For those of you who haven’t been paying attention for the past 40 years, here’s what happens.
Jed Bartlett is sent on a secret mission in deepest Nam to take out Kurtz, a US army colonel who’s gone rogue. He charters a small boat whose crew members meet all the racial diversity targets (though when it comes to the inevitable deaths, it’s the black crewmen who go first). They are as irritating and as boring as you’d expect of a group of young men cooped up on a small boat for months on end.
On their way upstream they encounter surfers, a tiger and Playboy bunnies. Viet Cong guerrillas are mainly visible by their absence – the perpetrators of occasional threats which may come at any moment, but not by anyone who has a face or an identity.
Similarly, when a boatful of Vietnamese civilians is despatched as soon as they make a move (which as they are sentient beings is fairly soon) their deaths are horrific, but not horrific enough for them to be given names or agency. This is a film about how war is tragic, but the main tragedy is that it makes US Americans very sad.
Further upstream they meet a group of French colonialists who are allowed to be racist in a way that the Amis are not. They despair at having lost the Second World War and their occupations of Algeria and Indochina and complain that France has been betrayed by the 1968 movement.
Later, a young woman in the French party comes up to Martin Sheen and quotes Heraclitus. She shares a pipe of Substance with him. Then she takes her clothes off and circles his bed for reasons that seem to have little to do with the plot.
Finally, they get to see Kurtz, but not before a meeting with Dennis Hopper playing an addled hippie photojournalist. According to Kurtz’s file, he should look like Terry Molloy, but it’s the fat bald Brando who refuses to learn his lines who turns up – so more Superman’s dad or doctor Moreau, albeit one who still knows how to emote.
It then all goes a bit Wicker Man and Brando starts quoting TS Eliot. A water buffalo is symbolically slaughtered, and Martin Sheen enters every book of film quotations by saying “The Horror. The Horror”. Twice.
So, were the changes to the original version worthwhile? To be honest, I only saw it once, and that was in the early 1980s when I was still discovering film. So though I remember individual scenes, mainly from the first hour, I can’t say for definite what was new.
But it doesn’t feel overlong, even at 3 hours, and if I’m right to guess that the main new scenes are with the French colonialists, these do add something, notwithstanding the implied criticisms above. Despite the length, the film doesn’t just fail the Bechdel test – with the main female characters being Playboy bunnies and someone who seems to be mainly there to show us her tits, you do worry about the sexual politics on set.
It is also somewhat disconcerting to see a young Martin Sheen with a short back and sides talking with the voice of President Bartlett, but once you get over that, he is very good.
Added to this, the film is astounding both visually and sonically. The cinematography makes tremendous use of the night scenes with explosions and fires, and the relatively sparse soundtrack uses The Doors, Wagner and the Rolling Stones judiciously.
And even if the film sees Vietnam as an almost exclusively US American tragedy, it was pioneering in film being able to address the Vietnam defeat directly, rather than using the cover of setting itself in Korea.
So, definitely worth a pop, though you don’t have to watch it every night, especially if you value the work of female actors.