Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)


FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , , , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.


“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)”

  1. I’m never really sure what my own personal parameters for weird are, but I agree, Apocalypse Now is at times nightmarish, is psychological and abstractly reflective, but it isn’t really in any way weird. And it certainly belongs in any decent best films list, just not so much in a weird movie list. Just reading about it makes me want to view it again.

    I first saw it in a theatre, in the 80s, i was only a teen, and pretty green about the world. When I left the theatre, i couldn’t speak. It was so harrowing and so incredible that i had been overwhelmed by the experience. We sat for a long time in her car, just lost in our own thoughts before we started talking. We in effect had to come down from the movie, decompress.

  2. I agree that Apocalypse Now doesn’t quite belong in the List, but it’s more in the ballpark than people assume. I made sure the early “Variety” report was included so readers could grasp just how strange this movie appeared when it first came out. Since it was eagerly accepted into the mainstream canon, I think many people assume it can’t be “weird”; but if it was the exact same movie yet had flopped at the box office, I imagine more readers would be championing it as a “weird” movie.

    1. There are basically two ways to look at Apocalypse Now. The first is that Brando showed up fat and crazy, the director had thrown the script away a while ago, and so you end up with a disappointment. One could point out that Brando’s character has been leading a paramilitary cult in an inhospitable wilderness for a while now, so where’s he getting all the food? But I say, why shouldn’t Kurtz be fat? It actually adds to the weirdness. And the reason so many fans hated the ending is because the weirdness doesn’t seem to fit in with what to this point was a somewhat more conventional flick, i.e. an insightful satire and a thrilling adventure story. Like the Saragossa Manuscript, it only gets full blown weird at the very end.

      Apocalypse Now is at least superficially weirder than a few movies that are included here, such as the Swimmer. Nothing at all wrong with this; the reviewer of the Swimmer rightfully points out that the weirdness is contextual. Between the direction and Burt Lancaster’s performance there is something that makes it more than just a satire of the upper middle class and their “swimming pool culture.” I feel the same way about Apocalypse Now, which obviously began life as some kind of satirical comment on the Vietnam War, and then evolved into something else. Harrison Ford stuttering through his euphemisms at the mission briefing, Robert Duval and his randomly marauding helicopter troops, the disoriented soldiers at the last outpost on the Nung River – all of this is satire or commentary on the Vietnam War. But Kurtz doesn’t represent or ridicule any obvious aspect of Vietnam, and is more of a mythological figure or a character from a dream.

      Another flick that is included, Vertigo, isn’t very weird ostensibly, but it becomes more weird and disturbing with every viewing, almost like Blue Velvet, which is also a conventionally plotted thriller on the surface. Both achieve their unnerving effect through a similar method – while the plot clicks along, the directors move us through these carefully designed set pieces that produce a weird feeling, and then the intense and strange acting seals the deal (Stewart in Vertigo, Hopper and Rossellini in Blue Velvet). Apocalypse Now also involves elaborate and visually impressive set pieces, and at least one actor that was almost a little too committed to the role (Martin Sheen, punching out mirrors and playing with his own blood, having heart attacks, etc.).

      Another certified movie, Jacob’s Ladder, has a little something to say about Vietnam, and like the movies already mentioned, it is only partially weird. It is only included on the basis of two hallucinatory sequences, but they are superlative and justify it’s inclusion, However, it must be admitted that Adrian Lyne blows it in the ending. Coppola on the other hand saves all of the prime hallucinatory madness for the very end. A film with a bad ending must ultimately be considered a failure, even if other parts make it interesting enough to be included on your list.

      On a personal note, I think of Apocalypse Now as one of my introductions to weird cinema. I didn’t like the ending at first, just like I didn’t like Lynch. Back then, I felt that Lynch was wasting his obvious talent because his movies didn’t “make sense”. I had to get a little older and wiser to appreciate what Lynch was doing. In the same way, I also began to appreciate the ending of Apocalypse Now.

      I’d also like to point out that Ghosts Can’t Do It is a much weirder movie than Pan’s Labyrinth, but why are even talking about that anyway, because we need to make America great, not weird!

  3. Just a thought experiment. A borderline case. If the movie was already on the list it would pass unnoticed in my opinion. But I wouldn’t argue too strongly for inclusion at this point, when you’re already up to 277. We’re not talking about the Hourglass Sanatorium here, or Possession.

    I had to look pretty hard to find other borderline weird movies in order to support my argument. I think I caught most of them. Most of other movies on your list are hardcore weird. Good list.

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