REVIEW – ‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’ is everything a re-issue should be

Marking the third time seminal war epic Apocalypse Now has arrived in cinemas, a new “Final Cut” version offers writer/producer/director Francis Ford Coppola the chance to showcase his masterpiece as he always wanted to. After such a disastrous film shoot and all sorts of post-production hell, it’s no wonder Coppola has revisited the film twice in the last two decades. Clearly, the director has never felt comfortable with leaving this film alone. And nor should he.

Both the original 1979 cut and 2001’s Redux are problematic films. One is far too short, feeling choppy and uneven from hasty editing. One is horribly long, where every cut element was haphazardly added back in to create a 202-minute endurance test for audiences. When the planned six-month-long principal photography lasted over a year and caused the film’s initial $14 million budget to balloon to $31.5 million, Coppola had no choice but to remove some of the film’s more artistically risky elements in a bid to attract a wider audience and recoup the losses.

After decades of unhappiness at the final product, Coppola returned to the film in 2001, adding back 49 minutes of previously unseen footage, resulting in a 3-hour-and-22-minute film that was garishly long-drawn and, at times, horrendously dull. Proving the third time is indeed the charm, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut sits at just a touch over three hours long. In Coppola’s own words, this edition presents the version that best represents what he initially hoped to achieve.

For those uninitiated, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is set in 1968 during America’s doomed war with Vietnam. As the film begins, Captain Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) anxiously waits in a Saigon hotel room. Drunk, alone, and suffering crippling PTSD, Willard desperately awaits deployment for his second tour. When he’s taken to Nha Trang by two officers, he’s tasked with locating a rogue Army Ranger, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Once a decorated veteran, Kurtz has become mentally unstable, murdered several American soldiers, and fled his duties.

Stationed at a Cambodian outpost, Kurtz is now surrounded by the native Montagnard troops and local villagers who worship him as a demi-god. Willard is instructed to infiltrate Kurtz’s fortress and terminate the mad Colonel with “extreme prejudice.” In order to travel to Kurtz, Willard is assigned to join a Navy River Patrol, who will take him up the Nung River into Cambodia.

Onboard the flotilla are Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), the tough-as-nails Captain of the boat, Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), a former professional surfer from California, Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), a high-strung chef from New Orleans who longs to return home, and cocky 17-year-old Tyrone Miller (Laurence Fishburne), who seems to be having the time of his life in Vietnam. Along the journey, they rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a war junkie who “loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”

For devotees of this film, the differences between the three cuts will likely be obvious, particularly for those who had issues with some of the sequences added to the Redux edition. The bizarre and dreamlike French plantation sequence inserted in the 2001 version is still here, stopping the film cold in its tracks and dragging the pacing into the gutter. The political discussion dinner scene is just as agonisingly drawn out as it was 18 years ago, and it’s rather unfathomable why Coppola insisted on plonking it here again.

The sequence only adds to the film’s somewhat disappointing third act, which deviates into a strange acid-trip nightmare, complete with the real-life sacrificial slaughter of a water buffalo and Brando’s batshit crazy performance that netted the actor $3.5 million for 15 minutes of mumbled screen time. It’s not enough to be truly fatal to the overall product, given what precedes the conclusion is a biting and uncompromising portrayal of the true horrors of the Vietnam War.

Coppola’s unsettling vision of the effects of war is a damning insight into a soldier’s spiral into insanity, as the horrors of combat take hold of Willard’s psyche. It highlights the senseless and pointless nature of America’s obsession with warfare that became the embarrassing and shameful legacy of the Vietnam War. It destroyed a generation of men, both physically and mentally. And few films of this era have come close to shining a glaring light on a shocking moment in American history.

But what really stands out with this new edition is the glorious visuals, courtesy of its painstaking restoration to present the film in stunning 4K quality. The masterful (and Academy Award-winning) cinematography of Vittorio Stararo has never looked better, with every single moment of his work cleaned to sparkling quality. Purists may cry at how “2019” the film now appears, but this is how Apocalypse Now deserves to be viewed. Characterised by Storaro’s use of saturated colours and heavy blacks, the cinematography atmospherically captures the hells of war in ways that are both stunningly beautiful and deeply disturbing. In 4K quality, war has never looked so unsettling.

However, a minor word of warning. Set to the refrain of The Door’s “The End,” the film’s infamous opening shot of a row of palm trees decimated by an explosion of napalm still looks decidedly grainy and far from the 4K spectacle you’ve been promised. It’s entirely unavoidable. The sequence was shot on celluloid and superimposed over imagery of Captain Willard’s face, as he lies in the Saigon hotel room. This ingenious post-production construction makes it all but impossible to fully restore. As such, it’s presented here in its original glory, just as memorable as it always has been.

The re-release also utilises state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos surround sound technology to genuinely stunning effect. The echoes of war truly encompass the entire cinema, as helicopters zoom from speaker to speaker and bullets and bombs shake the theatre as if you’re right there in Vietnam. It’s a remarkably visceral experience that only adds to the startling visuals presented on the screen. It will only be out there in limited release, but you really do owe it to yourself to witness this spectacle on the biggest screen possible.

Whether Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is the “best” version of the 1979 classic will be up for you to decide. It still has its problems, but the unflinching depiction of war is firmly retained in this updated edition. If Coppola is genuinely bidding farewell to his beloved opus, this is clearly the final product he’s waited 40 years to deliver. By restoring the original print and presenting the film with the most advanced visual and audio technology, this third cut is indeed everything a re-issue should be.

Distributor: StudioCanal
Cast: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forest, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, G.D. Spradlin
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Editing: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Walter Murch
Running Time: 183 minutes
Release Date: 25th July 2019 (Australia)

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