I'm going to have to go with the Redux. Why? It's far more lucid, expansive, shocking, funny, detailed and insightful. The original in comparison feels like a rushed job, but who could blame Coppola for wanting to end the film that had almost cost him his mental well-being and his family life? The original is spectacular but very flawed, and it feels like Coppola was simply using a Vietnam backdrop to abstractly explore the human mind, instead of really portraying the war in any great detail. Some argue that that the former approach was better, that it gave the film a more personal and surreal feel, but I think it's quite narrow, simply following Willard's path further and further into darkness and then having him triumph and leave into an unseen light. In the original we are given no insight into the secondary characters. They are just along for the ride and don't have much attention paid to them. As compelling as Willard is, I was longing to learn more about the others. They were merely seen having banter with each other and reacting to things. Of course you could argue that it's only appropriate, as it's Willard's story and is told from his viewpoint. But again I think that's narrow. Now to be fair, the Redux doesn't improve on this greatly. We are given a lot more time with them but they are still often just reacting to things and squabbling and having banter. But these scenes do in fact give more insight into Willard and the way he is socially, as they show him interacting and growing to like and care for his companions. It makes his character more touching and human.
Now while I really like the original, one of the problems I had with it, that perhaps came from me, I'm not certain, was that it was so much fun. Was it supposed to be showing the attraction to war and destruction? Perhaps. And it did balance that out a little with truly shocking moments of moral horror. But at the same time I felt that the film was more attracted to the evil of the bombastic and lunatic Col. Kilgore than repelled by it. And I also felt that perhaps it was attracted to the chaos. It's such a contradictory film, and I'm not sure some of the ambiguities that form are deliberate. It portrays horror and death and chaos and insanity with a kind of savage and luminous beauty and grace, lending the film real artistic perversity. So in short, I didn't know what to think of the film. Now many, myself included, consider this a good thing, that the film is what you make of it. I usually consider this a good thing, but I felt that weakens the film and gives it a half-hearted feel thematically. The Redux however casts aside any ideas that Coppola was attracted to the war and the chaos, as there are some truly shocking, disturbing and grim moments that the original sorely missed. For instance, in one brilliant scene, they come across a medical encampment where the Playboy bunnies seen earlier at the USO show are staying, and Lance and Chef, horny as hell having been out-of-contact with the female for a long time, decide to spend some quality time with them. While the bunnies talk about their personal lives the men grope them and treat them like dolls, putting fantasy wigs on them and putting them in poses. The scene is blackly humorous in parts, with one of the bunnies talking openly about how she feels lonely and can't truly communicate with men, while Lance, oblivious to what she's saying, gropes and feels her, glowering over her body. The scene reaches a truly disturbing climax as the bunny tells of how she was once made to do something against her will, as Lance corners her. Then a trunk falls over revealing a dead body inside, and she breaks down. Lance takes advantage of the emotional weakness this horror is causing and proceeds to have sex with her. As with the helicopter attack sequence the scene alternates nimbly between black comedy and horror. Indeed the Redux is much funnier than the original, and Willard is actually given a light touch, shown laughing and getting into shenanigans with the others. The mess and chaos of the Vietnam war is just given more of a shockingly absurdist edge.
And finally, the order of the footage in the Redux seems to make more sense than that of the original. Some have argued that the new narrative order of the Redux detracts from the flow of the story, and goes off in too many tangents. But really there's just a lot more happening. The original went for narrative simplicity, with Willard descending deeper and deeper into hell down the river, but let's be honest, this isn't hugely interesting. Some argue that it has a dreamlike quality. Maybe it does, but what good is that? The narrative of the redux and the addition of whole new scenes, like the French Plantation scene, gives it more authenicity and says much more about the Vietnam war. The original film naively avoids any real political ambiguity, instead opting to portray those in charge of the war as lying hypocrites and gung-ho loonies and those under their command as hedonistic, susceptible, foolish teenagers. So the original feels narrowly, adolescently and nihilistically anarchistic in parts. But in the Redux, the French Plantation scene offers a political angle on the story, as they come into contact with a long-standing colony of French people living by the river near the border to Cambodia. And so there ensues a dinner sequence in which the French men argue with Willard over their right to live in Vietnam and over the futility of the war. The differences between the American way of thinking and that of the French are made clear, but are overcome when Willard has a brief love affair with an elegant French woman.
The final scenes at the Kurtz compound are greatly improved. Brando is given more screen time, and more of his character is revealed. Many say that this ruins the mystery of his character and the aura of insanity and evil he gives off, but this is a really adolescent argument to make. Why should certain interesting aspects of Kurtz be left out for the sake of putting on a show? Earlier, the French woman says there are two sides to a soldier, one that loves, and one that kills. Kurtz is capable of the worst atrocities, beheading hundreds and ordering hangings, yet he is shown playing with children. Instead of rambling all the time as in the original, he is seen speaking with a clarity and calm, suggesting some sort of alternate sanity. So these scenes actually add to the mystery of Kurtz. The finale is the same as that of the original, ambiguous, meaningful and unsettling. And the ending to the original needed no improvement or change, only the narrative before it. And so with the newly arranged narrative and extra footage, the Redux is by far the superior film, much fuller, more disturbing, and far more convincing...