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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now
Paramount Home Video
1979 / Color / 2:0 anamorphic 16:9 / Street Date November 1, 1999 / 29.99
Starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, Colleen Camp
Cinematography Vittorio Storaro
Production Designer Richard Tavoularis
Film Editor Richard Marks
Sound Design Walter Murch
Written by John Milius and Francis Coppola
Produced by Fred Roos, Gray Frederickson, and Tom Sternberg
Directed by Francis Coppola

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 The drama 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 relief possible.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video transfer: Excellent
Video framing: Poor
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Fair
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

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