From Marlon Brandos extraordinary cameo to Dennis Hoppers crazed photojournalist, Coppolas epic definitive cut of his brilliant 1979 war film is triumphant in restating the inhumanity of empire
Someday this wars gonna end, is the sage comment from surf-crazed Wagner enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, brusquely played by Robert Duvall. In fact, when Francis Ford Coppolas grandiose epic masterpiece Apocalypse Now was first unveiled in 1979, the Vietnam war had only ended four years previously, and the succeeding Cambodian-Vietnamese war (where the films climax is set) was in full swing.
Coppolas bad trip into south-east Asia was co-written by John Milius with narration written by Michael Herr. It was inspired by Joseph Conrads novel Heart of Darkness, Herrs own Vietnam reportage-memoir Dispatches and maybe at one further remove by Rudyard Kiplings lines about the US taking up the white mans imperial burden. It was famously an ordeal for all concerned. The production involved a filming expedition in the Philippines that felt hardly less colossal and traumatic to the participants than the actual war, though it became commonplace in Hollywoods Vietnam for the anguish of American soldiers, not that of the Vietnamese people themselves, to be seen as important. (The nearest that Vietnamese people get to actual importance in Apocalypse Now is the four South Vietnamese intelligence officers, executed by Col Kurtz as Communist spies, whose ID cards we briefly see.) Like Lawrence of Arabia, moreover, this is a film without women or mostly.
Now Apocalypse Now has resurfaced for its 40th-anniversary in what Coppola is calling his definitive final cut. Interestingly, this does not mean simply including everything he shot. He has removed some of the Playmate sequences that were in his 202-minute Redux edition from 2001, but this cut retains the extended dinner party scene with French planters in the jungle, like an encounter with angry imperial ghosts.
Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin Willard, a troubled officer, recovering or not recovering from a breakdown caused by his last tour of Vietnam. He is tasked by hatchet-faced intelligence chiefs with travelling with a small crew upriver into Viet Cong territory and into Cambodia. There he is expected to track down the renegade Colonel Walter Kurtz an extraordinary cameo by Marlon Brando and terminate his command, because this once brilliant officer has gone native and become drunk with power, ordering executions; he is rumoured to be revered as a chieftain, or worshipped as a pagan god, lost his mind through having been vouchsafed some terrible vision of humanity in the jungle itself.