In an odd coincidence, November 2001 saw the DVD release of reworked versions of two famous films from 1979. One of those was a much-maligned - and appropriately so - clunker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The new “Director’s Edition” did little to alter the slow pacing and general tedium of the original cut, and it remains by far my least favorite Star Trek flick.
However, the changes made to Star Trek: The Motion Picture were fairly minor. Director Robert Wise cleaned up some special effects, trimmed a little here, and added a snippet there, but the differences remained pretty modest. Not so for the second altered film from 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Unlike Trek, Now was already regarded as a classic, though a flawed one. As I noted in my review of the original DVD, I always though Now was excellent for its first two-thirds, but it largely went into the crapper during its Brando-dominated final act.
During his reediting of Now, Coppola did nothing to shorten or tighten that part of the film. Actually, unlike Wise’s new cut of Trek, Coppola eliminated nothing from the original movie. Redux simply added footage, and a substantial amount at that; the new cut includes an additional 49 minutes of material.
The story remains the same. At the start of the film, we meet Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a guy who’s spent too much time in Vietnam and is on the verge of burnout. He receives an assignment to track and execute a seriously AWOL officer named Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). It seems that Kurtz went a bit loopy while on a mission deep in the jungle; he renounced his entire life and set up camp as a demigod amidst the natives. The military regards him as an embarrassment and a loose cannon; ergo, Willard gets the job to terminate him.
From there the remainder of Now follows his mission. Willard hops aboard a Navy boat that will escort him upriver, and we meet its cast of characters. There’s Chief (Albert Hall), the ship’s no-nonsense captain, and “Mr. Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), its youngest inhabitant. We also find Louisiana boy “Chef” (Frederic Forrest) and California dude Lance (Sam Bottoms). As they travel toward Willard’s appointment with Kurtz, they run into the gung-ho, surfing obsessed Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a bevy of Playboy bunnies, and a few other bizarre episodes. As noted, the final act of the film finds Willard within Kurtz’ compounds, and it tracks those events.
That brief synopsis doesn’t do Now justice, for at its best, it offers possibly the finest war movie ever made. I think it’s definitely the strongest Vietnam flick around, at least for its first two-thirds. I really can’t stand the final act, but until that point, Coppola weaved a freaky tale that really seemed to transmit the essence of the war. As I stated in my original review, Coppola fully captured the confusion - moral and actual - of the conflict, and the film illustrated the pointless and suicidal nature of the United States' involvement in Vietnam.
So how would Redux alter this equation? Significantly, as it happens. As far as I’m concerned, Coppola could do whatever he wanted to the Kurtz parts of the film. He could redub it in Mandarin or digitally insert Jar-Jar Binks for all I care; my opinion of those segments was already low enough that I don’t think there’s any way he could make them worse.
While some extra footage was placed in the third act, the most significant additions came earlier, and that’s where the most trouble could occur. Those were the parts of Now that made it a classic, and changes could easily have distorted the film’s impact.
Did they? Yeah, to a large extent. A mix of short and long bits, the new material placed into Redux gave it a very different flow and created problems where none existed. As such, Redux strongly harms a film that already had some concerns because it inserts faults where none previously appeared and does nothing to improve the weak spots.
Note: the following paragraphs will go over the changes made to the movie. As such, they may include some spoilers, and they also assume a certain familiarity with the original film. If you want to skip these, feel free to jump ahead to the DVD-specific segment of the review.
Though we find 49 minutes of added material in Redux, many of the changes were small. The majority of the short new bits appear during the Kilgore sequence. I thought all were insignificant changes that didn’t add anything to the piece, but most didn’t hurt it either. However, one of the alterations did have a negative impact. In between the shot where Kilgore says “Someday this war’s gonna end” and images of the crew back onboard the boat, a comic snippet in which Willard steals Kilgore’s surfboard appears. This totally ruins the somber and contemplative mood, and makes it very awkward when Willard echoes Kilgore’s statement; he still says the line, but a few minutes of goofiness occur between the two. The silliness of the surfboard bit seems inappropriate and ill timed.
Outside of the Kilgore segment, only two other small additions appear. There’s a brief and not very interesting piece in which Chef tells of a guy who ruined some Playboy centerfolds; it seems pointless at the time, but it does set up his obsession with a particular Playmate, something that pays off during a later added scene. In addition, there’s a short quote in which a note from Kurtz refers to the US forces as “dilettantes in war and tourists in Vietnam”. Of all the additions, this one probably works the best, but it seems redundant, as it simply overstates the point that the US forces are less committed than the Vietnamese. We already got that concept clearly when Willard referred to Charlie’s idea of R and R; the “dilettantes” bit overdoes it.
In addition, we find only one new piece during the much-hated (by me, at least) Kurtz compound scenes. While imprisoned, Willard is subjected to some more rantings about the war from Kurtz. It’s actually a decent scene because it shows more of Willard’s ordeal at that time, but it doesn’t really improve this act of the film; the Kurtz bits remain as problematic as ever.
The remainder of the changes comprises most of the added 49 minutes. Two different segments cover about 36 minutes. The first of these is shortest. The “Medevac” sequence in chapter 20 reintroduces the Playboy bunnies from the USO scene. Their helicopter crashed and Willard gets the crew time alone with the babes in exchange for diesel fuel. Chief passes, and Clean’s pleas are ignored, but Lance ends up with Playmate of the Year Carrie Foster (real PMOY Cyndi Wood) while Chef gets his dream girl, Miss May Terri Teray (non-Playmate actress Colleen Camp). Some comic escapades ensue during this 11-minute detour.
More substantial in length is the “French Plantation” addition; that piece covers chapters 24 through 27 and lasts almost 25 minutes. During these scenes, the boat crew happen upon some French folks who refuse to leave their old homestead and attempt to keep up matters as they were. The soldiers bury Clean, and they also go to dinner. The sequence ends as Willard scores with sexy widow Roxanne (Aurore Clément).
Both segments do much more harm than good. The “Medevac” scene falls between the USO episode and the sampan massacre, and it noticeably lightens the mood. That’s not a good thing. One of the strongest aspects of Now is the way in which Coppola kept up the dark tone, and the events only became more and more dire as the journey continued. Yes, some jokier moments appeared, like the tiger encounter, but these still served to reinforce the unreality and desperate oddness of the war.
To a degree, the “Medevac” scene does that as well, but it goes too far and is too overtly comic. It’s also too long and poorly acted. In particular, Wood seems unconvincing as herself. Overall it just seems like a detour that goes nowhere; it’s mildly interesting to see, but it takes us off course and doesn’t add to the story.
Actually, one more harmful aspect of “Medevac” and some of the other added bits - like “Hiding From Kilgore” in chapter 13 - is that it makes Willard too sympathetic. During the original cut, he seemed distant from the other men, as his focus remained on his pointless mission. However, he bonds with them more in Redux, and I think that change hurts the tension. It’s harder to see Willard as being different and separate from the boat crew when he does favors for them or pals around with them. The effect is subtle but noticeable, and it alters the tension.
As for the “French plantation” sequence, its main flaw stems from the fact it seems essentially pointless.
In “Karl French on Apocalypse Now”, the author offers a quote from Coppola:
My idea was that as they progressed up the river, they were going back more and more in time in a funny kind of way. That we were revisiting the history of Vietnam in reverse and the first stop was in the Fifties almost. We are now with the French, that was what I was looking for in the French plantation. That it was kind of a ghostly afterview of something, almost like they talk about the light from the stars. We see it after the star’s already dead.
Apparently Coppola ditched the sequence originally because of casting problems:
Coppola says that he was unable to get the actors he wanted for the sequence and so hated it and dumped it.
I guess 20 years changed his mind, since this piece is back in the film, but Coppola should have stuck with his original instincts. Personally, I didn’t mind the actors, but I thought the scene was long and pointless. It does little more than reinforce some of the notions heard elsewhere in the film, and it doesn’t expand on them in any valuable way. Instead, it beats us over the head with them through heavy-handed lecturing. The segment goes on for far too long and it truly stops the movie in its tracks.
At its essence, Now focuses on the journey taken by Willard and uses it as a metaphor for the US involvement in the war. He takes a pointless and inane task that won’t make any difference even if it succeeds, and he sticks with it because he really doesn’t know what else to do. The original film stayed with that issue to a strong degree, at least until Willard reached the Kurtz compound. Sure, the Kilgore scenes could be viewed as a detour, but they worked because they provided a nice look at the way the war was conducted. The same went for the Do Lung Bridge segments, and since Willard still worked toward his goal in both sequences, they fit well.
The same could not be said for the Medevac and French plantation bits. They left behind the story and became indulgences unto themselves. While interesting to see for curiosity’s sake, they really took away from the movie’s flow and tone, especially during Willard’s romantic interlude; the music and the attitude displayed really felt like they came from a different movie and seemed totally inappropriate here.
Really, the same could be said for all of the segments added to Apocalypse Now Redux, at least to a certain degree. The film’s first two acts were already impeccable, and the changes found in them do nothing other than harm the story. The flawed third act has been left almost totally alone, which meant that it still seemed problematic. This DVD’s case may refer to Redux as the “definitive version” of the movie, but I’ll happily stick with the 1979 theatrical version; it still has issues, but it’s far more satisfying than the tedious and inconsistent cut seen here.
Apocalypse Now Redux appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.0:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The aspect ratio of Now has created some controversy over the years. While the original movie was generally shown theatrically with a 2.35:1 ratio, it appears that the 70 mm version demonstrated this alternate ratio. That's the image that Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro have consistently approved for use on home video, despite the fact that it appear most people would rather have the film in the 2.35:1 frame. I didn’t see Redux theatrically, so I don’t know if it went with the 2.0:1 image or it showed the 2.35:1 presentation.
How well did this aspect ratio work? Pretty well, though it still appeared to offer some occasional cropping. Obviously these concerns weren't as severe as they'd be with a pan and scan transfer, but the frame occasionally seemed more "cramped" than it should. Often the two-shots lacked much "breathing room" at the sides of the frame.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the framing differed between the 2.0:1 DVD of Now and the 2.0 DVD of Redux. In my original review, I mentioned the framing of the famous "Charlie don't surf" sequence. For the old Now image, the actor who tells Kilgore that "This is Charlie's point!" was almost absent from the left side of the frame. While the Redux presentation still looked a little cramped, that solider became more visible; he wasn’t cut off on the side. However, information from the right side of the frame disappeared, as a soldier next to Kilgore no longer can be viewed.
As such, it’s clear that the two films were framed differently. I have no idea if Coppola and Storaro consider one to be “correct”, but they’re not the same. I wish they’d just use the 2.35:1 ratio and be done with it, but that possibility seems very unlikely at this point; they’ve stuck with 2.0:1 for many years now.
Despite some concerns about the framing, I still though that Redux offered an excellent image. The picture of the old Now DVD looked very good as well, but the new one offered some distinct improvements over it. The picture consistently looked crisp and precise. Almost no softness could be discerned; a few new shots of Kilgore during chapter 10 seemed a little fuzzy, but this was a minor issue. Overall, sharpness appeared excellent. I saw no problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges.
The old DVD showed some modest print flaws, but Redux largely cleaned up these concerns. I still saw a few specks and a little grit, but not much; even the light problems seen in the original disc were essentially gone. Overall, the image looked very clean and fresh.
Throughout the green-dominated palette, the colors looked terrific. When other hues appeared, they came across as vivid and vibrant; check out the detailed orange tones viewed in many of the Kilgore scenes to witness what I mean. I observed a great variety of greens, and they all seemed quite bold and accurate. The colors consistently came across as bright and distinct. Black levels were also deep and strong, and shadow detail seemed fine. I’d noted a little murkiness during the old DVD, but I didn’t think this transferred to the new one; the moderately muddy shots appeared largely positive during Redux. All told, Apocalypse Now Redux provided an image that always looked good and often appeared excellent.
The original Now DVD offered a terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and Redux sounded just as solid. The soundstage was immensely broad and each of the five channels got a nice workout. The forward spectrum showed strong stereo separation for the music, while effects were placed appropriately in the logical locations and they also blended together quite well. Images neatly surrounded you and immersed you in the sound. The "Ride of the Valkyries" scene served to demonstrate this well, as did a late segment in which our protagonists were attacked by wooden arrows. Even during quieter moments, the soundtrack always offered some sort of auditory reminder of the war, and it did so in a natural and seamless manner.
The quality of the audio was also very strong. Early in the film I felt a little concerned about the dialogue. During Willard’s briefing, speech seemed somewhat boomy and processed, a concern that cropped up often through The Godfather. Happily, that problem vanished after the one scene, and the rest of the movie displayed natural and distinct dialogue that betrayed no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Music seemed clear and dynamic, with bright highs and deep lows, and the effects followed along the same lines. Redux gave my system a nice little workout, as the effects showed fine accuracy and clarity, and they packed a neat little punch when appropriate, which was much of the time. Bass response appeared very positive throughout the film, as the many loud battle sequences blasted in a logical way. Overall, I thought the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now Redux provided a thoroughly fine experience that made it hard to believe it accompanied such an old movie.
One curiosity about Redux: for the Godfather DVD Collection, The Godfather Part II was spread to two discs to maximize presentation quality. II runs 200 minutes, while Redux lasts 202 minutes, yet the latter covers only one dual-layered disc. Granted, II includes additional audio tracks absent from Redux; in addition to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, it provides an audio commentary as well as a French monaural track. Since I thought Redux looked and sounded terrific - much better than II, in fact - I’m not complaining about this discrepancy, but I admit I thought it was odd.
As is Coppola’s refusal to provide substantial extras for Apocalypse Now. While the old Now DVD didn’t provide many supplements, it seemed like a serious special edition compared to Redux. All we find is the trailer for the movie’s 2001 release; it’s presented with Dolby Surround 2.0 sound and without 16X9 enhancement. Of course, one might consider the 49 minutes or reinserted footage to be an “extra”, but I don’t, since they’re presented as the movie itself.
Speaking of the added material, I wanted to note that it blended in seamlessly. One or two cuts seemed slightly awkward, but not badly, and I doubt I would have noticed them were I not familiar with the original movie. In regard to picture and sound quality, the new bits perfectly matched the old ones; I noticed no degradation of those elements. Anyone who doesn’t already know Now will find it difficult or impossible to detect the changes.
Those people may like Apocalypse Now Redux, but I didn’t. I’ve seen the original many times over the years, and I felt none of the additions had a distinctly positive impact, while most actively harmed the movie. I’m not close-minded toward “director’s cuts”, as I’ve really liked some, such as The Abyss, but Redux tampered with the areas that were already excellent and did nothing to improve the film’s problem spots.
Despite my dislike of this new vision of the movie, I must acknowledge that the DVD offers a strong presentation. The package lacks any real extras, but both picture and sound quality seem terrific. Unfortunately, the version of the film appears unfulfilling. Without a doubt, Apocalypse Now fans will strongly want to give Redux a look as a curiosity; even though I didn’t like the added footage, it was very interesting to see it. However, I’ll never watch Redux from start to finish again, and I also think folks new to the film should stick with the superior original. It’s a flawed masterpiece, but it appeared much more satisfying than the extended edition.