Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now is still considered the masterpiece film about the Vietnam War. Begun in a spirit of adventure, the filming went on for years of rising and falling fortunes, near-nervous breakdowns, manic rewrites, and an ending that had to be dragged out of an uncooperative Marlon Brando. I remember my children asking how come Harrison Ford has such a small part, considering that the film came out two years after Star Wars.
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, imperious and paranoid. A rather manic paragraph explained why he was dropping the 'Ford' from his name. But I talked with a number of crewmen who worked with on Apocalypse 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 couldn't praise Coppola enough. 4 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 six-hour bootleg of a rough assembly made somewhere along the film's erratic creative process. I direct you to the old Savant article The Legendary Rough Cut 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 the letter of 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, that they were only filmed after a typhoon wiped out the sets he wanted to film on. Also out went an action sequence in which Dennis Hopper's gonzo photojournalist intercedes in a mutual shootout between army assassin Martin Sheen and his predecessor / defector to Colonel Kurtz, Scott Glenn. Initially intended as a shadowy allusion, the Conrad novel Heart of Darkness 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 some 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 a ponderous emphasis, that 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's Kurtz his needed ponderous weight is the molasses-paced direction, with Brando's voice mumbling and rambling on ever so slowly. Forget that what Brando is saying IS germane and profound; it isn't in the least 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. But it also shows the Viet Cong to be valiant defenders trying to resist despite being grossly outgunned. With their overwhelming firepower, the massed rows of helicopters seem like alien invaders from the future. Death from Above! 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. 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 glamour problem, and instead placed the issue in the starkest relief possible.
This is a brilliantly edited film. Coppola's deft control of imagery pulls Apocalypse back from the brink of disaster. Vittorio Storaro's stylized lighting and Walter Murch's dreamlike superimpositions create a Vietnam Landscape of the Mind that ignores strict realism. Take the Do Long Bridge sequence: "I just dropped acid, man." The bridge is lit up like a Christmas tree and the troops huddle leaderless in a warren of trenches like stoned rabbits. The scene encapsulates the psychedelic aspects of the Vietnam experience. Equally exaggerated is the USO scene, a circus right out of Fellini. One reason that these fantasies don't cripple Apocalypse is because the war was a radically different experience for every soldier who served. 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 flighty 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, choosing to saturate some of the color schemes and de-saturate others. It all looks great, mind you, but it is still strange to see several shots in a row bathed in coral light, and the contrast of some 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 super-duper 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. Storaro may have trimmed the sides of the wide screen to promote his own proprietary 2:1 shooting format, which uses only three perfs of a 35mm frame. I'm getting tired of worrying about these frustrating transfer anomalies!
Extras? We do get a pretty good trailer, and a series of screenshots from the credits brochure handed out at Road Show 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 as a souvenir. There'd be a dandy scan of it here if I could locate it...
There were neither titles nor credits on the original 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 L.A.'s pay television attempt called ON TV, they showed this 'bombing' end credits sequence, squeezed, with standard titles super'ed over the exploding Cambodian idols, etc. Rather than conclude his epic with a standard bunch of colorful explosions, Coppola's quiet ending still seems preferable. 3
Note on the DVD credits page that Coppola has opened a Zoetrope DVD mastering facility. Last Thursday's (11/25/99) L.A. 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. They were 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 fighting machines from The War of the Worlds. I've never seen the shot since, and am cynical enough to suspect that it was made unavailable by the Pentagon.
3. I remember a crestfallen John Milius on the set of 1941,when just informed that this pyrotechnical ending was being deleted. Earlier, when Coppola asked him to write some brush-up voiceover, he had became elated, invited lowly crewperson Savant to his trailer, and talked for an hour about Apocalypse, The Wind and the Lion, surfing, and guns. Especially guns.
4. Jerry Zeismer also plays the gray-haired C.I.A. man in Apocalypse Now, the one that says, "Exterminate with extreme prejudice." He was also the First Assistant Director on 1941 (a major job) where he maintained an unshakable calm no matter what happened. I often felt like an outsider on the set, and Zeismer's ambiguous looks in my direction -- not disapproving, just acknowledging that he was aware of every single thing happening on a set with 500 actors and crew -- could be unnerving. I was essentially a non-union interloper on the biggest union job of the year. Whenever Spielberg invited me to cue the tank or pop off flashbulbs to represent anti-aircraft fire, I'd see Zeismer staring at me. I felt like a bug in danger of being squashed, with extreme prejudice.
Jerry Zeismer has written his own book about his experiences on some of the biggest Hollywood sets of three decades.
Text (c) Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson