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New cut slows flow of `Apocalypse'

CANNES, France -- They were giants who walked the earth in those days. To see "Apocalypse Now" once again is to measure how ambition has faltered in these latter days of Hollywood. This is a big, confident, exuberant, passionate movie, a reminder that movies need not merely confirm our petty tastes and pander to our most immediate desires, but can make our imaginations sing.

Francis Ford Coppola's epic about Vietnam, the 1979 grand prize winner at Cannes, returned here Friday in a restored version with 53 additional minutes of footage. Even its "director's cut" makes no small claims: Instead of the five or 10 additional minutes a lesser film might offer, this one adds half the running time of an ordinary movie. The visual and sound restoration, masterminded by Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning sound designer of the 1979 version, is breathtaking. During the helicopter assault on a village, when a mad colonel (Robert Duvall) blasts Wagner from loudspeakers, the effect is the same as it was in 1979 - literally spine-tingling.

It is appropriate that Coppola bring "Apocalypse Now /Redux," as it is now called, back here to Cannes in this lengthened version. It was here 22 years ago that he stirred up controversy and possibly cost himself a solo Palme d'Or (his film had to share the grand prize with Volker Schlondorff's minor "The Tin Drum"). Coppola described the film as a "work in progress," and famously called the Cannes premiere an "out-of-town tryout," inspiring Andrew Sarris' immortal question, "Where's town?" He also unwisely shared his doubts about the ending of the film, cueing a herd of film critics to wonder if the ending worked without knowing what he actually meant by the ending. (He was referring to decisions about the closing titles; they thought he meant the entire Marlon Brando sequence.)

The movie was shot on location in the Philippines under unimaginably difficult conditions; the filming has been documented in George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," a harrowing record of how close Coppola and his team came to physical and emotional collapse.

Many scenes were shot that didn't make the original 150-minute version. In "Redux," there are three major restorations, and a few minor ones involving moments on the patrol boat and snippets of narration. The most important new scene is an extended visit by the hero, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), to a French plantation remaining from the days when Vietnam was French Indochina. The plantation is guarded by a private army and occupied by the remnants of the families that have owned it for generations. The dinner table conversation includes a lot of background on Vietnam's history, from the colonial point of view, and then there's a sexual interlude involving Willard and Roxanne (Aurore Clement), the widow of one of the French. Their languorous lovemaking follows her preparation of an opium pipe, and is scored with music so lush and banal that, in this context, it's almost laughable.

Two other scenes are briefer. One involves more Marlon Brando dialogue during the last act of the movie. The other involves a second encounter with the Playboy bunnies who are touring Vietnam to boost troop morale. In a famous scene in the original film, their USO show turns into a riot, and they have to be airlifted away from rampaging troops. (GIs clinging to the helicopter's skids provide an eerie echo of newsreel shots of the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.) In the new scenes, the bunnies' helicopter is grounded in the jungle, having run out of gas, and Willard and his boat crew encounter them during their long upriver journey to seek the mysterious Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Trading petrol for favors, they engage in dalliance inside a helicopter being pelted with rain (the scene was shot during a monsoon). We are, of course, fascinated to see this new footage, but I am not sure its addition is an improvement on the original "Apocalypse Now." Maybe that's because I'm so familiar with the great film in its original form. My feeling is that the additional 53 minutes delays from the movement of the film's central story arc; that we are distracted, especially by the plantation scene, from the inexorable upriver progress toward Kurtz. As for the second Playboy scene, it simply doesn't work dramatically. It feels like a scene in which Coppola never got the footage or performances he wanted, or never defined what function the scene was supposed to play.

The Brando footage, on the other hand, only deepens a great performance. When the film was originally released, some critics sniped at the way Coppola shot Brando in deep shadow, but it seemed right to me.

The movie is based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, about a journey into the Congo to seek a Mr. Kurtz who has established his own kingdom in the jungle, and Brando's looming, half-seen presence strikes an eerie chord: He has the presence to make the journey seem important.

Another performance at the end of the movie also grows after 22 years. That's Dennis Hopper's drugged free-lance photographer, who has become part of Kurtz's compound and sings his praises in hallucinatory free-association. In 1979, this character inspired distracting echoes of Hopper's pothead motorcyclist in "Easy Rider;" now it can be seen more clearly as right for this movie.

"Apocalypse Now" was never intended to be a realistic Vietnam picture (as was Oliver Stone's "Platoon"), but as an allegory, in which Americans advanced into the Vietnam quagmire and found an opponent who was more determined and had more to win or lose than we did. Brando tells a story about children who are inoculated by Americans and then have their inoculated limbs hacked off by the Viet Cong; he calls that cruelty "brilliant," because it shows how deep the Viet Cong's determination runs, and how implacable it is.

"Apocalypse Now /Redux" will open in American theaters in August, 22 years to the day from its original theatrical premiere. It is one of the few movies that must be seen by anyone who takes the cinema seriously. The new footage will be of intense interest to those who love the film. I hope, however, that on the home video version the original cut is preserved as the "real" film, since the additional 53 minutes essentially create a new film with less tension and focus. The nice thing about DVDs is that we can have it both ways.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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