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Hollywood's Long March to War

The release of Apocalypse Now Redux sharpens the debate over the moral complexities of the battlefield.

If Sergeant York and Captain Willard ever run into each other on the battlefield -- or the backlot -- they'll have plenty to talk about. Army food. The firepower of the Springfield '03 versus the M-16 carbine. Mud and grime. The night sweats. Overwrought assistant directors. They might even discuss the morality of war and their roles in defining it for millions of moviegoers.

York, you'll recall, is the aw-shucks Tennessee farmer who starts out as a mild, God-fearing pacifist but once thrown into battle becomes the consummate American soldier. Credited with killing 25 of Kaiser Wilhelm's spike-helmeted Huns and personally capturing 132 others in a single day, this real-life figure was mythologized by director Howard Hawks in 1941. Sergeant York, in the person of Gary Cooper, became the quintessential Hollywood combat hero -- reluctant to take life, but fierce in his patriotic resolve, unassuming in all things but committed to the highest ideals of democracy.

Captain Willard is, of course, a different piece of work from a vastly different time, who undergoes a different sort of transformation. The haunted assassin of 1979's Apocalypse Now is played by a jittery Martin Sheen, who is sent on a secret mission upriver to "terminate the command" of a godlike renegade American colonel called Kurtz. He quickly finds himself enveloped in what Joseph Conrad famously called "the Horror," from which there is no escape. Kurtz's tormentor, his surrogate son and the bearer of his message about the endurance of evil, Willard embodies the violent ambiguities of the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam -- at least for those who admire Francis Ford Coppola's most difficult and troubled film.

Director Francis Ford Coppola has sharpened his vision in Apocalypse Now Redux.
Director Francis Ford Coppola has sharpened his vision in Apocalypse Now Redux.
Gary Cooper embodied the principled but determined G.I. in Sergeant York.
Gary Cooper embodied the principled but determined G.I. in Sergeant York.

Imagine the two of them, York and Willard, chatting over coffee and doughnuts in the Stage Door Canteen.

The release this week of an even longer, more overtly political re-edit of Coppola's star-crossed epic -- Apocalypse Now Redux -- gives new momentum to the old debate about American war movies. Having recently seen the "greatest generation" depicted as heroic (in Saving Private Ryan) and as inane (in Pearl Harbor), are we now to embrace anew the swaggering certainties of John Wayne, who never met a squad of World War II recruits he couldn't mold into a right-minded fighting force? Ten years after George I gleefully annihilated the disheartened, under-equipped Iraqis in Desert Storm and, some say, drove off the malignant ghosts of the war in Southeast Asia, are we to reassess the lessons we learned (or failed to learn) in Vietnam and the dark, disturbed films it eventually produced? Certainly, Redux is a lightning rod for such questions.

In its new configuration, overseen by Coppola and editor Walter Murch, the film contains 49 minutes of new footage. Dedicated Coppolites have been speculating for two decades about the excised French-plantation scene, and now here it is: a contentious dinner party at which a band of colonial holdouts hold forth on what's kept them in the jungle in the desolate years since the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu and, by extension, what the jungle's exacting from the Americans. Following that, there's an opium-scented seduction that provides stark contrast to the film's bloody horrors. Coppola has also restored a second encounter with the Playboy bunnies we first saw at the film's testosterone-crazed USO show. The girls are now stranded upriver in their helicopter, and, like their young male counterparts in battle, they are cruelly exploited -- reduced to exchanging dispirited sex for aviation fuel. The sequence vibrates with sadness as it comments on the commingled fantasies of war and lust.

Most interesting of all, Redux sheds a little more light, personal and political, on the enigmatic Kurtz, who derives from Heart of Darkness. In the added scenes, massive Marlon Brando expounds on the hypocrisy of the U.S. government en route to defining more clearly the evil around him and the evil inside him. Through him, those twin goliaths of twentieth-century darkness, Conrad and T.S. Eliot, now have a stronger and more eloquent hold on the film.

For those who know and love Apocalypse Now, and even for those who think it is preposterous nonsense, here's the chance to see a heightened and more focused version, unburdened of the notorious crises (Typhoon! Heart attack! Catastrophic budget overruns!) that plagued its production and initial release. Coppola believes he has finally untangled and sorted the 370 hours of raw film he originally shot and distilled it into the best 194 minutes he could conjure up. "The new version doesn't say anything differently from the old one," the filmmaker says. "It just says it better and with more complexity -- and the themes emerge more clearly." Just so.

While we're revisiting Coppola's work, it can't hurt to glimpse some of its forbears and descendants.

Almost half a century before Gary Cooper rounded up all those Germans, an anonymous silent moviemaker struck what was likely the first blow for U.S. war fever: 1898's bluntly named Tearing Down the Spanish Flag consisted of just one shot, in which a man's hand -- billed in the accompanying title as "the hand of righteous destiny"-- ripped a Spanish flag out of the camera's view. This dramatic gesture, enacted in a powerful new medium, rallied public support for President McKinley's conduct of the highly questionable Spanish-American War. Its significance as propaganda was not lost on future filmmakers -- or future governments. In the silent-movie era, a decades-long tug-of-war between pacifism and pugnaciousness got under way. On one battlement stood films like Thomas Ince's Civilization (1914), in which a reluctant submarine captain refuses to torpedo a civilian ocean liner, gets himself killed and is resurrected by Christ himself as a blessedly lit crusader for peace. On the other battlement we find such saber-rattling epics as The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin and To Hell With the Kaiser, both released in 1917. Once America entered Sergeant York's war, pacifist sentiment could prove dangerous: One movie producer was sentenced to ten years in jail for making an innocuous little feature called The Spirit of '76, which criticized America's British allies.

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