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A Revelation That Took Two Decades

The re-cut 'Apocalypse Now' plays in a way the original never did. The passage of timeamplifies the power of the 1979 Vietnam epic.

July 29, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

The Cannes Film Festival is so overwhelming it's difficult for a single film to have a stranglehold on public opinion. It's an event so focused on celebrating the new that a 22-year-old classic has zero chance of dominating the buzz. Or at least that's what you would have thought until Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now Redux" debuted there in May.

Called "Apocalypse Now and Then" by puckish jury member Terry Gilliam, who joined his colleagues in lamenting that it was ineligible for a prize, this three-hour-and-16-minute epic astonished festival viewers with its beauty, power and ambition. It will likely do the same when it debuts in Los Angeles and New York on Friday in a classy roadshow presentation that includes, as the original 70-millimeter release did, credits in printed handout form rather than on the screen.

Initially, as it should be, talk about the longer "Apocalypse" will center on the 49 minutes of new footage that separates this version from the one that shared the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1979 and was nominated for eight Oscars. Yet what turns out to be especially interesting about "Apocalypse Now Redux" is how different the entire film seems for reasons that have as much to do with the passage of time as with the restored footage. What was impressive 22 years ago seems even more so now; what was problematic seems less important. Changes in us as an audience, changes in filmmaking fashions, changes in the times we live in, they've all combined in making this "Apocalypse" feel more impressive, more of a revelation than it did before.

It was, appropriately, director Coppola who noticed this transformation first, when the film appeared while he was watching TV in a London hotel room six years ago. "It was considered too long and too strange when it came out," he said at Cannes. "But in contemporary terms, it didn't seem that far out. I thought maybe times had changed."

Other "Apocalypse" veterans had noticed the same thing. As the film's brilliant editor and sound designer Walter Murch said in conversation with novelist Michael Ondaatje "As much as the work affects the culture, the culture mysteriously affects the work. 'Apocalypse Now' in the year 2000 is a very different thing than the physically exact same 'Apocalypse Now' in the second before it was released in 1979."

Working with Murch, who won the film's Oscar for sound, Coppola added footage in several areas, bringing back two complete sequences, both involving women, and restoring trims that had truncated key performances.

Back was the 20-plus-minute French plantation sequence, which put American involvement in Vietnam in a historical context and gave Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard a romantic interlude with Aurore Clement's widow. Also back was an equally poignant scene at a Medevac station where Willard trades fuel for quality time for his men with Playboy entertainers played by Colleen Camp and Cynthia Wood.

Treated with more completeness were two critical performances. Robert Duvall's outsize "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" Lt. Col. Kilgore is now shown entering the film in a helicopter with a "Death From Above" logo, and his entire power-source performance is given more room to breathe. The same goes for Sheen's Capt. Willard, who is shown enjoying a good laugh on the river, and for Marlon Brando's work as the renegade Col. Kurtz, the man Willard has been ordered to terminate.

In addition to the value this footage has in and of itself, it turns out to have the additional virtue of changing the core pace of the film, of resetting its internal clock. In the old version, "Apocalypse Now" had a tendency to seem choppy, an NFL highlights reel of marvelous individual sequences that had difficulty connecting. With the new scenes, the film has regained its proper rhythm, and not only feels like a coherent whole, it paradoxically plays faster than it did in shorter form.

Also benefiting the film across the board is the decision to use the dye-transfer system of printing for this version. Essentially a modern form of the classic three-strip Technicolor process that created the glories of old Hollywood, dye transfer allows for colors so breathtakingly deep and rich that director of photography Vittorio Storaro, who won the film's other Oscar, said "I almost cried, it was so beautiful" when he saw the new print.

The new scenes and the new color, however, are not the only reasons this film, inspired by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and co-written by John Milius and Coppola with narration by Michael Herr, plays differently.

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