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Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier

Paramount // R // August 15, 2006
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Preston Jones | posted July 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

So very much has been written – voluminous critical ramblings – about Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now that is almost seems superfluous to say anything further. One of the most discussed, dissected and debated films of the last 25 years, Coppola's surreal, vivid meditation on the Vietnam War is as impenetrable and masterful in 2006 as it was upon its initial release, when Coppola infamously declared his film not merely about Vietnam, but, in fact, the very celluloid incarnation of that conflict. No mere statement of hubris that – aside from a handful of other, equally powerful cinematic works (The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket spring to mind), no other movie created in the wake of America's devastating losses in Southeast Asia seems to perfectly capture the lysergic dysfunction, moral drift and hollow madness of what remains one of this country's deepest and most profound psychic wounds.

Episodic in nature and grimly nihilistic in tone, Coppola's command of mood is breathtaking throughout both the original, theatrical cut and the extended 2001 version; loosely basing his film on Joseph Conrad's classic "Heart of Darkness," the writer/director builds the deceptively simple tale of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his mission: travel upriver, deep into the Cambodian jungle, find a remote military outpost and terminate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), "with extreme prejudice." On paper, it seems like your traditional war movie, but on screen, it is anything but. Startling cinematography by acclaimed lensman Vittorio Storaro captures the savage beauty of the jungle (the Philippines standing in for Vietnam and Cambodia) while Coppola's oblique, dense language works on an almost operatic level. There's not a war film before or since as drunk on the meaning of language as Apocalypse Now - a particularly choice irony, since much of the film's final third seems suffuse with insane ramblings and the climax fairly transpires in silence.

While seemingly effortless in its grandeur onscreen, Apocalypse Now was a legendarily difficult shoot, lasting some 16 months and costing Coppola millions of dollars of his own money. From typhoons to heart attacks to narrative uncertainty (original screenwriter John Milius' fantastical, blockbuster finish was scrapped early on by Coppola), Apocalypse Now, by all rights, shouldn't have even made it out of the Philippine jungle intact, let alone go on to win the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1979 or its pair of Oscars in 1980. Apocalypse Now retains the power to captivate and disturb some three decades later and of course, there are no shortage of sequences that have since worked their way into the pop culture lexicon. Coppola arguably made his last true masterpiece with this film, closing out the Seventies – the "film school" decade – with a surreal, psychedelic exploration of man's interior madness, his own, inescapable heart of darkness.

It's no secret that fans have clamored for a thorough DVD edition of Apocalypse Now ever since the medium was born. "The Complete Dossier" boasts some extremely attractive packaging – housed in a manila slipcover that features a "seal" hiding a velcro closure, the embossed digipack folds out to reveal the two discs, with quotes from the film and a list of the bonus features adorning each panel. The 1979 and 2001 editions of the film are split across the two discs, with special features on each disc. When it's all put together, it looks quite handsome.


The Video:

After careful scene-specific comparisons of all three DVD incarnations of Apocalypse Now, I can't discern any truly striking difference in quality between the trio of anamorphic widescreen transfers (yes, I know - it's been "cropped" to a 2.0:1 ratio; fret not purists, as this home video controversy is addressed in the extras). Both the theatrical and "Redux" cuts look magnificent, with deep, rich blacks, crisp delineation and eye-popping, opulent colors. Storaro's sumptuous visuals look appropriately vivid here; it's a satisfyingly lush representation for both cuts (although "Redux" has a slight edge in terms of color saturation). **AMENDED 7/30/06: Despite my not noticing any drastic visual changes from the first DVD, per a note from DVD producer Kim Aubry, this edition features a higher bit rate transfer and better encoding.

The Audio:

As one of the first films to make use of the then-new 70mm Dolby Stereo surround sound system, the aural experience of Coppola's film has always been vitally important. It's little wonder then that both Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux sport wonderfully immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Redux sounds slightly sharper and more present than the theatrical cut, but it's really quibbling to find problems with either one of these tracks. Both are superb, near-flawless audio tracks that are key to appreciating Apocalypse Now to its fullest extent. The French Dolby 2.0 stereo track from the first DVD has not been ported over, however, optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.

The Extras:

Apocalypse Now has been released twice previously on DVD. In 1999, Paramount issued the 1979 theatrical version, including only the theatrical trailer and a few minutes of footage featuring the destruction of Kurtz's compound overlaid with brief commentary from Coppola. The second iteration, Apocalypse Now Redux, arrived on DVD in late 2001, sporting only the film's re-release trailer and an insert denoting newly added footage. It should be noted that this third release, "The Complete Dossier," does not include the compound destruction footage, the theatrical trailer or the re-release trailer, so Apocalypse Now completists will want to hang onto those first two DVDs.

But what is here? Plenty, all of which was lovingly assembled by producer Kim Aubry – the main objective of the supplemental material seems to be two-fold: demystify one of Hollywood's most legendarily mythic creations and also, rightfully trumpet Apocalypse Now as a cinematic technological watershed, with its dense, complicated sound design and reliance upon multi-channel stereo sound. The bonus features accomplish both tasks admirably, tearing down the veil of mystery surrounding Apocalypse Now, while providing genuinely interesting information about its technical achievements.

The main attraction here is Francis Ford Coppola's involving, candid and revealing commentary track; it's an absolute joy to listen to Papa Coppola hold forth, with hardly a moment's pause, about a film he's palpably quite proud of. The theatrical cut is preceded by a two minute, 50 second intro from Coppola (filmed, interestingly enough, on the set of his latest film, Youth Without Youth), in which he explains how he came to the project. It's slightly misleading how his commentary is being billed as a track for each film, since his "Redux" commentary is the exact same track for Apocalypse Now, but with "Redux"-specific anecdotes seamlessly spliced in (a la Billy Bob Thornton's recent Sling Blade: Director's Cut commentary). Nevertheless, it's a fascinating listen and should be required for any fan of the film. The "Redux" cut is preceded by a four minute Coppola introduction and in lieu of an insert denoting new footage, a small onscreen icon appears (when selected beforehand) when viewing "Redux," alerting you to reinstated scenes/sequences.

Also available on the first disc is the complete, 17-minute Marlon Brando reading of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," heard only briefly in the finished film; Brando's recitation is heard over a montage of outtake scenes. The three-minute "Monkey Sampan" scene (which I'd never heard of prior to watching this set) is a bizarre, gruesome moment from the film, which seems to have been snipped from the sequence when the PBR sails underneath the downed B-52 tail. It's odd, but easily lost.

The 12 "Additional Scenes" included here are worth the price of admission alone, as they reveal sequences that have been only imagined for those unable to track down a bootleg of the infamous 5 1/2-hour workprint. Below, you'll find brief descriptions of each; all 12 scenes are presented in non-anamorphic, time-coded widescreen, clearly taken from a VHS source, only playable separately and are helpfully subtitled in English:

--"Saigon Streetlife" (45 seconds): Exactly what the title says – Coppola alludes to this footage in his commentary track fairly early on.
--"Military Intelligence Escorts" (42 seconds): The two soldiers who claim Willard from his room and escort him to Nha Trang give him a quick shave and discuss business.
--"Intelligence Briefing (Extension 1)" (two minutes, 15 seconds): Essentially the same sequence as in the finished film, but intercut with scenes of everyday life on the base.
--"Intelligence Briefing (Extension 2)" (three minutes, 15 seconds): As above, this is essentially the same sequence as in the finished film, but intercut with scenes of everyday life on the base.
--"Willard Meets the PBR Crew" (one minute, two seconds): This scene has a very old Hollywood feel, as Willard is introduced to each member of the boat's crew.
--"Letter From Mrs. Kurtz" (one minute, 26 seconds): Willard reads aloud a letter from Kurtz's wife; this scene smacks a little of artistic pretension.
--"Booby Trap" (51 seconds): A quick but startling sequence finds Lance trying to retrieve a toy boat and Chief taking care of business.
--"Do Lung ... 'That road is open'" (55 seconds): Basically an alternate, slightly longer take of the beginning of the Do Lung Bridge sequence.
--"Photojournalist" (two minutes, 28 seconds): Functioning almost as an introductory monologue for Dennis Hopper's photojournalist character, this is a longer take than what appears in the final film version.
--"Colby" (one minute, 33 seconds): One of the more legendary "disappeared" characters in Apocalypse Now, two of the final three deleted scenes here constitute what appears to be the bulk of the narrative which deals with Scott Glenn's character, Colby. This scene finds Willard meeting the mysterious Colby, who helps explain the presence of so many bodies around Kurtz's compound.
--"The Tiger Cages" (four minutes, 29 seconds): Kurtz and Willard share a much longer exchange while Willard is held captive in his bamboo prison and young children dangle dead insects in his face; portions of this appear in the final film.
--"Special Forces Knife" (six minutes, 34 seconds): The meatiest deleted scene explains what happens to both Colby and the photojournalist; Willard watches as Colby kills the photojournalist, only to be stabbed to death by Willard and a helpfully recovered weapon.

The "A/V Club" section details the painstaking post-production process, outlining the exhaustive months of work that went into fine-tuning Apocalypse Now. The six-minute featurette "The Birth of 5.1 Sound" is presented in anamorphic widescreen and includes Dolby Labs' Ioan Allen explaining how now-industry standard 5.1 sound had its genesis around the time that Apocalypse Now was in post-production. The three minute, 50 second "Ghost Helicopter Flyover" is presented in anamorphic widescreen and is a brief, fascinating demonstration of how filmmakers created the opening sequence. Bob Moog's article, "Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack," is presented as a textual supplement, with the six question "Technical FAQ" rounding out the first disc (I won't reveal the questions, but suffice to say, a lot of Web-based grousing will be laid to rest, however temporarily, by the answers provided here).

The second disc contains the conclusions of both cuts, as well as the remainder of Coppola's commentary. The special features also continue onto the second disc; "The Post Production of Apocalypse Now" is a multi-part documentary, presented in anamorphic widescreen and delving deeply into the epic editing process – viewable separately or together, the 17 minute, 54 second "A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now" reveals the exhaustive process, speaking with many of the principal characters. The 14 minute, 43 second "The Music of Apocalypse Now" covers precisely that and under the heading "Heard Any Good Movies Lately?," you'll find two more featurettes: the 15 minute, 19 second "The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now" and the three minute, seven second "The Final Mix."

The four minute, 10 second, non-anamorphic widescreen "PBR Streetgang" briefly reunites – through EPK interviews – Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Jr., Laurence Fishburne and Sam Bottoms, all of whom have nothing but good things to say about their experiences in the Philippines. The three minute, 40 second "Apocalypse Now and Then" catches up with Coppola at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and covers the "Redux" process with Walter Murch. The four minute, five second "The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now" discusses the Technicolor dye transfer that renders "Redux" so lushly saturated. A few screens of DVD credits round out the second disc. **AMENDED 7/30/06: Per a note from producer Kim Aubry, I was encouraged to poke around a little and discover some hidden Easter eggs on this set. I found on the first disc a reproduction of a Coppola letter from May 11, 1979, welcoming viewers to a screening of an answer print and an invitation to the filming of the Playboy Bunny sequence and on the second disc, I found a photo of a production banner, a memo to the crew dated Sept. 8, 1976 concerning food poisoning and a "torture list" for Kurtz's compound as well as a 47 second clip of co-screenwriter John Milius explaining the genesis of the phrase "apocalypse now."

So what's not here? The most glaring omission is the acclaimed 1991 Fax Bahr/George Hickenlooper/Eleanor Coppola documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." So much of the supplemental material included here addresses post-production and the reception of Coppola's film that the infamously difficult 16-month shoot is only referenced here and there, mostly by Coppola in his commentary (where, maddeningly, "Hearts of Darkness" is name-checked a few times). The actors are also noticeably absent from any of the bonus features except for the "PBR Streetgang" piece. It's almost as though this two-disc set is a monument to Coppola's achievement, celebrating his accomplishment to the obfuscation of other contributions; this isn't to imply that the technical team doesn't get its props but just as much of Apocalypse Now's power comes from the actors onscreen and in all of the newly created material, they are nowhere to be found. This set is being touted as "The Complete Dossier," assuming that everything anyone who's a fan of the film could want is included. That's not entirely the case – what's included here is fantastic and goes a long way towards deepening appreciation for a landmark of American cinema, but until a DVD set is released either incorporating "Hearts of Darkness" or creating an entirely new production documentary using Eleanor's footage (some of which is glimpsed in a few featurettes), Apocalypse Now remains a film not fully, completely and rightly recognized for the difficult achievement it is on DVD. **AMENDED 7/30/06: Producer Kim Aubry explained the situation regarding "Hearts of Darkness": "The story with inclusion of 'Hearts' is complex and legal. When the rights situation gets straightened out (with that wonderful film), I am sure it will become available again as it must. It just couldn't happen in this time window for our set."

***AMENDED 8/20/06: Thanks to DVD Talk reader Ryan, who passed along this detailed information about Paramount's bizarre decision to offer excised material from the first two DVD incarnations of Apocalypse Now as a bonus disc exclusively carried by Circuit City in limited supplies: "Please note that there is a "Bonus Disc Three" available exclusively ... at Circuit City. The disc has this written on it: "The Added Scenes and Expanded Themes of Apocalypse Now Redux"; Destruction of the Kurtz Compound with Optional Commentary; 1979 Theatrical Trailer; 2001 Trailer. The disc is packaged inside the cardboard outer sleeve, behind the digipack. Editions with the bonus disc will have a sticker on the outside which says "Exclusive Free Bonus Disc With Purchase of this DVD While Supplies Last." Editions with the free bonus disc have a different UPC barcode: 032429010995." It's also worth noting that the "excerpts from the original theatrical program" found on the first DVD have still not turned up anywhere, so again, Apocalypse Now enthusiasts would do well to hang onto at least the first DVD release.

Final Thoughts:

It's billed as "The Complete Dossier," but until the filmmakers responsible for Apocalypse Now include the essential making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, it's a set complete in name only. It's heartbreaking to only award a high recommendation to this package, as what's assembled here is truly an Apocalypse Now fan's dream – commentary, deleted scenes, invaluable post production footage – but what's missing is so glaring (and necessary) that I can't quite bring myself to award DVD Talk's top rating. The horror ... the horror.

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