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Apocalypse Now Redux

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What is Apocalypse Now? Until this year, answering that question involved sifting through the inspired vagaries of Francis Ford Coppola's phantasmagoric Vietnam War epic, an exploratory journey filled with absurd, horrific sights, but without a certain destination. From the beginning, Coppola's free adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness was doomed to be incomplete and open-ended; arguably, that lack of clarity and purpose—two elements also absent from the war itself—makes it a better film. But now that Coppola and ace editor Walter Murch have added 49 minutes of excised footage and repackaged a significantly different film under the title Apocalypse Now Redux, the question becomes more practical. What is the real Apocalypse Now, the intriguing but bloated new version, or the masterful old one? Can the two peacefully co-exist? If not, who will decide which one stays? Coppola and Murch also tinkered around on finished work with The Godfather Saga, which straightens out the trilogy in chronological order with additional footage. But how could a project that obliterates the profound interplay between past and present in The Godfather, Part II ever supplant it? To Coppola's credit, Redux has been championed by many as the complete and definitive version since it premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival, so the fight over the film isn't so clear-cut. The most significant change in the new edit is the addition of the "French plantation scene," a long and dreamy interlude that was to be the last stop for Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his crew before his fateful encounter with mad renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Unquestionably, the sequence adds another layer to the film by steering away from nightmarish abstractions and dealing with the Vietnam War more directly. Coppola and Murch originally cut the scene because it stalled the narrative just short of Apocalypse Now's climax. They should have trusted their instincts: Save for a stinging line about the futility of the American cause, the plantation scenes are a didactic slog, concluding with a silly erotic encounter between Willard and a French widow (Aurore Clément). The other additions are minor, but extraneous. Two superbly proportioned episodes, one involving the monstrous, surf-crazy Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and the other a group of Playboy bunnies, have been needlessly extended into subplots. A new scene in which Kurtz reads to Willard from Time magazine emphasizes Kurtz's grim lucidity, but it also puts a fine point on issues that have already been worked over elsewhere. In any form, Apocalypse Now remains an audacious, powerful, and haunting vision of war as a waking nightmare, and the new print looks and sounds better than ever. But as much as Redux was born of Coppola's intellectual restlessness, it also speaks to his unwillingness to make tough choices and live with them.