Lionsgate // 1979 // 147 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // November 3rd, 2010
"The Horror...The Horror..." -- Col. Walter E. Kurtz
There are few films in the history of Hollywood as storied and bizarre as Francis Ford Coppola's seminal 1979 treatise on war and madness. Apocalypse Now is for some, Coppola's best work, and for others a maddening film that buckles under the weight of its excessive production woes. Whatever theory you subscribe to, Lionsgate has given you a fresh opportunity to revisit the surreal nightmare that was Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1908 novella, Heart of Darkness, with an extensive 3-disc Blu-ray package that is every bit as epic as the film, AND the production that birthed it.
Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen, The Departed) is an operator; a strung out government assassin in the olive drab guise of a trusty soldier. His latest mission finds him trekking into Cambodia, ferried by the rag tag crew of a Navy patrol boat on a classified operation. It seems that Green Beret Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront) has gone native, his methods unsound, and Willard has been tasked with terminating the Colonel's command...with extreme prejudice.
The trip is a whirlwind tour through the surreal fringes of the Vietnam conflict at its height and, as Willard and his crew get closer to Kurtz, the madness gets ever more prevalent. It is only when he finally comes face to face with Kurtz and his loyal army of Montagnard followers that the real madness begins.
After over a year of shooting, budget overruns, infighting, a million feet of film, civil wars, infidelity, near-fatal heart attacks, troublesome leading men, and more than a year of post-production, it's nothing shy of a miracle that anything remotely coherent came out of this project. Even more astonishing, Apocalypse Now is far from incoherent, ranking as one of the greatest films of all time.
Hot off of the one-two-three punch of The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather: Part II, Coppola -- then America's most celebrated creative force -- packed up the wife and kids, and high-tailed it to the Philippines to create his Vietnam War epic. He initially touted the film as an Irwin Allen spectacle, but even in the earliest days of its conception, when a young George Lucas (THX 1138) had planned on dragging screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) over to Vietnam to film the closing years of the war, this was always going to be something exceptional. The media likes no one better to scrutinize than someone at the top of their game, so it wasn't long before war stories from the production surfaced.
Typhoons were tearing sets apart and a civil war was stealing away resources on loan to the production from Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Rampant drug use and constant struggles with an overweight and barely coherent Marlon Brando, plus the near fatal heart attack of Martin Sheen certainly didn't help matters. Coppola addressed the film best at its premiere at Cannes in 1978, saying "There were too many of us; we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane." The film would go on to score a major victory by seizing the Palme D'or (Best of Show) award that year. Wide critical acclaim, commercial success, and Oscar gold would follow.
I'm going to assume you're reading this review because:
A) You're familiar with Apocalypse Now and curious as to how the film has fared in its Blu-ray debut.
B) You've never seen the film, and the title, the cover art, a google search, or even my posting of this review on Facebook has piqued your interest.
In either case, you NEED to own this film. If you have the means (a Blu-ray player, a nice surround sound setup, and a High Definition display), it's a recommendation I cannot repeat enough -- this is a must! The acclaim Apocalypse Now has garnered over the years cannot be overstated. This is Francis Ford Coppola's best work. It is Marlon Brando's best work. It is Martin Sheen's best work. It is John Milius' best work. It is a timeless and classic film in every sense of those words. This isn't an easy film to watch and can be downright unpleasant at times, but it never ceases to be hypnotic and enthralling.
When you crack the slipcase, you're presented with several choices:
Apocalypse Now -- The original 1979 classic as it appeared in theatres. This is where you begin your journey. Much has been written of Martin Sheen's captivating performance, fuelled by his ability to bring poise and intelligence to any role. Even more ink has been spilled on Marlon Brando's turn as Kurtz. The more I see the film, the more convinced I am that Brando's insane genius inhabited the character; he knew exactly what he was doing. While Coppola spent his days fighting with Brando, to the point where he threw up his hands and abandoned the actor to his assistant director, Brando was too busy "being" Walter E. Kurtz to care. More than Don Vito Corleone, or Terry Malloy, here he proves he's a true master of the craft.
Brando doesn't even enter the film until the tail end though, and every minute that comes before is equally captivating. Capt. Willard finds himself sharing a boat ride with the crew of PBR "Streetgang," an eclectic mix of characters who share ample screentime with Martin Sheen's loner commando: Pro-surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms, The Outlaw Josey Wales); High strung Cajun, 'Chef' (Frederic Forrest, Falling Down); The boat's commander, 'Chief' (Albert Hall, Ali); and resident rookie, 'Clean' (a 14 year-old Lawrence Fishburne, Event Horizon). All pull their own weight, with each cast member given time to shine. Thanks to their performances, the journey is nothing short of captivating, where not every fate is a pretty one, and each and every loss stings.
Arguably, the most memorable role in the film belongs to Robert Duvall (The Road) as the gung-ho surf freak Commanding Officer of the 1st/9th Air Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. Tasked with getting Willard's ride to the mouth of the Nung River, Kilgore leads an all out assault on a coastal Vietnam village with a fleet of Hueys accompanied by loudspeakers blaring Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." This sequence gobbles up a chunk of runtime real estate, and remains one of the most famous in all filmdom. Coppola's direction here is impeccable, filled with carnage and action. Duvall provides one hell of a lynchpin, giving us such legendary dialogue as "Charlie don't surf!" and the unforgettable, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning..." Despite a mere brief appearance, Kilgore leaves a lasting impression.
Following this attack, the film settles into episode after surreal episode, from a USO show featuring Playboy playmates, to the end of the US offensive line at Do Long Bridge, a hellish nightmare where American soldiers fire blindly at unseen foes, constantly rebuilding a useless bridge only to see it blown to smithereens every night. Coppola handles each and every scene with a deft hand -- the care one might expect from the man who brought us The Godfather -- but there's so much more lurking beneath the surface.
Coppola's previous films were meaningful narratives, sure, but there's a substance to Apocalypse Now, a density that goes beyond most films of any era. This isn't a war film in the traditional sense. Indeed, peer 'Nam flicks like Oliver Stone's Platoon or Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket have often been considered more authentic portrayals of the conflict. What Apocalypse Now brings to the table is a portrait of the war as a collective experience. It hammers home the chaos on a grand scale rather than that of select individuals; our grunts aren't experiencing so much as observing.
Setting aside the technical reality in favor of a psychological one, the nature of Apocalypse Now is to unnerve us, getting under our skin and illustrating the true mental and emotional toll of war. The trip upriver to Kurtz is more a trip through our psyches; glimpses at the dark, chaotic side of mankind; the surreal images acting as stark, raving windows into the darkest core of our senseless, primordial nature. It may not make its setting in the same era or locale as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but it hits all of the right notes, resonating in much the same fashion with a more contemporary sensibility. Apocalypse Now comments 'Nam and America, sure, but what truly makes the film a timeless piece greater than the sum of its '70s parts, are the glimpses it provides and the story it tells; transcending the experience of any particular war, while examining human nature and our dark history of conflict as a whole.
Apocalypse Now: Redux -- In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola revisited Apocalypse Now with an eye towards preservation. Never completely satisfied with the original, he recut the film, inserting additional scenes and beats, adding nearly an hour to its runtime (for a grand total of 197 minutes). This Redux cut is included on the Blu-ray release via seamless branching. While I won't argue over which version is superior, I will say those experiencing the film for the first time should become intimately familiar with the theatrical version before digging any deeper.
The largest and most controversial addition comes late in the film, at a time when the film is careening into its final act, as the crew of the PBR take a break at a French Rubber Plantation and delve into political discourse with the master of the household. While this lengthy scene definitely warrants a viewing, the film's momentum grinds to a halt, its progressively darkening ride given respite just when things should be reaching a fevered pitch. It's not a wasted scene, but just doesn't fit with the rest of the film.
Slightly less divisive and much more valuable is a second run in with the Playboy playmates at a dilapidated Military base; a welcome break for the crew that feels neither out of place nor distracting. Moreover, the military ghost town and the seeming lack of any kind of authority forebodingly hints at things to come.
Beyond that, there's a humorous sideroad with Col. Kilgore involving a stolen surfboard, that sounds a lot more absurd on paper than it plays out in the film. Neither detracting from nor adding to the experience, the additional battle footage is both welcomed and interesting.
Ideally, a version of Apocalypse Now that featured the alterations of the Redux, MINUS the plantation scene, would be the ultimate version of the film.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse -- The third disc presents an HD treatment for this acclaimed documentary. Originally airing on cable TV in 1991, this feature length 96-minute expose sheds light on the troubles faced by both the production and personal life of Francis Ford Coppola. Filmed mostly by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, and cut together by the late George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr, the opening footage of Coppola's rather controversial press conference at Cannes gives us some indication of the insanity to follow. Most damning perhaps is audio recorded secretly by Eleanor wherein Coppola threatens his own life, damns his film, and generally rants as any frustrated artist would.
The difficulties facing Francis, his family, and his crew have been well documented in the 30-plus years since the film was first released, but Hearts of Darkness remains a valid and engaging piece. Rather than a tabloid style smear of Coppola and the film -- as many have made it out to be -- the doc is a snapshot of just how far from the ragged edge Coppola had gone in bringing his vision to life. Some may see his statements as bold or pretentious, but I see them as the statements of a desperate artist struggling against a tide of shitty circumstance and bad luck, while remaining truly brave in the face of adversity. The fact that a movie this damn good resulted from the madness of a year-long shoot and another year or more of post production speaks volumes for Coppola's ability to craft. This is one of the best documentaries on a single film ever produced.
The third disc in this set is chock full of bonus material, most ported over from the already excellent Complete Dossier edition of the film on DVD, including Coppola's excellent commentary track on both cuts. The featurettes are of a decidedly technical nature, discussing sound design, editing, and the overall look of the film; all good stuff and worth a look. The deleted material contains nothing earth shattering, but is great for completists. Also included is a commentary on Hearts of Darkness commentary by Coppola and wide Eleanor, from the doc's standalone DVD release.
There's a fair amount of new material to sift through as well, including two fantastic features each runnig just shy of an hour: one features a great discussion between Coppola and Martin Sheen, where they reminisce and discuss the film; the other is a sit down with Coppola and screenwriter John Milius, which is a fantastic watch. There's a conversation between Coppola and film critic Roger Ebert from Cannes 2001, and a deleted sequence featuring the destruction of the Kurtz compound, originally meant to run under the end credits. Also tucked in here is an audio recording by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre of Conrad's original novella that runs about 40 minutes.
Apocalypse Now has always been given respectable treatment on home video; even early VHS releases were known for their top notch sound quality when pumped through solid analog stereo. In many cases, these were presented in widescreen, a rarity for the era. But none can compare with the level of TLC heaped upon this Blu-ray release. Apocalypse Now is very likely the single finest looking disc in my collection. The dye transfer process used on the original film comes through resoundingly clear with a stunning ACV MPEG-4 1080p transfer and the richest blacks I've seen in the format. These levels are as dark as midnight, without a hint of crush or grey. The rest of the color is rich and vibrant, and practically pops out of the image. Grain is present and entirely natural, without any trace of authoring issues, and no hint of motion blur or noise. Fine detail borders on the absurd; we can count hairs, see every speck of mud and grime, and read every word on the files that Willard sifts through during his upriver journey. I noticed no aliasing, shimmer, ghosting, edge enhancement, or errors of any kind, save for the occasional speck of dirt, which only adds to the proceedings.
More importantly, this is the first time the film has been made available in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, a feature fans have been clamouring for since the advent of DVD. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had always been adamant about the film's home video ratio being the correct way to view Apocalypse Now at home, but Coppola thankfully decided this Blu-ray release should be definitive, meaning the theatrical ratio would be used, and it's a revelation! The film now feels much more open, with sequences given more room to breathe, and compositions carrying more weight; of particular note is the village attack sequence. Apocalypse Now is, without a doubt, the single most aesthetically pleasing visual presentation I have seen in the Blu-ray format to date; a stunning representation of a visually striking film made over 30 years ago. If only every classic could look this good!
As an added bonus segment to this review, I've asked our resident audio guru, Judge Clark Douglas, to tackle the equally impressive audio:
Hey, They're Gonna Play Music! The Sound of Apocalypse Now by Judge Clark Douglas
Once upon a time, Francis Ford Coppola dreamed of creating a cinematic experience unlike anything else in the history of the medium. His plan was to build a theatre that would be devoted entirely to showing his forthcoming epic Apocalypse Now over and over again. The theatre would be built somewhere in the middle of the country (say, Kansas) and would be the only theatre in the nation to show the film. It would be equipped with a complex new sound system capable of fully immersing the viewer in the film's groundbreaking sound mix (Apocalypse Now essentially invented 5.1 surround), and movie lovers across America would make holy pilgrimages to this magnificent theatre in order to immerse themselves in the greatness of Coppola's masterpiece.
While that mad dream was ultimately abandoned, the film and its legendary sound mix remain awe-inspiring. Apocalypse Now informs us that we are in for a genuinely overwhelming audiovisual experience from the striking opening scene: an unseen "ghost helicopter" shifts from channel to channel, surrounding the viewer before allowing The Doors to add their epic "The End" into the mix. The increasingly intense sounds building around us are mirrored onscreen, as images of war are superimposed over our weary protagonist's face. However, the film doesn't use its then-new technique (now a part of essentially every modern film) as an attention-grabbing gimmick, but rather as a way of enhancing the realism (and surrealism) of the experience.
Coppola has always had good instincts when it comes to music -- his father Carmine was a distinguished composer, after all -- but Apocalypse Now remains one of his most unusual and yet unnervingly effective soundtracks. Unlike many directors, Coppola has never leaned towards a particular "sound" in his films; always going for what he feels will be the most effective approach from movie to movie. The Godfather employed a lush, romantic orchestra, while The Conversation offered a spare, haunting piano score. For Apocalype Now, Coppola and his father co-wrote the basic thematic material for a score that would prove a contradiction: a soundtrack performed entirely by modern, cutting-edge electronics and synthesizers that would take a journey into increasingly primitive territory as the film progressed.
Coppola hired a small band of renowned musicians (including up-and-coming composer/arranger Shirley Walker) and collaborated with them on the score. Like many other aspects of the film's production, the creation of the soundtrack was marked by bickering and bruised egos, but the end result was enormously effective. The music takes on many different shapes over the course of the film, sometimes delivering agonized melodies and sometimes transforming into atonal sound design, but it works. It's been argued that the score sounds dated, and I suppose it is -- but the instrumentation reminds us that we're in a specific era in history even while the thematic material (and the film itself) suggest forms of darkness that have been around since the beginning of time.
As good as all of this is, the film's defining musical moment comes courtesy of German composer Richard Wagner, whose "Ride of the Valkyries" from The Ring of the Nibelung has become permanently associated with Coppola's film. The scene in which Col. Kilgore's helicopters swoop in on a Vietnamese village while blaring Wagner's operatic composition from their speakers is the stuff of cinematic legend; one of the most-quoted and lovingly-parodied scenes in film history. So iconic is the moment that even many of those who haven't seen the film think of "Ride of the Valkyries" as, "the theme from Apocalypse Now." The piece certainly had a more controversial history before Coppola got his hands on it, being played on the radios of actual German tanks during WWII (not to mention during one of the more blatantly racist scenes in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation). Col. Kilgore proudly continues the strange tradition of employing classical music in the service of terror; masking horror as heroism to memorable, disturbingly exciting effect.
If Apocalypse Now's soundtrack has been somewhat overlooked, it's only because the film is so rich on every other level. Thankfully, this Blu-ray release presents the film's groundbreaking sound work with breathtaking clarity, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the fact that Coppola's masterwork is as fascinating to listen to as it is to look at.
There's been a near 5-hour long workprint version of Apocalypse Now floating around the ether, for a while now. It's a raw production document, an early version of the film with some incredible additions as well as some missing material. To call out the Full Disclosure edition for its absence is a tad excessive, but its inclusion would have been pretty cool. If Blade Runner could do it, why not Apocalypse Now?
That said, with the original, the Redux, and Hearts of Darkness, one can reasonably state this is about as thorough a release as is humanly possible. Throw that additional disc of extras in there, and the lavish package more than satisfies.
TO OUR CANADIAN READERS: The Canadian version, released via Maple Pictures was recalled immediately upon shipping for production errors. Both the regular 2-disc and 3-disc Full Disclosure editions had swapped disc numbers, and many of the 3-Disc sets were missing booklets. As of this writing, copies are still not readily available at retail, but Maple promises to have replacements out ASAP. Keep your eyes peeled, as they will be everywhere before you know it. You don't want to miss out on this set!
Apocalypse Now is a film that deserves nothing but the best, and the best is what's on display here. From the comprehensive collection of bonus features brought over from the Complete Dossier release, to new extensive features, and the inclusion of Hearts of Darkness, this is about as complete an edition as anyone will ever need, with a stunning remastering effort that will cut through your eyes and ears like a diamond bullet. When you think about the very best that Blu-ray has to offer, there's Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and then there's everything else.
Free to go! My vote for the best Blu-ray release of 2010!
Review content copyright © 2010 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes