Recently when I wrote about The Thin Red Line Blu-ray, I discussed how the author of the book James Jones was able to use personal experience to tap into the mind of a wartime soldier. To a degree, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now reaches into that mind but perhaps finds a more receptive subject in its protagonist, as opposed to the those affected without prejudice or bias in Jones' work. Combining Captain Willard's introspection with the vision and scale in Apocalypse, the film remains as compelling a document for soldiers on either side of war more than three decades since its release.
John Milius (Red Dawn) adapted the Joseph Conrad novel "Heart of Darkness" into the screenplay for Coppola. Willard (Martin Sheen, The West Wing) is a top secret military assassin, and his next mission is to go into the Cambodian jungles to kill a renegade Special Forces Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando, The Godfather
). As we going up a river that leads to his compound, more about Kurtz' descent into madness is learned, along with those on the small Navy patrol boat that carries Willard up to his destination. We also see the battles that are occurring in Vietnam at the time, as they go from the ridiculous to humorous to an almost surreal nature.
As an old GI, Apocalypse Now was a staple for us whenever we would have some field downtime. It was a soldier's Rocky Horror Picture Show, with guys quoting lengthy passages, making their own explosions during the sequence where the Air Cavalry Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, Crazy Heart) attacks a Vietnamese outpost with Wagner blaring over the speakers. But while we knew/were familiar with the more "gung ho" aspects of Army life, we were cynical about the Army's methods and way of thinking just like Willard was. And Willard's character had seen a lot more shit than most of us did. To see him be so convinced to Kurtz' way of thinking even after being captured (and subsequently released) was a testament to the types of things governments enlist their soldiers to do regardless of rank.
Coppola also helped tap into a separate frame of mind that was ahead of its time like Thin Red Line did, in the sense that the chaos and insanity, the horror if you will, of fighting in Vietnam. As a civilian Coppola might not have been as familiar with it as others, but there seemed to be a common understanding that it was crazy for the average grunt. Yet for as crazy as it was, encountering Kurtz in his compound could be seen as an experience that could shake a soldier's values to their core. Kurtz has seen what men of power can do to manipulate anyone, and manipulated the system for his own benefit. Don't get me wrong, Kurtz is one crazy mofo, but anyone who could play the military's system and come out the other side really has been through a lot in the process.
The film comes in two versions: one that includes both the almost two and a half hour theatrical cut from 1979 and the three-hour plus 2001 cut, titled Redux. The three-disc version (which I'm tackling) titled the "Full Disclosure Edition" includes both cuts, along with the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness, the making-of look at the film shot by Coppola's wife Eleanor. Obviously seeing Apocalypse along with this documentary makes for appointment viewing, but the documentary in and of itself is fabulous.
Eleanor's contribution to the production was almost going to be an afterthought; shooting footage for standard press kit interviews for the film. As it unfolded, it served as an outstanding document. The Coppola's are notorious for keeping excellent video archives of the preproduction and principal photography, and this is no different. We see the rehearsals with the cast, along with interviews from them then and now (or when the documentary was released in 1991). We watch as Coppola goes through recasting his lead actor, replacing Harvey Keitel for Sheen, then witnesses Sheen as he discusses the heart attack he had during filming. The typhoon that wiped out many of the sets is recalled, and the logistical troubles Coppola had to reconcile with Sheen's heart attack, Brando's dancing around filming his scenes, and the production going from 17 weeks to 14 months, nearly bankrupting the family in the process.
If there's something that can change perspectives as time goes on, it's legacy. At the time of shooting, Coppola's film was thought of as being the epitome of self-indulgence. Before Michael Cimino shattered the clout that directors had at studios for being formidable creative forces, Coppola's production was wrought with issues, was overdue and bloated in length (rumors of a five hour long first cut existed for a while during the almost year-long post-production process that included editing in the film). But for the work put into the film, to see it stand the test of time and continue to be in many critics' Top 10 lists, that might be the best vindication that Coppola could get after being subjected to so much mockery when he was in country, so to speak.
Ultimately both the legacy Coppola has experienced since Apocalypse, to say nothing about getting a newfound appreciation for just what he had to endure to realize the vision, helps us all better understand the passion that someone, ANYONE can have to see the dream to completion. One could contend that Coppola might not have been the same director (or even person) since his experience in the Philippine jungle, but he can be happy in knowing the end result capped off a decade that few other directors can claim to have been through both personally and professionally.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Both films (and the documentary) use the AVC codec for these high-definition discs. Hearts of Darkness uses full-frame video while both Apocalypse Now cuts are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, consistent with their original aspect ratio. After years of showing the various Apocalypse cuts in 2.0:1 per cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's wishes, the films get both OAR and a remastered picture that is simply jaw-dropping. The color palette is far more vivid than any Apocalypse presentation that I've seen, and blacks are pitch perfect in terms of contrast and consistency, and image detail looks amazing. The large exterior shots of the boat crawling around each twist and turn in the jungle along the river, the greens look fresh without oversaturation, and on overhead shots the individual trees can be pointed out easily. I can't say the flesh tones look accurate (as I've never seen the original on film), but they look quite exact without any red push to them. There may be some DNR in either cut, but I sure couldn't find it, instead seeing film grain in more than a couple of scenes. This is a great job by the Zoetrope folks to get this picture looking like it does.
Speaking of Zoetrope, the film was the first to employ Dolby 5.1 surround for use in playback to audiences, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless over both films (and the two-channel one for Hearts sound excellent from the jump, when the Doors' "The End" comes through the speakers along with Walter Murch's helicopter sound effect being panned through all channels. Willard's chopper landing provides an early punch of low-end subwoofer usage, and the immersion throughout both cuts is almost hypnotizing. Smaller environmental noises like crickets and other jungle din can be noticed, and in the more powerful shots, bullets strafing from attack copters race by. I mentioned to friends I couldn't wait to fire up the firm and cook some red meat while smoking a cigar, but what I didn't take into account was just how powerful this soundtrack is for its age. It would be the Sophia Loren of lossless soundtracks, beautiful as it is despite its familiarity. It's perfect.
When they said "Full Disclosure Edition," they sure meant it. Tackling Hearts of Darkness first, the Coppolas' commentary from the standard definition disc has been ported over and it's an excellent track, albeit one that's recorded separately. He still feels compelled to clean the record up a little in parts of the film, such as the perception surrounding his reaction to Sheen's heart attack, but he also feels a bit of embarrassment in his behavior at the time in other areas too. Eleanor recalls how she was brought on to be a member of the team and what she had control/no control over when the footage started to become a documentary. It's a fascinating track to listen to. And while we're on the topic of commentaries, the Coppola commentary for the film is a worthy listen. He usually possesses excellent recall on his films and this one is no different, discussing the problems, the fun parts and has a fair share of anecdotal stories to boot. On Disc Three, the only other extras are a script excerpt from Milius with notes from Coppola and stills galleries that include photographs and storyboards, and the marketing archive includes posters, the theatrical program, several radio spots and the original trailer, which clocks in at almost four minutes.
The majority of the extras are housed on Disc Two. Some are new, other extras from previous editions have been excised, but their omission doesn't appear to be a distraction. On the new extras, the first one is an interview of Milius, by Coppola (49:45). Milius recalls his inspiration for adapting the novel and his younger days when was at USC Film School. In the corner of the screen while he speaks are some stills of Milius while he was there, next to a couple of guys named Lucas and Spielberg. He talks about the inspiration of some of the scenes and how his classmates helped him trim the story to a more manageable level. He talks about some of the pre-production stuff, such as hanging out with and courting Steve McQueen for the Willard role too. It's worth the time to watch.
Even more so is the conversation Coppola has with Martin Sheen (59:26). It starts with Coppola jokingly presenting a script to Sheen that involves him being in a jungle for a few weeks and goes on from there, as the two recall his replacing Keitel during filming and what his apprehensions about the role were. Production stories from the pair abound (this segment has more involvement from Coppola that the Milius interview) and some of the scenes like the hotel room when Sheen broke the mirror are recounted. Sheen talks about working with Brando and the heart attack that temporarily knocked him out of commission. Watching the two reminisce is entertaining, for sure.
Next up is producer Fred Roos (who was also involved in the casting) as he shares his thoughts about getting the actors for the film (11:44), and includes additional rehearsal footage not seen in Hearts, including some candidates who didn't make the final cut, such as "then up and coming actor" Nick Nolte. There's loads of stills and footage here, along with stories from Roos about how they finally came to those that would appear in the film. Fun stuff to see. Orson Welles' 1938 radio reading of Conrad's novel follows (36:34), making for some interesting comparisons to the film. "The Hollow Men" (16:57) includes footage of the film, set against Brando reading T.S. Eliot's poem of the same name (which he also reads some of during the film in the death scene). There's a lost scene titled "Monkey Sampan" (3:03) which appears to have the locals singing the Doors' "Light My Fire" for some reason, but the additional scenes that come after it are interesting (12, 26:28). Clearly the biggest victim of the final cut in this footage is the Colby character (Scott Glenn, W.), and his killing of the photographer (Dennis Hopper, Crash) at Kurtz' compound before his own death. There's also a different dynamic to Willard's briefing scenes in the early part of the film too. The footage is pretty good. The Kurtz compound destruction sequence (with Coppola commentary) follows (6:06), as Coppola talks about why the sequence was omitted from the finished product.
Heading into the more technical areas of the supplements, "The Birth of 5.1 Sound" (5:54) covers just that, as editor Walter Murch (in vintage footage) talks about Coppola's initial idea for the film's sound, while the Dolby Stereo/Surround history is recalled while Coppola and Murch work on the edit for the film (also in vintage footage). The "Ghost Helicopter Flyover" (3:55) examines that unique sound at the opening credits with a theater demo to boot, while "The Synthesizer Soundtrack" is a 1980 magazine article by Bob Moog on the film's score. "A Million Feet of Film" (17:57) shows us the editing process for the film and how it was approached, including footage from Murch, Supervising Editor Richard Marks discusses what Coppola's intent was, and there even appears to be footage of an assembly cut here. Sheen's narration is shown and recalled, and the Redux version is touched upon also. "The Music of Apocalypse Now (14:46) covers Coppola's father Carmine as he tackled the film's music (which he did well, I might add), while "Heard Any Good Movies Lately?" (15:22) examines the sound design for it, replete with some mild breaking down of sequences. "The Final Mix" (3:09) looks as the final cut at the time with Coppola and crew.
Next is "Apocalypse Then and Now" (3:44), which examined Coppola revisiting the film for Redux and includes a portion of an interview he did with Roger Ebert at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. What's that? Where's the rest of the interview? Well that's next, in its entirety (38:35), as Coppola recalls how showing the unfinished version helped "save" the film to a degree, and some more thoughts on the production. "PBR Streetgang" (4:09) includes interviews both then and now (or at least, 2001) from the crew on the boat, including an all grown-up Laurence Fishburne (21). "The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now" (4:06) examines how the filmmakers used Technicolor for the production. Trailers for the upcoming The Doors and The Conversation Blu-ray discs wrap things up. The "Full Disclosure Edition" also includes a 48-page booklet full of pictures, notes and recollections from Coppola.
When studios tackle popular catalog titles for Blu-ray release, Apocalypse Now is the measuring stick to use. With such a popular film, you get audio and video that is amazing and likely demo-worthy. The supplements are extensive, and I think for the first time, we can consider that Apocalypse Now has the first definitive release on the video market. Great film, great technical qualities, great extras, this is a no brainer for the DVD Talk Collector Series.