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The Legendary APOCALYPSE NOW Rough Cut

SIX HOURS of footage? It isn't in circulation, it doesn't officially exist. It's a very special mystery videotape. Savant's seen it.

Savant's first contact with APOCALYPSE NOW was in the Theater Arts Reading Room in the UCLA Research library, circa 1976. There I read one of John Milius' original drafts for the movie. It was a good read, and I can remember telling myself that the anticipated movie was bound to be pretty crazy. The APOCALYPSE we now know was there, but with some radical differences. A few character names were bizarre, comic-bookish: Robert Duvall's role was given the not very subtle name 'Colonel Kharnage'. The wildest notion was the visualization of the Kurtz character as a muscleman dressed in tights and cape, like a superhero. Was APOCALYPSE really intended to lampoon Vietnam from such a camp perspective? This depiction of Kurtz reminded of MISTER FREEDOM, an anti-American French fantasy from 1968 about a combination soldier/football hero/Captain America who slaughters all who disagree with U.S. foreign policy.

This didn't jibe too well with the pop image of John Milius, who at the time was known as the writer/director of films like DILLINGER. His own publicity characterized him as a conservative-leaning gun enthusiast. Savant loved THE WIND AND THE LION, and was equally intrigued by the preproduction script on file for that title: a forty-page prose poem that lightly sketched the plot and spent pages on elaborate descriptions of the Berber Pirate El Raisuli and his Moroccan world.

Obviously APOCALYPSE NOW went through multiple permutations between the 1969 draft Savant read and the final epic released ten years later. There were crazy rumors about filming being done with musclemen doubling for Brando in full-body shots, but, hey, the sources for these rumors weren't very reliable. Those of wondering if Milius had a more satisfying ending for the story won't be surprised to hear that his draft concluded with a walloping fire-fight. The Kurtz camp is arranged with concentric trenches, each stocked with ammo and weapons. As the onslaught of Viet Kong regulars overwhelms the outer firing line, the Apocalypse defenders leave their empty, overheated weapons behind and retreat inward to the next trench where fresh arms await. Naturally our hero soldiers all fight like Audie Murphy / John Wayne clones, with Brando at the center, posing in his superhero cape! Apparently Coppola thought one humungous battle was enough, and sought to make his final statement on Vietnam more than just another firefight orgy.

In late 1977 or early 1978, a friend named Mark Stern (can anyone put Mark in touch with me?) was able to attend a public screening of a work-in-progress version of APOCALYPSE NOW, at the Bruin Theater in Westwood. A full-page ad in the LA TIMES announced the screening, at which Coppola himself would elicit audience ideas to help him finish the film! The screening sold out so fast I never had a chance to get a ticket. Mark reported that Coppola indeed was there, that the screening took forever, that APOCALYPSE looked like it would be either the greatest film ever made, or an unwatchable mess.

Skip to 1993. APOCALYPSE has been out for fourteen years. Savant is asked if he wants to see a six-hour rough cut on vhs. You bet.

The rough cut cassette I saw was a bad dupe several generations from its master. In some scenes one was hard put to distinguish the actors from the foliage. Trying, for instance, to find scenes where Harvey Keitel could still be seen instead of his replacement Martin Sheen was pretty hopeless. It also frequently became boring. Entire sequences that were obvious candidates for the cutting-room floor played intact,long,like, interminable.

The six hours were described by another editor as a rough assembly of everything the editors had to work with (save the finale), a shapeless accumulation of scenes put together in hopes of figuring out how to proceed: what to drop, what to keep. I don't know if it was the rough cut my friend Mark Stern had seen, but it could have been.

Savant will attempt to sketch an impression of what this Rough Cut Assembly vhs contained:

Martin Sheen's hotel room drunken spree seems to have been accomplished by letting the actor get totally blasted and then turning a camera on him for hours on end. The raw material for this and other 'unstructured' scenes goes on forever.

The sheer brilliance of Coppola and his editors is their bold restructuring of all this filmed material. Excellent decisions, jettisoning where necessary entire scenes that may have taken weeks to film, transformed this rough cut into the final film. All manner of literal arrivals, departures, introductions, exposition scenes were dropped. If there had been a 'studio' in a position to yank the troubled film away from its director, the rough cut shows that journeyman editors could have assembled APOCALYPSE into a numbingly literal sequence of events.

Most of the famous 'cut' scenes are there. The scripted scene where the boat comes upon the marooned USO troupe, the one with the Playboy Bunnies, is a drab and lifeless series of cuts. In it the soldiers trade the Playboy promoter gasoline for his helicopter, for sex with the Bunnies, but the whole business is very unmemorable. Instead of the expected 'hot stuff', this material looks like filming designed to keep the company busy while Coppola figured out what to film next. This and other rambling and seemingly pointless scenes where the soldiers appear to be improvising their dialog might also be cover scenes shot to give the construction crew time to rebuild sets wiped out by the hurricane depicted in the documentary HEARTS OF DARKNESS.

The French Plantation scenes that were the revelation of that documentary are far longer and lack anything like focus, meant to be made coherent at a later stage of post. Martin Sheen might (?) make love with the wife of the Planter ...

The big action scene, the helicopter attack on the village, is shown in a breathtaking series of unedited mastershots, any one of which shows up to a minute of incredibly well-coordinated flying, stunts, and special effects. Each stands alone; watching them end to end is forty minutes of amazement. Savant would surmise that Coppola clearly knew he had the greatest battle of all time, and left the master shots as a place holder. Actually cutting the scene could wait until major structural issues were addressed.

One memorable detail about the battle is the music used for the rough cut. The long flight to the village was temp-scored with Venus from Tomita's The Planets, a 70's synthesised version. The original score eventually arrived at for this section of the film has some heavy borrowings from the Tomita recording, almost but not quite sounding 'sampled' at one or two moments.

Some remarkable footage, I'd say more than an hour, was lost from the part of the film set in Kurtz's armed camp. There is a 'mud dance' where the entire Montagnard tribe dances to the accompaniment of primitive instruments. Sheen and the other soldiers join in and it looks like a genuine hippie/primitive happening that so many would-be flower-power films (Magical Mystery Tour) failed to achieve. On its own it would make an impressive 40 minute film!

One confusing collection of action scenes depicts Martin Sheen being stalked by Scott Glenn, who plays the assassin who preceded Sheen on an identical mission. Instead of 'terminating' Kurtz, Glenn flipped out and joined Kurtz'es psychedelic army. His role in the finished film eventually boiled down to one shot and a photo glimpsed in Sheen's dossier of orders. Savant can't rightly recall exactly what happens, but both Glenn and Dennis Hopper are killed. Hopper may die trying to keep Glenn from killing Sheen; the memory has faded.

The tape ends before the murder of Kurtz. Perhaps at the point this rough assembly was transferred to tape, the ending of the film was still a big Unknown. Sheen's creeping assault on Kurtz's quarters is intercut with yet another hypnotizingly primitive dance ritual and temp-scored with Doors music. Particularly disturbing is a shot where Sheen surprises a Montagnard holding a baby. In silhouette, the action appears to depict Sheen killing the native with a machete stroke that cuts the baby in two. Yeesh.

Savant read several years ago where entire original manuscripts of early drafts of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn were discovered in a farmhouse. These priceless archival documents floundered around loose for a hundred years, yet were miraculously rescued. The true stories of how important movies were really shot and shaped may not be as lucky. Studios define 'behind the scenes' as a marketing concept, manufacturing publicity versions of the production of their films for the likes of television shows like E.T. The real Behind The Scenes usually isn't trendy folk crafting personal works of art within the nurturing arms of the studio. Even 'unbiased' docus are anything but, as witness the fascinating but still limited scope of HEARTS OF DARKNESS.

Savant was fortunate to see the blotchy, blurry 6 Hour Rough Cut Assembly for APOCALYPSE NOW, but acknowledges that some of his assumptions, guesses and conclusions about its content may be dead wrong. What is really lacking is the interpretation and insight of prime witnesses/creators. Hopefully, there are a lot of Hollywood memoirs being written out there ...

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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