Like the title of Joseph Conrad's novella that inspired it, Francis Ford Coppola's magnificent 1979 film "Apocalypse Now" is about darkness — the bleakness within the soul of a man crazed by war; the inky depths of a Cambodian river over which a lit-up bridge glitters like a grotesque carnival ride; the shadows from which Marlon Brando's black-rimmed eyes finally emerge.
And, in this new version of the film, the darkness of sitting for more than three hours in a theater, without intermission, immersed in Coppola's strange, trancelike world. You may not even notice the three hours passing; I barely did, even on my second viewing.
Coppola's new version of the film, incorporating an additional 49 minutes of never-before-seen footage, was created last year by re-editing the original raw footage of the film with editor/sound designer Walter Murch. The 1979 "Apocalypse Now" was released under great pressure — details of the film's troubled shoot are now legendary — and Coppola now says he feared that the film would be too long and audiences wouldn't tolerate it. So it was trimmed to a tight 2-1/2 hours.
(The original cut of the film, Coppola has said, was more than four hours, causing me to wonder if there's an "Apocalypse Now Redux Redux" in our future.)
The essential story, loosely based on "Heart of Darkness," remains the same: Against the chaotic backdrop of the Vietnam War, Martin Sheen's wary, dazed Willard leads a mission into hell: to find soldier-turned-madman Col. Kurtz (Brando). With his boat mates — baby-faced Clean (skinny, intense Laurence Fishburne, already a marvelous actor at 15), surfer boy Lance (Sam Bottoms), taciturn Chief (Albert Hall), spacey Chef (Frederic Forrest) — he sails upriver to Cambodia, finally finding Kurtz's compound and "the horror" within.
"Redux" now includes lengthy scenes in which Willard and his crew spend an evening at the plantation home of French expatriates living along the river; new footage involving the visiting Playboy bunnies; and an additional scene near the end, in which Kurtz enunciates his views on the war.
In a gorgeous new print, "Apocalypse" assaults the senses: the almost palpable odor of sticky-hot Saigon; the creepy little guitar riffs of The Doors' "The End"; Robert Duvall's Kilgore bellowing a greeting to Lance over the noise of helicopters as if meeting him at a cocktail party; Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" booming out from helicopters hanging in the air like the warrior maidens of the opera; the bored-looking Bunnies dancing the Suzy Q for a whooping crowd of doomed servicemen; young Clean's sudden emergence as a killing machine. Everyone shines with a thin slick of sweat; everyone's eyes look haunted.
Whether the new scenes make "Apocalypse" a better movie is debatable; for me, they were fascinating but not essential. The plantation sequence, though a welcome respite from the horrors of the river (including a brief, beautifully photographed seduction scene, with Aurore Clement's porcelain face glowing in dim golden light), feels detachable.
The new Bunnies scene helps flesh out Lance's character and shows that the young women were also pawns in a game they didn't fully understand, but again it feels tacked on. (The female quotient is higher in the new film, but they're all dimwitted sex symbols, war victims or sad widows.)
And Brando's new scene doesn't quite illuminate the elusive Kurtz, who remains a cipher. Maybe it's too much suspense before we find him, maybe it's Brando's weird, mumbling performance, maybe it's just that there are no answers.
Still, particularly on the mammoth Cinerama screen, Coppola's sprawling, harrowing war story is not to be missed. Is the new version better? See it, and decide for yourself.
Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.