Apocalypse Now is back in cinemas this month and Coppola's own restoration and re-release of the film opens in the UK on May 27th. Hot on its heels is Optimum's Blu-ray release in June.
By the time of Apocalypse Now's original release in 1979, Vietnam as a subject matter in Hollywood cinema had only been explored in a handful of films, some contemporaneous to the ongoing war, including the pro-war The Green Berets (1968) with John Wayne and the anti-war documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) then with others such as Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) both telling stories of veterans attempting to adjust to the return to civilian life in a post-war America.
Apocalypse Now is not just a war movie about the experience of Vietnam. In fact, the Vietnam War is practically the backdrop to a much deeper, symbolic battle between the primordial, animalistic and rationalist, civilising forces that form the dichotomy within our human nature. Vietnam is the stage for this psychological exploration, the war ravaging across its landscape providing its own commentary on the fine line between sanity and madness, between order and chaos. But because of this stance it's also an ambiguous film, politically speaking, and offers both an anti-war and pro-war discourse within its odyssey.
"I, like Captain Willard, was moving up river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis."
Meanwhile, on the other hand the film showcases a gung-ho, aggressive and visually stimulating arena of conflict, epitomised in the helicopter attack on the Vietcong village soundtracked to Wagner. It places the film within the notion of the epic, depicting the all-conquering Western power usurping the weaker indigenous culture. It is shot and edited with hyperkinetic exhilaration, aestheticising violence to the degree that Frank Tomasulo, in From Hanoi to Hollywood, believes "the use of wide screen, low angle shots of helicopters in tight formation flying up from the horizon into the rising sun creates a grandiose, romanticised and even heavenly aura of battle that changes destruction and death from acts of horror into Armageddon-like sights of awe-inspiring beauty."
This debate is one that even the director Francis Ford Coppola was faced with when the film gradually spiraled out of his control on location in the Philippines and he found himself entangled in a personal journey every bit as ambiguous as that endured by the central character Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). In a press release before the first screenings of the film, he summarised this as, "I found many of the images and ideas with which I was working as a film director began to coincide with the realities of my own life, and that I, like Captain Willard, was moving up river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis." This also evokes some further comments from Baudrillard, who saw Coppola's film as "inspired irony" and that the hallucinatory qualities of the making of the film, the content of the film itself and the reality of the Vietnam war "are cut from the same cloth, that nothing separates them."
... describes the journey that America itself must make as a result of Vietnam
Kurtz, a member of the Special Forces, has gone rogue, murdering a number of Vietnamese operatives and building an army of Montagnard natives and Army deserters in the heart of the jungle, positioning himself as their pagan king-god and indulging in a violent reign of terror. Willard travels from Saigon, and the absurdist combat overseen by equally insane characters such as Robert Duvall's Kilgore ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning"), on into Cambodia as though he were Dante entering the many circles of hell, leaving civilisation behind as he prepares to meet Kurtz, the primordial mirror image of himself.
In essence it is also perhaps a film that describes the journey that America itself must make as a result of Vietnam. For me, the film symbolises the shattering of the great American dream of the the late 1950s and the implosion of the 1960s counter-culture's failed ambition to reorganise society along more egalitarian lines. Apocalypse Now surely depicts the death of the optimism of the 1960s, those scars left by Vietnam itself, and the resulting emptiness at the heart of American culture and society.
This is something that Jon Stratton sees in Postcolonial America where the film's title is itself an acknowledgement of the crisis in America's identity created by the loss of the Vietnam war as a "clear expression of the United States' renewed uncertainty in its own identity." It's expressed in Willard's own assertion, where the dream of the promised land that had so fueled 1960s culture was no longer a dream but a nightmare. In recounting the last visit he made to the States, he comments, "I'd been back and it just didn't exist anymore." The journey that Willard undertakes is therefore one that shows the chaos and madness of the Vietnam war as "the loss of moral certainty".
... the visuals become more intense and dreamlike
"You have to have men who are moral...and at the same time who are able to utilise their primordal instincts to kill without feeling...without passion...without judgement...without judgement. Because it's judgement that defeats us," suggests that it is the primordial state that man must return to if he is ever to have the will to power. He is clearly recommending this Conradian "horror" as the appropriate state for Willard to achieve. It is needed to carry out his termination of Kurtz and it is one that has also been previously depicted in Kilgore's own paranoid sense of self and in the film's much lauded sequence of the Ride of the Valkyries helicopter attack on the Vietnamese village.
Whatever Coppola's intended political stance might be, the film is a gloriously surreal odyssey and, as previously indicated, this is visually expressed as a boat trip into Hades. Much of this is down to the increasingly psychedelic nature of the 'trip' and its major realisateur, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Composition and colour, light and darkness reflect the emotional state and symbolic nature of the characters. The psychedelic experience of the film echoes the 1969 period in which it is set and the surreal and terrifying rites of passage, often using the crutch of drugs to cope with that "horror", that many young conscripts would actually undergo while serving in Vietnam.
Increasingly, as the boat nears Kurtz's compound, the visuals become more intense and dreamlike, bathed in clouds of purple, green and yellow smoke. The passage beyond the Do Lung bridge is like entering a nightmare where chaos, the confusion over who is in command, is buried within the chiaroscuro lighting and only ghostly sections of faces and bodies are seen. The bridge symbolises again the utter futility of the conflict as it is repaired by the Americans by day and blown up by the Vietcong at night. Darkness and light as symbols of good and evil are also crucial to the depiction of Kurtz's inner sanctum with both Kurtz and Willard constantly emerging from the dark and then sinking back into it.
"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper"
The electronic score, a collaboration between five pioneering musicians and Coppola's composer father, adds glacial highlights and resonating bass timbres to the sound stage, underlining the increasing sense of isolation and paranoia as Willard's mission progresses. This gives way to the percussion led compositions when the story reaches Kurtz's lair and suggests that music itself is reflecting the journey from civilisation into paganism.
That Willard and Kurtz meet to engage in the cycle of death and rebirth is prefigured throughout the film. The constant is Willard's narration and Sheen's performance, as ambiguous as the film's own search for answers, a psychotic drunk who you can never really empathise with. Brando is mesmerising and in the intervening years his performance has whittled its way into the texture of the film, more effectively resonating with the material than it ever did on initial viewing.
As Tomasulo points out, "their doppelganger status" implies the "father-son nature of their roles and their transubstantiation in the last scene" and is marked out by visual compositions and actions within each performance. They both are introduced in the film as they recline on a bed, half lit in orange light and they mimic certain actions such as swatting a fly or are shown rubbing their faces. They both become a mirror of each other later in the film as first Kurtz appears before Willard in camouflage make-up and then Willard reciprocates when he sets off to assassinate the man.
The apocalyptic nature of the story is also framed not only by the Conradian themes of the negative effects of colonialism but it is also shrouded in the semi-mystical texts of Kurtz's reading material glimpsed briefly in the film. Eliot's The Wasteland, a copy of the The Bible, Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazier's The Golden Bough reflect even further the psychedelic, psychological and quasi-religious metaphors at the heart of the film. Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central sees Willard as a passive Prufrock-ian observer while Kurtz's quoting from The Hollow Men underlines the good versus evil, mind versus body dualisms and the inevitability of the ritualised sacrifice of the old king-god.
The 'pro-war' and 'anti-war' agendas are perhaps reflected in the two endings that Coppola attempts with Apocalypse Now. Ironically enough they perhaps reflect something of the T.S Eliot lines from The Hollow Men, "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper" and semi-quoted by Dennis Hopper's character in the film.
The ending to the 70mm release, represented here on the Blu-ray, shows Willard rejecting his replacement of Kurtz, dropping his machette and leading the only other survivor of the mission, Lance, by the hand back to the boat which then vanishes down river. Note that the film ends with an image suggesting civilised man's encounter with his prehistoric self where Willard's face is transposed over the face of one of the temple's statues as the boat pulls away onto the river. Faintly in the background the helicopters and flames from the opening sequence can be seen. The end is the beginning and vice versa. As Tomasulo observes, this is "a subdued and thoughtful conclusion" as opposed to the spectacularly explosive ending proposed on the 35mm release prints, where it is suggested that Willard calls in a planned air strike and destroys the compound.
This action reiterates the message Willard finds in Kurtz's report "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all" and reinforces the idea that Willard has become Kurtz at the end of the film. Even now Coppola disavows that alternate ending and observes that he removed it because it sent the wrong message to the audience. However, as Vincent LoBrutto concludes in his essay on the film in Becoming Film Literate, "the fruitless search for a logical ending to a film about the Vietnam War is the consummate metaphor of Apocalypse Now. The war and the film can never truly be resolved and must lie within a conflicted American heart."
The high-definition restoration and transfer quality is impressive, enhancing colour, detail and the scope of the image. The film is more vivid in many ways here and often the detail is breathtaking, especially close ups of faces, and flesh tones are naturally rendered. Storaro's colour palette, realised through the the three strip Technicolor process, blazes into life beautifully.
This is especially true as the film becomes more surreal, with images bathed in intense clouds of purple and orange smoke and where the jungle greenery seems to become more saturated. The deep pools of shadow and light that he uses throughout the film are well handled and feel really solid. There is some softness in a few scenes so it isn't always a consistent transfer but it is all rather beguiling visually and overall is quite stunning.
A note about the ratio here too. The film is presented, for the first time in a home entertainment format, is the original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Previous releases have been tinkered with by Storaro and, at his behest, were cropped to the 2.0:1 ratio. Apparently he has some theory that all films should be seen at this ratio and has retroactively been altering the films he has worked on in the past to suit this framing.
Coppola was apparently persuaded to release the film, which was never composed in the 2.0 format, on Blu-ray in the original ratio and you can certainly see the difference in the amount of extra information that is now contained in the frame and the sense of space if affords.
Murch's sound design, the progenitor of 5.1 sound for films, really gets some boosting in the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It will give your sound system a comprehensive workout with effects bouncing around all over the soundstage, ambiences of the jungle beautifully rendered, the score and dialogue crisply presented. A truly immersive experience.
Overall, this film is highly recommended and the Blu-ray package is a must own.
Overall a mix of some of the features found on the 2006 Complete Dossier DVD, released by Paramount and various supplements created for the Redux release plus some completely new material. Probably the most complete collection of features yet put together for the film but still no sign of the Harvey Keitel material that was shot and abandoned and we only get a flavour of the mythical five hour plus 'workprint' version of the film too. The packaging design is visually much more attractive than the rather dull looking Region A release from 2010, the vibrant colour scheme much more in keeping with the film's marketing design. You also get the booklet that was included in the 2010 edition and exclusive to this Region B edition a set of black and white art cards too.
Commentary on Apocalypse Now / Apocalypse Now Redux by Francis Ford Coppola
A delight to listen to, full of detail about the making of the film. Essential listening.
Interview with John Milius (HD 49 mins) - new to this release -
Fascinating one-to-one interview between Coppola and Milius which examines how Milius developed the script for the film out of his own military ambitions and the source material, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A fascinating but informal exploration about creating a screenplay between the film's writer and director.
Interview with Fred Roos (casting Apocalypse) (HD 12 mins) - new to this release -
Brief but interesting look at how the film was cast with footage of the open auditions featuring Sam Bottoms, Fred Forrest and an impossibly young Laurence Fishburne (he was 14 at the time). Also intriguing in that the original casting for Willard was Harvey Keitel and Roos explains how this didn't prove fruitful and the production had to be shut down while they re-cast, with the part going to Martin Sheen. Lots of video footage of the auditions and interviews interspersed with a Roos interview.
A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola (HD 60 mins) - new to this release -
A candid but friendly one-to-one between Sheen and his director. It opens with them discussing the recording of the narration and continues with casting, where Coppola explains how he felt Harvey Keitel wasn't quite right for the part and then decided to re-cast. Sheen reveals that he was concerned about the physical demands of the role, particularly in light of his heavy smoking and drinking. His impressions of Robert Duvall are of a singularly focused actor and he has fond memories of his fellow cast members. They also discuss the infamous opening sequence and how this helped Sheen finally 'get' the character of Willard and break his actor's ego.
The Mercury Theatre on Air: Heart of Darkness - November 6 1938 (37 mins) - new to this release -
Orson Welles's radio adaptation of Conrad's novel. An archive recording, the quality is fairly low.
The Hollow Men (17 mins)
Brando reciting Eliot's poem over a montage of behind the scenes and outtake material.
Monkey Sampan “Lost Scene” (3 mins)
Workprint outtake depicting Willard and the boat crew finding another boat covered in monkeys.
Additional Scenes (27 mins)
A dozen items of deleted material in pretty shabby quality. These include an expanded lunch scene where Willard is briefed about his mission, Willard meeting the boat crew, the death of Dennis Hopper's character and more Brando material.
Kurtz Compound Destruction with credits (6 mins)
The film's original ending, at least on the 35mm release, showing the airstrike on the Kurtz compound (a sequence demanded by the removal of the temple structure at the behest of the Filipino government) and footage which Coppola rejected as a symbol of aggression that the film itself, and the character of Willard, wanted to avoid. It comes with a commentary from Coppola (that is not optional).
The Birth of 5.1 sound (6 mins)
All too brief observations from Dolby Labs expert Ioan Allen who expounds on the development of cinema sound from pre-1950s exhibition to the modern experience. Some interesting archive footage depicts Coppola ranting about theatres that couldn't meet the specifications to show the film.
Ghost Helicopter Flyover (4 mins)
Richard Beggs and Randy Thom discuss and examine the sound design of the helicopter flyovers that make up the opening shot of the movie.
Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog (still images and text ported from an article in Keyboard magazine)
A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now (18 mins)
Walter Murch and other editors discuss how the film emerged from the tons of footage that Coppola shot. It also looks at how the iconic opening sequence was created.
The Music of Apocalypse Now (15 mins)
Another brief but fascinating look at how the classical discipline of Carmine Coppola meshed with the electronic music design, the songs of the Doors and the use of traditional percussion to create the music for the film.
Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now (15 mins)
With an emphasis on the Do Lung bridge scene, this looks at the how the soundscape for the film was designed and built. A thought provoking examination of the film's sound design and the melting pot of ideas that went into its creation.
The Final Mix (3 mins)
Sound designer Randy Thom briefly outlines the nine months it took to create the film's final sound mix.
Apocalypse Then & Now (4 mins)
Walter Murch briefly discusses returning to recut the film for the Redux version.
2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola (39 mins) - new to this release -
Great interview between Roger Ebert and Coppola at Cannes when he brought the Redux version of the film to the Festival. He discusses the end of the American auteur period in the 1970s (ending with Heaven's Gate he postulates), the Kurtz compound ending, the changes in Redux, particularly the French plantation sequences which added a historical perspective to the events in the film, and working with Brando and Hopper (some great stories are recounted).
PBR Streetgang (4 mins)
Some reflections from Fred Forrest, Sam Bottoms (who sadly died in 2008), Laurence Fishburne and Albert Hall.
The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now (4 mins)
Vittorio Storaro, the film's cinematographer, briefly looks at the intense colour scheme for the film and how the revival of the Technicolor dye process was crucial to the realisation of his ideas about the use of colour in the film.
Disc 3: - all new to this release -
Hearts of Darkness (HD 99mins) acclaimed documentary by directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper using material shot each day on the set for a prospective diary of the events by the director's wife, Eleanor Coppola. Released in 1991, this chronicles Coppola's battle to finish the film as typhoons blow away the set, Martin Sheen has a heart attack and the financiers start to back out and the director has to prop the film up by re-mortgaging his life. It is as much about the director's own descent into self-destruction as it is about the madness of war paralleling an apparently out-of-control production.
Marketing Archive: original trailer, radio spots, theatrical program, lobby card and press kit, photos
American Zoetrope / United Artists / Miramax 1979 - 2001
Optimum Home Entertainment / Region ABC / Cert: 15 / Total Running Time: 572 mins approx / Catalogue No: OPTBD2067 / Released June 13, 2011
Features running time: (Apocalypse Now) - 153 mins / (Apocalypse Now Redux) - 202 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 2.35:1 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 5.1 DTS Master Audio
Total running time: 323 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 or 4:3 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 2.0 Stereo DTS / English Language
Hearts of Darkness running time: 96 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 1.77 / Video: BD25 / AVC / Feature Audio: Stereo 2.0 DTS Master Audio / English Language
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