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Apocalypse Now

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anowbdWhen a worried Francis Ford Coppola walked out of a rapturous reception of Apocalypse Now at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, his fears turned to confidence, and the press conference he gave summarized both the film’s troubled production and the hallucinatory, exhilarating and terrifying effect of the final product with a single sentence that no critic has ever topped.

“My film isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”

Thirty years on, Apocalypse Now continues to stand as the ultimate cinematic statement on the Vietnam War, a position largely unchallenged even in the face of such classics as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

Coppola’s line is true, but not in a literal means. Of the various Vietnam films, Apocalypse Now possibly has the least ties to the reality of the war. Christ, it has the least ties to reality, period. But it is Vietnam, capturing the madness, pointlessness, fear and the death of America’s sense of superiority that makes it our most embarrassing period in the public consciousness - more people are willing to talk about it as our most humbling moment and not slavery or the genocide of Native Americans.

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s magnum opus unfolds in an episodic fashion, each vignette shot with its own color palette and sound design. It’s a subjective overload, from the exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries” segment shot from the POV of the arrogant, jingoistic Air Cavalry division to the gaudy sleaze that oozes off the screen when a bunch of sex-starved GIs riot in the presence of a tacky, inane show from some Playboy Playmates.

At a certain point, the film travels into the far-out realm of druggy excess, no doubt a byproduct of the splintering sanity on-set but also a naturally unnatural progression from the events of the rest of the film. The humming and churning Moog score contrasts sharply with Coppola’s usual love of opera, and its perfect integration into the mix (courtesy of master editor Walter Murch, who has as much a right to call Apocalypse Now) his film as Coppola) keep the audience on edge, and the increasingly surreal imagery delves further and further into the soul of madness.

What is most interesting about Apocalypse Now is how indirectly it actually deals with Vietnam. It doesn’t even care about the Vietnamese, not in the racist way that The Deer Hunter sets up the Viet Cong as a vague demon that weighs over the psyches of the hearty American men sent to fight them. No, Coppola, surprisingly working with a script the ultra-conservative John Milius (he of Red Dawn fame), paints the war as the result of insane mismanagement by a command structure that kept pressing on for no reason.

Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a top-secret mission not to kill any enemy leader but a renegade American colonel, a decorated vet who went mad in the jungle even as he started fighting the war in a way that got results standard operating procedures could not create. There is an air of jealousy in the chain of command that sends Willard on his mission, correctly calling Kurtz insane but doing so more because he flaunts their authority.

Elsewhere, visions of America’s aimlessness rise to the surface. The Air Cav colonel, Kilgore (Robert Duvall), orders an attack on a Vietcong stronghold simply because the areas has good waves and he loves to surf. In the film’s most hallucinatory segment, Willard and the boat crew that ferries him come across a bridge that the VC blow up each night and the Americans rebuild in the morning just so they can defend it again. With all commanding officers in the area dead, the line deteriorates, and one sees how Kurtz’s brutal methods could attract those who see the old system failing in front of them.

Coppola ignited a minor controversy at the film’s Cannes premiere when he said he wasn’t sure about the ending. Though he never referred to anything more than a few minor alterations he considered in the editing bay, it must be said that the one aspect of Apocalypse Now that lacks is the final moments. Yet the ambiguity, even the defeatism of Willard’s quiet withdrawal from the Kurtz compound also carries a powerful weight to it, the act that proves Willard is no longer tied to either Kurtz’s seductive methods (which would have had him assuming leadership over the native army Kurtz assembled) nor the old power structure (which would have had him bombing the compound into oblivion). As roughly as Coppola arrives at the moment, it serves its purpose: to break us from this nightmare in such a way that we wake up but cannot shake the fear. He denies us a catharsis, even with that brilliantly edited montage of Willard/Kurtz and the sacrificial bull. Were the ending more memorable, it might let us dispense of everything and move on. Instead, Apocalypse Now sits with you for years, the safest kind of shellshock one can suffer.

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Blu-Ray

Lions Gate Entertainment has released Apocalypse Now on Blu-Ray in two separate editions: a two-disc set that contains both the 1979 theatrical and 2001 “Redux” version of the film and a slew of extras. The 3-disc “Full Disclosure Edition,” however, is what you want. In addition to the two cuts and the extras, you get an HD version of Hearts of Darkness, the full-length documentary shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor. What originally started as a means of gathering the usual EPK material blossomed into a horrifying look at the dying moments of New Hollywood as production spiraled out of control, Francis Ford Coppola started to fall apart and Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. Along with Les Blank’s Burdern of Dreams, a look at Werner Herzog’s equally demanding jungle feature Fitzcarraldo, Hearts of Darkness stands as the definitive making-of documentary, a testament to the film’s insanity and the impressive way Coppola made the production work even when a typhoon obliterated all the sets.

The question typically arises with the film: which cut is better? The “Redux” version, running about 50 minutes longer, contains mostly elongated looks at existing scenes. It draws out a number of fascinating commentaries on the war, extending the end of the “Charlie don’t surf” sequence to show that the napalming of the tree line that Kilgore orders to make it safe to surf ends up sucking up all the wind and calming the water. It’s the best metaphor in the film and it’s a shame Coppola cut it from the original version. Likewise, the notorious French plantation scene, which makes up a bulk of the added footage, gets to the heart of the difference between the colonialist French and the Americans. A handful of French settlers defend a plantation because it is their home, even if they understand they will die there and it will rightfully be retaken by the Vietnamese. But why are the Americans here? “You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.”

Were the French plantation scene boiled down to that essence, and maybe the provocative but overly joking second interlude with the Playmates, removed, I would call “Redux” the superior version. It’s still one of the greatest alternate cuts ever made, and the additions are direct without being forced (I especially like Kurtz reading a pre-Tet Offensive piece from Time magazine, mocking the media’s inability to expose the pointlessness of the war, allowing themselves to be controlled by the state). Ultimately, though, I prefer the more oneiric, hallucinogenic tone of the theatrical cut, which omits a few of the added sequences I love as much as anything in both cuts but also has a better flow and leaves more to interpretation. Either way, both cuts are masterpieces of the first order and proof that big-budget entertainment can be as beautiful and thought-provoking as underground cinema.

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Image/Sound Quality

Francis Ford Coppola has overseen all of the Blu-Ray transfers done for his films - though he must have slept through the Dracula remaster - and the results here are as sterling as his magnificent Godfather restoration. Apocalypse Now’s 1080p image, presented in the proper 2:35:1 aspect ratio (previous editions came in 2.0:1), cannot fully overcome the limitations of late-’70s color film stock (which was of such infamously low quality Martin Scorsese made Raging Bull in black-and-white partly so he knew it would last). But the work done here has turned the softness of the stock into crisp depth and texture. There is an inconsistency to the image because of the various lighting, color and shooting methods employed for each segment of the film, but in some moments you can count the beads of sweat on Martin Sheen’s face. The black levels have never looked better, and the grain is well preserved. I saw a few tiny scratches near the end, but they were harder to spot than the pops in the latest films I see in the theater. This is a remarkable job and one of the most impressive transfers of the year, bar none.

As for the audio, imagine the same level of care done on the video, without the setback of the dated source material. Apocalypse Now’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is going in my book as one of the first tracks I will use to test out any new home audio system. Coppola’s film along with Star Wars, pioneered the 5.1 sound mix, and it’s nice that the track that started it all has been treated so lovingly. The subtleties of Walter Murch’s editing are brought out in the very first moments, while Carmine Coppola’s Komita-inspired score is enhanced through the fantastic low-frequency levels. I must admit that audio is the area I am least qualified to speak upon when it comes to these things - which is saying something, because I’m qualified for sweet F-A - but tracks like these, man they do the work for you. The video borders on reference quality in general and certainly stands as one of the best remasters done to date, but the audio is the best I’ve heard all year, even above Criterion’s masterful work with The Thin Red Line’s soundtrack.

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Extras

Oh dear God, where to start. I am confident now in saying that the only Blu-Ray release this year that will best the treasure trove offered here will be the Alien anthology due at the end of the month. It’s not often you get truth in advertising, but when they said “Full Disclosure Edition,” they damn sure meant it.

Disc One

Audio commentary for both cuts: Francis Ford Coppola offers some of the best commentary you’ll ever hear, and the rich production history and thematic interpretations of Apocalypse Now afford him more topics of conversation than any of his other works. He offers technical info, anecdotes, unlikely inspirations and all kinds of tidbits that make his discussion as interesting at times as the film itself. The two tracks are clearly taken from the same recording, with the “Redux”-specific comments inserted in with the same seamless branching that the film uses.

Disc Two

As far as I can tell, all of the extras placed in the previous “Complete Dossier” DVD have been ported over. These include:

  • Additional scenes
  • “Monkey Sampan” deleted scene: Separate from the additional scenes, this rough cut of a disturbing scene was correctly described as the film in a few minutes. The PBR rides by an abandoned Vietnamese fishing boat overrun with monkeys, only for the wind to shift the sail and reveal a man flayed to death. The boat is floating downstream from where Willard and the crew are heading. It’s redundant, but I wish it had made the final cut.
  • The Hollow Men: A clip of Marlon Brando reciting T.S. Eliot’s poem with scenes from the film and production interspersed into the video.
  • The Birth of 5.1 Sound: A short piece that traces the prototypical stereo design on Star Wars to the breakthrough of Apocaylpse Now
  • Ghost Helicopter Flyover: A focused look at Walter Murch’s sound design for the perfectly edited sound of choppers in the opening montage of the film
  • The Synthesizer Soundtrack<.i>: A reprint of Bob Moog’s essay from Contemporary Keyboard about the film’s score.
  • A Million Feer of Film: The Editing of ‘Apocalypse Now’: A 17-minute piece on the Herculean task Walter Murch and his team faced having to edit a film that had a shooting schedule that lasted four times longer than it was meant to.
  • Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of ‘Apocalypse Now’: A more in-depth look at the sound design of the movie that deepens the look of the other audio-centric features.
  • The Final Mix: A brief piece on throwing together the sound into the final mix and what was involved in bringing together all the disparate elements.
  • Apocalypse Then and Now: A piece made to go with the release of “Redux” to talk about some of the differences between cuts and reasons for the new edit.
  • PBR Streetgang: Features interviews in 2001 of the actors who played the PBR crew
  • The Color Palette of ‘Apocalypse Now’: A 4-minute look at the three-strip dye transfer techniques used to get the complex color palettes on the film.

That is an impressive list, but wait, there’s new stuff.

  • An Interview with John Milius: A 50-minute feature that has Coppola talking with the film’s writer about Milius’ youthful ambition to adapt Joseph Conrad and his military aspirations.
  • A Conversation with Martin Sheen: A one-hour chat between Coppola and his star. The two meet as old friends who haven’t seen each other in years but still have nothing but affection for each other. They laugh at the horrors of the production like legitimate war veterans who can only look back on what they shared and chuckle.
  • Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse: The film’s casting director talks about how the actors were chosen. Includes screen test footage of the actors who got the parts, as well as test footage for other auditions (look out for a young Nick Nolte).
  • Mercury Theater Production of ‘Heart of Darkness’: A week after his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast, Orson Welles put on a version of Joseph Conrad’s novella. The audio is damaged, but it’s nice that the cinephile Coppola remembered to put in something for Welles, who wanted so desperately to make his own Conrad adaptation for film.
  • 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola: Recorded when Coppola came to Cannes to screen the Redux version out of competition. Contains the entire 40-minute interview with Roger Ebert, who is a fantastic questioner, asking his piece and letting the subject speak without interruption.

Disc Three

Hearts of Darkness arrives in a 1.33:1-framed, 1080p master with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Also included is the commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola that offers as much insight as the documentary itself.

Also included are script selections with notes by Francis Ford Coppola, a storyboard gallery, a photo archive and a marketing archive, which included the original trailer, radio spots, the theatrical program handed out in lieu of opening and closing credits, lobby cards and press kit photos. To round it all out, there’s also a poster gallery.

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Final Thoughts

Apocalypse Now is one of the few films that links the various kinds of filmgoers, from the casual fan looking for an escape to the deeply committed cinephile, and it has never looked or sounded better. I was disappointed with the so-called “Complete Dossier” DVD for leaving out the greatest extra — Hearts of Darkness — but this Full Disclosure Edition includes not only that but some exciting new extras.

I could name on one hand the number of home releases this year that even approach the level of this Blu-Ray release. I could probably still do so if you cut off two of my fingers. The work Coppola has done with his Blu-Rays is a key demonstration of his love of cinema and his appreciation of tools that make cinephilia easier. With the work he’s done here, he’s surely guaranteed himself yet another generation of devoted fans. If you have to, sell blood to get this Blu-Ray set.

- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. When he is not writing movie reviews, he is inevitably writing something else and will continue to do so until he runs out of excuses not to go outside.

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