Well, you have all this stuff, why not put what you cut back in?’ That’s how Redux happened.

“But I always felt,” he continues, “that the first version was too shortened — not ‘too short,’ too shortened — and the other version was…well, maybe we shouldn’t have put everything back in. A movie is in service to a theme that runs through it, and I always felt that Redux never quite supported the theme of the film as fundamentally as I wanted. So we started with the second version, because that already had the restorations and corrections, and we began to tweak from there. I didn’t intend to make a new version…but I felt that this being longer than one and shorter than the other was the perfect blend.”

Thus was born Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, or what some say Coppola has privately referred to as “the Goldilocks edit” of the film — a just-right amalgamation of both previous iterations, something that seems equally as sprawling yet tighter than either of the versions we’ve come to know. Some 14 minutes have been taken out. Several gamechanging Redux decisions remain, notably the PBR Street Gang’s waterskiing excursion coming after their Kilgore misadventure rather than before, as it does in the original — a move which makes the boat’s crew seem less gonzo from the get-go and more like guys deservedly blowing off steam. (Laurence Fishburne’s rubber-limbed boogieing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” naturally steals the scene no matter where you put it.) The second encounter with the Playboy bunnies is gone; the slapstick stolen-surfboard vignette remains. And the controversial French Plantation sequence has been streamlined, though the immortal Jung-and-the-restless line “There are two of you…one that kills and one that loves” has, for better or worse, been left intact.

More importantly, this Apocalypse Now retains the center-can’t-hold insanity of its onscreen journey (and the offscreen legend of behind-the-scenes creative mayhem) that has always made this movie feel like a singular cinematic fever dream. If anything, seeing this New Hollywood landmark/last gasp in such a clean, crisp, larger-than-life state emphasizes the multitudes it still contains. You might notice that, say, when a C.I.A. agent is cutting into a slice of roast beef during the initial meeting between Martin Sheen and his military overlords, it mirrors the slaughter of a bull near the end. You may take note of the tenderness that Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore — always and forever “a goofy foot” — displays towards children and babies during his siege on a Vietnamese village. You may find yourself really noticing, for the first time, the chorus of crickets that accompanies Kurtz’s final breath. Or you may find yourself identifying with Chef, or Clean, or even Dennis Hopper’s countercultural motormouth instead of Willard this go-round. Viewers never step in the same river twice.

As to whether Apocalypse 3.0 is the “definitive” version of Coppola’s warped war-film vision, the answer may depend on the moviegoer. No one is even sure if “final” is truly applicable either. After premiering this cut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, he made a few extra trims for its official release; Mockoski notes that the director “never really locks a film, he latches it.” For Coppola, however, this is the end result of decades of thinking about the story he wanted to tell — a three-hour trek into man’s dark side and a nation’s military moral free-fall that has, at long last, come to a conclusion he’s happy with. “Film is an illusion,” he says. “And this was version where the illusion of Apocalypse Now finally snapped into place for me.”

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