Current Issue #488

Film Review: Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut

Film Review: Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut

As another new edit of Apocalypse Now hits cinemas, how does director Francis Ford Coppola’s confronting 1979 classic hold up four decades later?

Coppola’s mythical meditation upon the Vietnam war returns in a ‘Final Cut’ and, in the cold light of 2019, there’s no doubt that it has problems – but no matter as this is, nevertheless, one of the truly great movies of the 1970s. And very much the kind of production that they don’t – and can’t – make anymore. They simply wouldn’t dare.

Now in a ‘Final Cut’ (and as Coppola recently turned 80 he won’t be waiting a decade or two to throw together another), this is actually shorter (at 183 minutes) than 2001’s ‘Redux’ version (196 minutes) and doesn’t include some of the extraneous material from that version, although it does feature the lengthy ‘French plantation’ sequence which has always been controversial and flawed. But this is an epic where the many cuts and their differences are legendary, from the original 70mm release, to the TV version with proper credits and less violence, to the Redux and now this take – and even the pirated workprint (330 minutes), which is somewhere out there.

Diehard fans and obsessives will pick what’s missing here immediately, and while we definitely don’t miss the second encounter with the Playboy girls (which sees Frederic Forrest’s grimacing ‘Chef’ commit rape), it is a shame we no longer have the Redux moment where Marlon Brando strolls about in daylight looking a little like Shrek.

It’s also difficult to separate the film from its notoriously difficult production, as an endless pre-production led to a 16 month shoot in appalling conditions in the Philippines, sweaty star Martin Sheen almost died of a heart attack on the set, Coppola nearly murdered a mountainous Marlon for his indulgently self-loathing behaviour, and so much more. But now, 40 years later, is it truly worthy of the breathless use of terms like ‘classic’ and ‘masterwork’?

Well, yes. Although sometimes slow, episodic and ponderous (it is a Francis Coppola movie, after all), this still proves an unforgettable experience, and one that must be seen at least once in a cinema and not squashed onto a TV screen. Drawn, of course, from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart Of Darkness (but also informed by Werner Herzog’s 1972 cult item Aguirre, The Wrath Of God), this 1969-set tale of Captain Willard (Sheen) and his ‘trippy’ voyage to a remote Cambodian outpost to assassinate an insane Special Forces Colonel (Brando) suffers from a little incoherence, an occasionally clumsy pace, a look that’s more ‘70s than ‘60s, and a final pay-off that just gets more and more pretentiously bonkers.

And yet there are also moments virtually without parallel: the haunting, bookending use of The Doors’ The End; the whole Ride Of The Valkyries helicopter attack and Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) loving the smell of napalm in the morning; the terrifying lurking tiger; the at times almost overwhelming dread of the boat journey; the arrival in Brando’s/Kurtz’s camp and Dennis Hopper’s essentially ridiculous but totally irresistible cameo; and the final setpiece featuring that poor water buffalo, something which would NEVER be allowed now.

The horror… the horror.


Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut (MA) is now screening at selected cinemas for a limited season

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox