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[whitespace] 'Apocalypse Now'
The Smell of Victory: Robert Duvall strides throught the chaos of war without a care in 'Apocalyse Now Redux.'

War Story 2

Francis Ford Coppola revisits 'Apocalypse Now,' his bold, mad tale of Vietnam

By Richard von Busack

CAPTAIN WILLARD, mulling over the career of Col. Kurtz, says, "I think the light and space of Vietnam had put the zap on his head." This line--probably written by Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr, who supplied the film's narration--is the most autobiographical in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. It keys in with what we've heard about how far up the river director Francis Ford Coppola went making his bold, mad and sometimes irresolute classic.

The story of Coppola's ordeal as a filmmaker is told in detail in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. Today, it's hard to watch the rebuilt Apocalypse Now Redux (which opens Friday at the Nickelodeon), with some 50 extra minutes, without viewing it through the lens of Coppola's confusion. The movie is torn by the ambivalence any civilian has about wars, even though this film is less about the horror than the aura of war.

Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness. In Conrad's version, an Englishman named Marlow travels up the Congo River to learn from a great man named Kurtz, who has tamed the remotest part of the jungle. In Coppola's vision, the Willard character, played by Martin Sheen, is ordered to "terminate" a rogue American colonel named Kurtz, who has reverted to savagery up the river, beyond the borders of Vietnam.

For dramatic reasons, it seems as if Willard, like Marlow--and like the real soldiers who went to Vietnam--should have arrived clueless and ended wised-up. Instead, Willard is a disenchanted vet--a newly divorced, self-loathing officer who already thinks the Vietnam war is nothing but insane psychedelic carnage. He's the standard film noir character: the poetic, cynical detective. Willard's embittered mood matches the late-'70s audience's own fury and weariness about Vietnam.

It helps that Sheen looks like a debauched version of JFK. He exemplifies our love/hate way of looking at the film. One enjoys Herr's hard-boiled sentences while disliking how Willard's narration reiterates what we've seen, what we're seeing and what we're about to see.

MARLON BRANDO'S performance as the mad Kurtz also mirrors the movie, which features the best and worst of '70s filmmaking. Brando had gone Dadaist even before Apocalypse Now; his acting takes being extreme to an extreme. Brando is ridiculous at points, with lines like "There's nothing I detest more than the stench of lies." (Now it's Brando's turn to play Blanche DuBois.)

Other moments are flabbergasting. The madman is heralded by the colossal stone heads at the Angkor Wat-style set, but our first sighting isn't so plain. Brando's moonlike face is eclipsed in a blot of shadows that seem to travel with him. Kurtz slurs, "The only real freedom is freedom from the opinions of others, even freedom from the opinion of yourself"--Brando's method epitomized in one sentence.

After Brando appears, the film takes a turn into mysticism, the only route extravagant horror can take. Kurtz becomes a Fisher King whose unhealable wound is Vietnam, and he must be sacrificed to cure the land.

All so very fancy. No wonder people prefer Robert Duvall's crazy Lt. Col. Kilgore and his surfboard: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." No wonder they savor Dennis Hopper's mind-blown combat photographer, perhaps modeled on Charles Manson, whose face makes a cameo appearance on a magazine cover.

THERE ARE more such moments in Apocalypse Now Redux, inflated with some odds and ends. In the new scenes, Kilgore hunts for his lost surfboard from the skies. One interlude that's aged badly concerns the crew of the patrol boat (including the young Laurence Fishburne) trysting with the Playboy Bunnies brought by the USO.

The sex turns frustrating; the girls act like bunny-brains; they can't stop chattering inanely. The shift in mood loosens the film, casting off its moorings as an action film. (At this point Apocalypse Now Redux seems as much Huckleberry Finn as Heart of Darkness.)

The most important restoration is the French plantation scene, Willard's fancy dinner with the room full of decaying French colonials (Christian Marquand plays their leader). It's a Brecht-style historical cabaret, complete with accordion.

The scene brings the audience up to snuff on the history of Vietnam. It points the way back to scriptwriter John Milius' original sympathy with the French, who swear, "This land is ours." In 1988, Milius filmed Farewell to the King, in essence a happier French version of Heart of Darkness.

The French planters are supposed to be quixotically perverse, making the grand gesture by staying put in a land that's rejected them. No doubt they were as full of panache as Foreign Legionnaires in Milius' original script; Coppola envisions them as decadents, sprawling drunk, raving about how politicians stabbed them in the back. By including this scene, Apocalypse Now Redux exposes the secret history of the country and war.

IN THE HISTORY of places like French Indochina or the Belgian Congo is the proof that Kurtz was as real as you or me. One can trace Apocalypse Now back from Milius' script to Conrad's novel--and further back to the true-life horror that begot it all--the genocide of millions of Congolese. The 1998 nonfiction book King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, depicts how the failure of public memory turns history into symbolism.

Just as Latin American "magical realism" disguises inconceivable historical events as fantastical stories, just so Conrad's story was based on truth. The element of a white man going nuts in the bush--"the horror, the horror"--is only part of the story.

Conrad, who had ambitions of being a riverboat captain, went up the river to the King of Belgium's colony, the Congo. The novelist returned, Hochschild wrote, "so horrified by the greed and brutality among the white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed." In the novel, the company man Kurtz, a cultured European, goes feverishly savage, decorating his fences with severed heads.

Hochschild proposes that Conrad's model was the Belgian colonialist Léon Rom, station chief at Stanley Falls, an amateur painter and a butterfly collector who kept a ring of African skulls around his flower garden.

The theft of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium is a story of nearly unparalleled evil. (I'd heard about it the same way Hochschild did, by reading a Mark Twain political pamphlet, "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a short work that tested even Twain's ability to retrieve something laughable about human degradation.)

Hochschild describes the exploitation of the Congolese by Europeans in search of wild rubber. Seeking out the goods meant slavery, enforced with rifles. To save bullets, Leopold's Belgian officers demanded that their native troops bring back a human hand for every person killed, to ensure the soldiers weren't wasting their ammunition for hunting. The severed hand became the emblem of the European atrocities against the Africans.

Transmuted, these horrors wend their way into other tales of atrocity. The cut-off limbs of the slave laborers in the Congo become, perhaps, the much-told propaganda story of Germans cutting off the hands of Belgian babies during their invasion in World War I.

In his version of the script for Apocalypse Now, Milius inverted the tale with the famous anecdote about the mass mutilations that drove Kurtz insane: the colonel saw Viet Cong soldiers striking off the arms of children vaccinated by the South Vietnamese. The atrocity was "the diamond bullet" that entered Kurtz's head, demonstrating that the Vietnamese were there to teach us a needed lesson in existential horror: "They were better than we."

Milius has claimed that he heard the story of this atrocity from a Green Beret, but there's been no supporting evidence. Which is not to say there weren't manifold horrors in Vietnam. But this instance of the jungle supposedly perverting the white man should be understood as the face-saving lie it is.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has summed up the message of Heart of Darkness: "Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz foolishly exposed himself to the wild, irresistible allure of the jungle, and lo! The darkness found him out." Achebe's sarcastic comment is the best critique of Apocalypse Now Redux.

COPPOLA'S FILM is still an overwhelming cinematic experience, with the rousing use of air power and firepower and napalm enough to stir up the savage in any man.

During the filming of Apocalypse Now, in June 1976, Coppola told a Los Angeles Times reporter testily that "Apocalypse Now is an anti-lie film, not an antiwar film." He wasn't being cagey. Apocalypse Now is for war--that's why it's been so vivid in the memory.

Enjoy it as such without subscribing to that crucial naiveté that flaws Apocalypse Now Redux: the idea that Vietnam zapped our American heads, that there's such a thing as bad wars and good wars, that good wars bring glory and bad wars bring soul sickness.

The truest moment in Apocalypse Now Redux is its masterful beginning: The Doors' John Densmore's hissing riff on his cymbals. The eternal palm trees, immolating silently as Jim Morrison intones, "This is the end" until all disintegrates into sulfur-colored dust, stirred by the choppers circling like buzzards.

That one sequence tells all about what happened to America in Vietnam: this was the cliff we walked off. Would you look at that incredible view!

Apocalypse Now Redux (R; 196 min.), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, written by John Milius, Michael Herr and Coppola, photographed by Vittorio Storaro and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall, opens Friday at the Century 16 in Mountain View and the Century 21 in San Jose.

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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