As Pauline Kael once noted, some of the greatest of all movies have been follies — grand, overly ambitious projects that teetered on the edge of chaos yet became enduring monuments to the possibilities of cinema.
Intolerance was such a folly, and so was Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed, though only a fragment of the latter survives. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was another.
Coppola mortgaged almost everything he owned to make his Vietnam war epic. He headed off to The Philippines without a finished script, hoping to find an ending for his movie somewhere in the course of shooting it, which took him over a year, during which production costs spiraled out of control amidst disastrous weather conditions and Coppola’s gradual mental meltdown.
He was lucky to get out of it alive, and he never quite found his ending. He threw everything he could think of at the wall, hoping something would stick — a bit of T. S. Eliot, a Doors song, the on-screen slaughter of a water buffalo — but none of it really did. The drama just sort of implodes at the end without really resolving. But the journey to that amorphous denouement is one of the great cinematic adventures of all time, breathtaking to look at, with passages as powerful as any ever created by any director.
The film was a hit, Coppola got his investment back and a personal profit of about $15 million. Things rarely end that well for the directors of grand cinematic follies.
There are two versions of the film currently available on DVD and Blu-ray — the original release version and a re-release version from 2001 which restores about 49 minutes of footage that Coppola cut prior to the original release. I think the original release version is distinctly superior — the cut scenes, while fascinating, slow down the film’s momentum, lessen the suspense, and don’t accord with the tone of the ending Coppola settled on, drawing undue attention to its deficiencies.
In any case, the Blu-ray of Apocalypse Now belongs in the home of anyone who’s passionate about movies.