Apocalypse Today: An explanation of all 4 different versions (and which one is the best)


The iconic Apocalypse Now has had multiple cuts, including Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, over the decades, but what are they, and which one is the best? Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film stands out within the genre at least partly because of the different versions that exist and the debate that has cropped up as a result. Coppola has his own opinions of each, which can both differ from and line up with some of the widely accepted attitudes towards each version.

In 1975 Coppola was coming off a series of massive successes. He had written and directed The Godfather and its sequel along with the film The Conversation in the early 1970s. All three movies were critically and commercially successful, and they helped to solidify the New Hollywood era that began in the late 60s after the death of the old studio system. Francis Ford Coppola’s next movie, the production problem-plagued Apocalypse Now, was a modern riff on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, transporting it from the Congo in the 1890s into the waning days of America’s time in Vietnam. The film follows a young army captain with PTSD who’s given the assignment to venture into the jungle and assassinate a rogue American colonel who has gone insane. Written by legendary screenwriter John Milius, it was originally going to be directed by George Lucas, who chose Star Wars instead and left Coppola to take over as director.

Related: Every Famous Coppola Family Member (Including Nicolas Cage)

Apocalypse Now was originally supposed to shoot over a five-month period in 1976 but, famously, the Francis Ford Coppola movie’s production became a complete and utter disaster. The documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse details everything that went wrong. Five months of shooting became a year of shooting, sets were destroyed by weather, filming was interrupted by an actual civil war, and Martin Sheen had a near-fatal heart attack on set – just to name a few things. When all was said and done, Coppola had shot over a million feet of film (to put that number into perspective, a fully edited cut of a typical 2-hour movie is roughly 11,000 feet of film). Understandably, it took Coppola and multiple full-time editors years to cut the footage into a presentable final product. The myriad production issues that are part of the true story behind Apocalypse Now’s creation are mainly to blame for why so many cuts of the film exist, and why it was 40 years later that Apocalypse Now: Final Cut finally came out.

Apocalypse Now Theatrical Cut

The Apocalypse Now original theatrical cut is what came out of this tortured process initially. There were a number of “work in progress” cuts of varying lengths shown to limited audiences and eventually a fairly long cut shown at the Cannes Film Festival that some loved and others hated. The entire production of this film became a media frenzy and many people thought it was going to be an absolute failure that would ruin Coppola’s career. Despite the praise Apocalypse Now has gained in the years since its release, the theatrical cut is not the film that Coppola originally wanted to make (that would have to wait for Apocalypse Now: Final Cut in 2019). Interestingly, Francis Ford Coppola has had to self-fund his films at times, and he had sunk so much money into the movie that he needed it to be a success, so Coppola consciously took out what he considered the weirder parts of the film to make sure it would appeal to a general audience. This line of thinking paid off. Apocalypse Now was a huge box office success and has since had an enduring legacy as a modern classic. It’s likely a miracle that it came out at all and even more so that its theatrical cut became one of the greatest films of the 1970s.

Apocalypse Now Redux

In 2001, Coppola re-edited Apocalypse Now (much the same way he’s done with Godfather III) to put all the sequences he had originally cut out back into it. Titled Apocalypse Now Redux – a retitling convention followed by The Godfather Part 3’s Coda cut – Coppola’s new cut of the film is widely considered a massive step down from the original. A film’s edit can be a delicate thing, and even the smallest changes can radically alter what the movie ultimately is. Apocalypse Now Redux’s differences disrupted the original film’s ecology and created a bloated, slow, and uneven version of Apocalypse Now that is much worse than the cut audiences were already familiar with.

First Assembly

Another version of Apocalypse Now has floated around over the years: a bootleg copy of the film’s first assembly cut. An assembly cut is the very first edit of a film, which features every scene that was shot and is intended only for the creative team to view before they move on to a rough-cut version of the film. Apocalypse Now’s assembly cut leaked for a time and was spread around on videotape. It would be one of the longest Francis Ford Coppola movies of all time, coming in at a behemoth 289 minutes long, and it included material not featured in any other cut of the movie. This draft of Apocalypse Now is probably too unwieldy to be considered a good movie, but it is an interesting watch for those so inclined.

Related: Francis Ford Coppola Horror Movies, Ranked

Apocalypse Now Final Cut

40 years after the original version of Apocalypse Now was released, Francis Ford Coppola decided not only to oversee a brand-new restoration of the film but also to create a brand-new cut. The Apocalypse Now final cut came out in 2019 and was a significant improvement of Apocalypse Now Redux. Much as he’d reversed a big mistake forty years earlier when he fired original Apocalypse Now star Harvey Keitel, Coppola took in the criticisms of the Redux version and crafted a new version that trimmed back many of the added scenes or cut them out again entirely. This cut paid much more attention to the ecology of the film and works much better than Redux. What was even more exciting about Apocalypse Now: Final Cut was that the new 4k transfer was made from the original film negative rather than the interpositive used in all previous transfers of the film, so the final cut is definitely the best-looking of all the versions and is the one that Coppola himself is most proud of.

Why The Theatrical Cut Is The Best Version

While the Apocalypse Now Final Cut is a step up from the Redux, and some consider it on the same level as the original, the first theatrical cut will always be the definitive version of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic post-Godfather movie and it is the tightest and most focused edit, though no less bizarre even with the stranger sequences cut out. That being said, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is still a fascinating companion piece to the original and Coppola has made all versions of the film easily available to the public, even packaging the theatrical version and Redux together in DVD releases. Something similar may happen with the final cut as could new restorations of older cuts.

The theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now is the film that audiences fell in love with, and it’s what became a classic piece of 1970s American cinema. The existence of the other versions doesn’t create competition as to which version is best, but rather serves as an opportunity for audiences to see how much a film can change by taking out, putting in, and rearranging the edited sequences. The hope is that Francis Ford Coppola is finally satisfied with the movie and that there’s now a cut of Apocalypse Now he can fully stand behind as the movie he set out to make.

Which Apocalypse Now Cut Is The Longest (& Shortest)

None of Francis Ford Coppola’s new movie cuts are short by any means, but they tend to vary in length. The longest version is the film’s first assembly, with a runtime of 289 minutes that’s full of extremely rough footage. On the other hand, the theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now is the shortest iteration – clocking in at 153 minutes long. It’s significantly shorter than its counterparts, even the Final Cut and the Redux version. While the former cut of Apocalypse Now is about 182 minutes long, the latter was 202. As in the case of the definitively better Godfather 3: Coda cut, which trimmed 4 minutes off the original, shorter means better for Apocalypse Now. The theatrical cut is – by far – the best version of this surreal Vietnam War classic.

Related: Why Nicolas Cage Changed His Acting Name From Coppola

The Worst Apocalypse Now Cut And Why It’s Redux

Just as the original theatrical version is regarded as the best cut of Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Now Redux is generally accepted as the worst. The film still has many strengths, and it does add interesting context to the well-known scenes and story of its predecessor. For many, however, the extended runtime of Redux prevents it from being a real contender with the theatrical release, since the main Apocalypse Now: Redux difference is its additional 49 minutes of material that don’t amplify the story but bog it down instead. As an example, the additional scene in which Sheen’s Willard takes his team for some hard-earned downtime while getting to know a French family might’ve seemed important to Coppola for providing some contrast with the rest of Apocalypse Now’s oppressive bleakness, but it reduces the heavy impact of the wider film by allowing the audience some respite along with the long-suffering military men. The pacing of Apocalypse Now is already one of the film’s more unusual aspects, and Redux draws it out to an unnecessary degree, especially through its more protracted political discussions. While these add depth and timeliness for Redux’s admittedly numerous fans, it’s called Apocalypse Now and not Apocalypse In 30 Minutes’ Time for a reason, and such extensive dialogue throws a wrench in the works of the film’s already considerable runtime. Coppola fans love diving into his work, but more isn’t always better, and a director can be judged as much by what they exclude from a movie as what audiences see on-screen. Redux missed this point entirely and added “more” scenes instead of “better” scenes.



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