Final Cut: Apocalypse Now and the directorial imagination

As Francis Ford Coppola heads back upriver in search of an elusive, definitive version of his 1979 masterpiece, we look back at the film’s various releases and the history of the director’s cut.

Andrew Simpson

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

In the year of its 40th anniversary, Francis Ford Coppola’s acid-drenched odyssey to the dark heart of the Vietnam war is returning to the big screen, in what has been billed Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. First unveiled at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Coppola has revisited his most tumescent, complex masterpiece in pursuit of an apparently ‘definitive’ version. Standing at three hours, some thirty minutes longer than the original 1979 cut, it includes several additional, divergent details, from a botched live appearance by a group of playboy models at a US outpost; to a woozy adventure on a French plantation shortly before the film’s final act, in which Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) completes his journey up the Nung River in pursuit of the man whose command he has been dispatched to terminate, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). 

This is an exercise that Coppola has engaged in before, of course. In 2001, the director revisited Apocalypse Now to create what would be billed Redux, adding 53 minutes to the original film. Final Cut, by contrast, contains nothing new, Coppola instead having culled a few of Redux’s additional scenes to create a cut somewhere in-between the previous two. How, then, is this new version more definitive? Coppola himself reflects that when Apocalypse Now screened at Cannes in 1979, it was effectively unfinished, with financial pressure and a desire to end the by-now-rampant speculation around the troubled production (many suspected that it would never be finished) driving him to finally deliver the two hour, twenty-minute cut that so divided audiences, Palme d’Or or not.

With history having vindicated him – Steven Soderbergh, when speaking to him at Tribeca, told Coppola that “you gambled, and you won” – Coppola had always felt his 1979 cut was incomplete, speculating that what had once appeared avant-garde could now be pushed further, and for longer. Finally scratching this itch with Redux, he was seemingly unable to resist restoring all of the footage available to him, indulging the film’s fullest durational possibilities, a kind of Apocalypse Now Maximus.  

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Final Cut is, ultimately, a response to Redux. Coppola has dubbed his previous attempt at completism simply “too long”, and this Final Cut, in the spirit of Goldilocks, just right. Avoiding much of Redux’s narrative sag, its three hour running time feels well matched with the film’s own epic sense of scale, and many of the pleasures of 2001’s expansion – the stealing of Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard among them – remain intact; although debate is likely to continue over the French plantation segment, which remains in full. Its strange, tone-shifting descent into what feels like a nineteenth century timewarp, complete with regal dining, missives about the changing fortunes of French Indochina, and the boudoir in which Willard smokes opium with the compound’s matriarch, remains a divergent chapter.

But it’s a sequence clearly important to Coppola, touching as it does upon an important facet of the war, namely French involvement. It also deepens the extent to which Apocalypse Now, despite its very specific setting, feels divorced from a real sense of time. Instead, Vietnam is experienced as a series of traumatic layers leading towards the final confrontation with Kurtz, a denouement taking place inside a hellish kingdom that almost seems like an ahistorical non-place, somewhere between past and present, or life and death. A metaphysical embellishment of Coppola’s original intent, the plantation segment feels more prominent within Final Cut’s runtime, another strange additional layer in what was already an episodic film.

Seeing this new version of Apocalypse Now inevitably recalls the era of American cinema that followed in the wake of Easy Rider (1969). This decade of risk-taking – Apocalypse Now’s $30 million budget roughly equates to $200 million today, with the caveat that Coppola financed much of it himself – is also explicitly bound up in the mythology of the director’s cut, exemplified by the film that arguably brought this period of studio-funded auteurism to a dramatic end. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), shown once in a 219 minute cut before the disastrous release of a shorter, 149 minute version that disappeared in a flaming ball of ignominy, is best known for torpedoing United Artists. But a screening of its longer incarnation, billed as a ‘director’s cut’, on the influential American television station Channel Z arguably laid the groundwork for the resurrection of films originally butchered by their producers for fear of financial disaster, a list that would come to include Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Once upon a Time in America (1983)

Once upon a Time in America (1983)

The latter, originally released in America as a (rather awful) two-hour, linear brutalisation foisted upon its director, has eventually been restored to something close to its original elegiac, back-and-forth, four hour masterfulness; while Bertolucci was forced to edit the five-plus hours of his 1976 film 1900 into something roughly half the length, for fear of producers coming up with something even worse. That resulted in the curious circumstance of a director’s cut effectively being in circulation at the same time as a shorter theatrical cut, a circumstance recently repeated by the controversial release of truncated versions of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) and Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013).

The post-Easy Rider era of American cinema to which Apocalypse Now belongs, running roughly from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, may have been relatively fortunate in arriving on the eve of audience enthusiasm for a director’s true vision (an enthusiasm that has also remained largely fixated on male, American directors, the compromised directorial visions of women and non-white filmmakers yet to receive the same canonisation). Earlier eras of filmmaking are also littered with tales of lost films, often butchered by their studios or producers.

Some, like Metropolis (1927), have been ‘completed’ unexpectedly after several decades; others, such as Orson Welles’ near mythic original version of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Erich von Stroheim’s intended nine-hour cut of Greed (1924), are seemingly lost forever. Ken Russell’s preferred cut of his masterpiece The Devils (1971) has only been seen publicly a handful of times, locked in legal limbo by a distributor that refuses to release it. As with Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift (1984) and Peet Gelderblom’s reassembly of Brian de Palma’s original vision for Raising Cain (1992), audiences have relied on online bootlegs to see the film as their maker intended; or in the case of various ‘workprint’ versions of iconic films floating around on the internet (including a five-hour version of Apocalypse Now, as it happens), very much as they did not.

The existence of multiple cuts, of which one represents its creator’s true vision, only feeds the mythology of cinema, of course. It also dovetails nicely with the enthusiasm of the ardent collector, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the director’s cut has increasingly sat at the nexus of art and commerce, perfectly suited to the emerging era of home video and DVD, and the potential for multiple releases. Once the purview of a narrow band of film obsessives and elitist festivals, directors’ cuts have become de rigueur in the marketplace.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

One of the first commercially potent examples is, of course, Blade Runner (1982), with the success of a rare workprint (or assembly cut) screening in 1992 suddenly affording Ridley Scott the opportunity to recut the film as he originally intended. Presented without the expository voiceover and tacked-on happy ending Warner Brothers had insisted upon ten years before, its success, driven by colossal VHS sales, took the notion that the director’s cut could revive a picture’s fortunes to new heights, a precursor to a glut of extended, final, and whatever-else director’s cuts in the home entertainment market, from extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) to the various director’s cuts of James Cameron; and no less than three versions of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009). Satisfying the die-hard fans’ appetite for completion, whether some of these films were improved by the exercise is open for debate, but the multiple versions merry-go-round has proven well suited to the modern face of cinematic fandom.  

The relationship between directors’ cuts and home entertainment also allowed a new lease of life for films that had already been successful, affording the possibility (and the funding) to revisit work, to reshape it, improve it, or offer a more expansive version; the one exception perhaps being the Coen Brothers, who used their directors’ cut of Blood Simple (1984) to actually make their original film shorter. Peter Bogdanovich has engaged in the exercise repeatedly, revisiting several films to correct what he saw as ‘problems’, especially on the numerous versions of The Last Picture Show (1971), a film finally ‘finished’ in 2015, some 44 years after original release. That film joins Blade Runner (of which a ‘Final Cut’ was completed in 2007) and Apocalypse Now as one of a number of films, rather counterintuitively, with more than one director’s cut.

The litany of alternative versions of various films on home video in an era where American and European cuts were often very different, as with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985); and when national censorship laws were gradually being relaxed, as with the slow trickle of former ‘video nasties’ being released with fewer and fewer cuts in the UK in the ‘90s, has added to the folklore around definitive versus un-definitive cuts, of which the directors’ version is just one component. 

Brazil (1985)

Brazil (1985)

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about the history of the director’s cut is the attitude of the artists themselves towards their own work. Some, like George Lucas, have attempted to erase all traces of previous versions of their films once they have tinkered with them, staunch in their belief that theirs is the one true cut. Others, like Coppola himself, seem sanguine about the plethora of versions that are out there. A multitude of available cuts, a kind of expanding, overlapping Director’s Cinematic Universe, arguably goes against the traditional auteurist lens through which many of us have been trained to view cinema, firstly be reframing a ‘film’ not as a static cultural entity to be critiqued, but as part of the ongoing creative process in which a piece of art is constantly in dialogue with itself; but more radically by returning cinema, perhaps accidentally, back to the subjective realm of individual viewership.

Audiences are often split on which cut is in fact the best – those tempted to explore the Reddit debates on which of the seven available versions of Blade Runner is the pick of the bunch; whether one should plump for Michael Mann’s director’s cut of Miami Vice (2006) over the theatrical version; and the ‘Snyder Cut’ conspiracy theories circulating around 2017’s Justice League, are strenuously advised to avoid it – and their very existence curiously undermines any concrete notion of definitiveness. 

Delving further into the realm of subjectivity, one can sit down for multiple viewings of Apocalypse Now and not see the same film twice, whether one is watching different cuts of the film or not. A cinematic viewing experience can really only truly exist as a specific, temporally subjective moment. As such, multiple versions of films already exist.

Filmic experiments in auto destructive art actively play with this idea of subjective spectatorship in cinema and the impossibility of uniform experience, while it is Terrence Malick, a filmmaker given some of the most stringent, cloying adoration from the traditional auteurist school, who has been most open to surrendering control: his ambition for his own Director’s Cut of The Tree of Life (2011) was to use the branching technology of DVD and Blu-ray to randomly create new versions of his film from hours of available footage, with no viewer ever seeing the same version twice. A series of never-ending director’s cuts extending the life of their creator’s work, it’s an idea that upends the notion that there is any such thing as a definitive cut, unifying notions of art as something permanently unfinished with the idea that the only true version of anything in cinema is individual, subjective experience.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

These questions aside, when it comes to this new Apocalypse Now perhaps what impresses most is its vitality and boldness, some forty years later. Led by the extraordinary richness of image and sound in this new, restored version (extracted from the original negative), it remains a staggering visual and aural journey, a trip into America’s heart of darkness that feels as relevant to the addled mania of Trump as it does to the Vietnam War. Technology has now opened up a universe of palettes to explore when a film is being remastered. Michael Mann – one of the most worthwhile filmmakers in regularly offering fascinating new versions of his films, while also being openly dismissive of ever revisiting The Keep (1983), his most legendarily constrained, compromised work – has often commented on how restoration lets a film exist as much in the present as the past, allowing for a kind of formal rebirth. Seeing this new Apocalypse Now on the biggest of screens at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna earlier this year was a truly extraordinary experience, and it feels like a film that’s returned newly alive to us, somehow even more confident in its hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic strangeness than ever before. That is the cut that truly matters.

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