Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now is still considered the masterpiece of
the Vietnam war. Begun in a spirit of adventure, the filming went on
for years (how come Harrison Ford has such a small part, Dad?) of rising and
falling fortunes, near-nervous breakdowns, manic rewrites, and an ending that
had to be dragged out of an uncooperative Marlon Brando.
Esquire magazine took a nasty potshot at Coppola's alleged megalomania
in a 1978 article that filched some memos from the beleaguered
filmmaker/generalissimo. In the correspondence Coppola comes off as vain
(paragraphs explaining why he's dropping the 'Ford' from his name), imperious
and paranoid. But I talked with a number of crewmen who worked with on Apoclaypse and
all were ready to go right back and do it all again. Special effects ace
A.D. Flowers loved the guy; assistant director Jerry Zeismer (who also plays
the gray-haired C.I.A. man who says, "Exterminate with extreme prejudice")
couldn't praise Coppola enough. For the real story of the filming (or
partisan versions thereof) there's always the interesting book by Coppola's
wife, and the absorbing documentary film Hearts of Darkness: A
Filmmaker's Apocalypse by George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr. Nothing
illuminates the myriad myths and legends that have grown up
around Apocalypse Now better than seeing the 6 hour bootleg of a
rough assembly made somewhere along the film's erratic creative process. I
direct you to The Legendary Rough Cut, a
Savant article, for more on that.
If Apocalypse hasn't dated in twenty years it's because Coppola
handled the material in classic terms instead of filming John Milius'
psychedelic phantasmagoria of a script, or trying to be strictly realistic.
In his celebrated script for Patton Coppola took what could have become
a prosaic biography (like dullsville MacArthur) and expressed the
contradictions of a complex man without explaining him. Whether by intent or
happenstance, Coppola started filming with Milius' crazy exaggerated
characters (Colonel Kharnage) and bizarre episodic upriver
detours into Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit holes. After a convoluted process
of recasting, reshooting, rethinking, rewriting, and wholesale jettisoning,
Apocalypse Now became the remarkable film it did largely through some
brilliant restructuring decisions. There was a French plantation interlude,
part of an artsy thematic thread. If kept, it would have made the upriver journey
also a trip into Vietnam's past, and weighed the film down terribly. Out it went.
Out went redundant scripted scenes where the stranded Playboy bunnies trade
sex for helicopter fuel. The rough cut suggests Coppola never seriously
intended to use these scenes. Also out went an entire action sequence
where gonzo photojournalist Dennis Hopper comes between a mutual shootout
between army assassins Martin Sheen and Scott Glenn. The Conrad novel Heart
of Darkness, intended only as a shadowy allusion, became much more
important, especially when Coppola found no way out of the creative corner
into which he'd painted / filmed himself.
It may be heretical to say it, but with all the brilliant material in
Apocalypse Now there are a few real clunker moments here and there.
The scene with General G. D. Spradlin giving Willard his mission is badly
acted. Its pace is so slow, with every single word given such ponderous
emphasis, it plays like it belongs in a grade Z movie. The same almost,
but not quite, goes for the visually much more interesting ending, because
the only tool Coppola has to give Brando any weight at all is the molasses
direction, with Brando's mumbling voice rambling on ever so slowly. Forget
that what Brando is saying IS germane and profound; it isn't cinematic ...
the movie stops being a movie and becomes a poetry reading. 1
Big anti-war films always have flashy battle scenes that undermine their avowed
pacifism. The war movie fan base is almost exclusively male, a group that nods
impatiently through the anti-war diatribe of movies like Platoon to
get to the good stuff. Apocalypse's main set piece, a helicopter
attack on a Vietcong village, can't help but play the same game. The attack
exalts the glory and thrill of zooming into battle, guns blazing, while
showing the defenders to be simple peasants just trying to resist as
best they can. Massed rows of helicopters (death from above) with
overwhelming firepower seem like alien invaders from the future. 2
quickly separates viewers into hawks and doves; Savant was in the half that
cheered every time a helicopter was hit and thought the best soldier on
the battlefield was the VC woman with the grenade hidden in her hat.
Undoubtedly many viewers respond more to the bravado of Robert Duvall and
the spectacle of bombs blasting the village to bits. In subsequent viewings
the 'Wild Bunch audience syndrome' kicked in and there was always a hearty cheer
of bloodthirsty woman-hating approval when 'that VC bitch' gets singled out
for machine-gunning from the air. Coppola knew he couldn't lick the
anti-war / war glamor problem and instead placed the issue in the starkest
Besides the editorial brilliance, it is Coppola's deft control of imagery
that pulls Apocalypse back from the brink of disaster. The dreamlike
superimpositions and cameraman Vittorio Storaro's stylized lighting create
a Vietnam Landscape of the Mind that ignores strict realism. Take the Do Long
Bridge sequence ("I just dropped acid, man"). With the
bridge lit like a Christmas tree and troops huddled leaderless in a warren
of trenches like Timothy Leary Bunnies, it pretty much encapsulates the psychedelic
aspects of the Vietnam experience. Equally exaggerated is the USO scene, a circus
right out of Fellini. One reason the lack of realism doesn't cripple
Apocalypse is because the war was a radically different experience
for every soldier who went there. Rumors of what happened 'at the next
fire base' were indeed as outrageous as the fiction Milius and
Coppola dreamed up. Veterans can sense that these fantastic, poetic
excursions are meant to express a conceptual, abstract truth.
Paramount's new DVD is a great way to watch Apocalypse Now and a real
frustration for those of us who hoped it would be the ultimate version of one of
our favorite films. The image looks far clearer and sharper than the laser. It
is also 16:9 enhanced, which is always applauded. The audio is improved in
that the amazing sound design is even clearer - this is a film of delicately
shaded audio artistry, not boom-box showoff effects.
The transfer was personally overseen by Vittorio Storaro, who has timed the
colors to the call of his artistic temperament, and not necessarily to reproduce
hues as seen on the 70mm theatrical prints. This time he's decided to repaint
the film yet another way, saturating some of the color schemes and choosing
to desaturate others. It all looks great, mind you, but it is still strange to
see several shots in a row bathed in coral light, or the contrast of other
scenes changed completely. Perhaps Storaro did this in reaction to the greater
visual range afforded him by DVD.
The big gripe is the reframing of the movie. Because the 'widescreen' laser
wasn't very wide at all, we were hoping for a superduper DVD transfer that
finally showed the whole expanse of the frame. The DVD is alas, a tiny bit
less wide in framing to the laser disc. It does work out to about 2:1.
To its credit, I suppose, the framing never looks terribly cramped or radically
cuts off characters, but the grandiose canvas of Apocalypse Now has
been chopped by at least 20%. The line of napalm that incinerates a
quarter-mile of trees isn't half as impressive as it should be. The Rolling
Stones dance on the boat deck cuts Larry Fishburne's leg-kicks off at the
ankles. Compared to James Cameron's ideas about reformatting movies for
video, Coppola and Storaro are really stingy. Savant's guess
is that they just don't believe in 2:35 transfers, or are withholding the
full width of their film for HDTV. I'm getting tired of worrying about these
frustrating transfer anomalies!
Extras? We do get a pretty good trailer, and a series of screen shots from the
credits brochure handed out at Roadshow screenings. Savant got his copy at the
Cinerama Dome on the third day of release. I saved my brochure and stapled
my ticket to it and there'd be a dandy scan of it here if I could locate it ...
There were neither titles nor credits on the 70mm release, which ended with
a fade to black and an American Zoetrope copyright. Another DVD extra is a
sequence of the destruction of the Kurtz compound, which as Coppola explains
on a commentary track, is not an alternate ending to the film but a background
for a credits sequence for the 35mm release. It is 'textless', without
credits, and Coppola says he quickly replaced it with the standard roll
over black, which can be seen on the laser release. But it didn't disappear,
as Coppola implies. In 1981 or '82, when Apocalypse played an LA's pay
television attempt called ON TV, they showed this 'bombing' end credits
sequence, squeezed, with standard titles supered over the exploding Cambodian
idols, etc. Rather than conclude his epic with a standard bunch of colorful
explosions, Coppolas's quiet ending still seems right. 3
Note on the DVD credits page that Coppola has opened a Zoetrope DVD mastering
facility. Last Thursday's (11/25/99) LA Times reviewed the DVD, allowing Coppola
to give the facility a mighty plug. Savant reminds fans that the DVD release
of Apocalypse Now probably coincides more with Coppola's need to promote
his new company, than with consumer desire to see his film on DVD.
Paramount's new Apocalypse Now DVD is a perfectly acceptable
presentation of a legendary film that can still guarantee an evening's
worth of excited conversation. Although it's never looked better, it is
severely cropped from its original Technovision aspect ratio, a major
disappointment for fans hoping for a definitive version. Not very
generous, Mr. Coppola!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Apocalypse Now rates:
Video transfer: Excellent
Video framing: Poor
Packaging: Amaray Case
Reviewed: November 29, 1999.
1. On the other hand,
Dennis Hopper's crazoid hippie speeches work so well, they
bolster this entire section. But writing that dialog must have been
an easy task compared to writing Brando's. Kurtz's speeches had to support
the combined weight of Conrad's heavy themes and the entire angst of
the Vietnam war, a bottomless paradox. Coppola knew that 1979 film viewers would
expect him to wrap it all up in a neat package of truth, wisdom, and
genius. No wonder he went half nuts.
2. Helicopters have visually always had a sci-fi quality to them. A
frequently used weapon against helpless civilians, they have a dragonfly-like
sinister quality not unlike a movie invasion by aliens from outer space.
Indeed, I've never forgotten an actual battlefield television news shot
from the Gulf War of a line of attack 'copters seen in telephoto profile,
calmly hovering while unleashing a staggering fusillade of weaponry at some
off screen target (a highway of retreating Iraqis). Unthreatened and cool
in their killing, the helicopters looked just like the Martian fighing
machines from The War of the Worlds.
3. On the set of 1941 I remember a crestfallen John Milius, just
informed that this pyro ending was being deleted. Earlier, he had been so
happy to learn Coppola wanted him to write some brush-up voiceover, he talked
to lowly crewperson Savant for an hour about Apocalypse, Wind and the Lion,
surfing, and guns. Especially guns.
Text (c) Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson