Paramount // 1979 // 153 Minutes // Rated R
Paramount // 2001 // 202 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 15th, 2006
This mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.
For the longest time I considered Apocalypse Now a potential masterpiece botched in the execution. The literary nerd in me saw it as a failed adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an example of Francis Ford Coppola's reach exceeding his grasp. The themes of Conrad's novella formed the perfect foundation for an exploration of American military involvement in Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, but Coppola lost his way in making the film -- or so I believed. In particular, he seemed to have been screwed by the laziness and egocentrism of Marlon Brando, whose Colonel Kurtz was a too-fleshy rambling kook who bore little resemblance to the horrifying, skeletal madman of the literary source. As far as I was concerned, Apocalypse Now was a gorgeously visualized picture whose first two acts were weird, rousing, and dramatically and psychologically potent. Unfortunately, its third act collapsed under its own thematic weight, getting the best of its exhausted and exasperated director.
But over years of watching it and rewatching it, I've come to believe that Apocalypse Now is a full-fledged masterpiece. It may be even better -- certainly grander and more epic -- than Heart of Darkness. There, I said it. Unlike Conrad's novella, Apocalypse Now matches its form -- the way in which it feels as though Coppola is losing control of his movie as it careens towards its harrowing climax -- to its story of a man's devolution into chaos, savagery, and madness.
Only when Coppola released his 2001 expansion of the film, Apocalypse Now Redux, did I begin to fully appreciate the film's power. Redux's added running time folds equal portions of the coherent and the surreal into the original story. Initially, I thought it was the better of the two versions. Now I think it says too much too explicitly. For example, a sequence in which Willard and the PBR (patrol boat) crew arrive at a misty French rubber plantation and take part in a lengthy dinner conversation about French and American military excursions in Indochina is haunting, evocative, and visually beautiful. But Apocalypse Now is better for not having it. Too often, Redux makes explicit and ordered that which is left resonant and chaotic in Apocalypse Now. Still, Redux feels as necessary to me as the theatrical cut of the film because Apocalypse Now is so vast that it somehow requires two different versions. That's why Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier is such an important DVD release, and one that belongs in your collection even if you already own the previous individual releases of each version of the film. Its piggybacked presentation of Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux via seamless branching is much more than a standard double-feature presentation. It sets the two versions of the film into context with one another so that each becomes essential in reading the other.
Everyone gets what he wants. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, The West Wing) wants a mission, and for his sins they give him one. Willard has a murky past of doing dirty deeds for the CIA and psy-ops. Now they want him to head up the Nung River into Cambodia to the compound of one Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire). The colonel -- a brilliant West Point graduate who became a Green Beret late in his career -- has gone round the bend (or so Central Command says), employing brutal, inhumane tactics to fight the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong. The U.S. military is particularly displeased with Kurtz's assassination of four South Vietnamese (including two officers in the South Vietnamese army) he suspected of working for the enemy. Willard's mission is to terminate Kurtz's command -- terminate it with extreme prejudice.
Willard catches a ride up the Nung on a PBR. The patrol boat's crew -- Chief Phillips (Albert Hall, Malcolm X), Chef (Frederic Forrest, The Rose), "Mr. Clean" Miller (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix), and world-class surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms, The Last Picture Show) -- are unaware of the details of his mission. As they move upriver, they descend into the weird peripheries of the war, from participating in an air raid and a little surfing with Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, Network) and his zealous Air Cavalry helicopter pilots, to a chaotic USO show with a trio of Playboy bunnies, to the bizarre and savage happenings at the Do Lung bridge where American soldiers build as fast as the North Vietnamese destroy the product of their efforts.
When Willard finally arrives at Kurtz's compound, he encounters a whacked-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider) and an army of Montagnards who nearly worship the crazed colonel. Kurtz himself is a lucid madman whose frustrations with the U.S. military's hypocrisy Willard understands even if he's sickened by the colonel's conscienceless depravity. Assuming he isn't murdered first, can Willard bring himself to complete his mission?
If the ending of Apocalypse Now seems to fizzle dramatically (at least when compared to the rousing finales of traditional war pictures) you can probably blame T.S. Eliot, whose nihilistic poem "The Hollow Men" (from which Colonel Kurtz reads during the film) famously ends as follows:
"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."
According to Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) had originally written a more traditional (though firmly countercultural) ending in which Willard teams with Kurtz as the compound is attacked by the Viet Cong. When American helicopters join the fray to end Kurtz's madness once and for all, Willard finds himself firing on his own troops. Coppola abandoned that ending early on, but had no idea with what to replace it. His climax -- fashioned at the last minute -- is perfect. Though emotionally intense, it abandons the epic scale of much of the rest of the film in favor of an intimate clash between Willard and Kurtz -- a clash more thematic and symbolic than physical. Though far from action-packed, it is the perfect end to a story built on narrative entropy. Coppola's instincts were as correct as Eliot's poetry: Apocalypse Now's apocalyptic conclusion had to be a whimper.
As we move up the Nung River with Willard across the picture's first two acts, we move backward in time and cultural evolution until we finally arrive at the chaotic, primordial savagery of Colonel Kurtz in Act Three. The integrity of the entire movie, then, relies on the flesh-and-blood Kurtz being as impressive and frightening as the man from whose dossier Willard reads throughout our journey. Marlon Brando may have been the only actor in Hollywood whose name and reputation had the cultural cachet to carry the load of the role. Even if Brando's performance as Kurtz was shaped in large part by his own laziness (he reportedly lied about having read Conrad's novella, arriving at the film's Philippines shooting location too hefty to play the character as he appears in the source), he still managed to craft an eerie, indelible performance. Large sections of Brando's semi-improvised dialogue consist of personal recollections and readings from T.S. Eliot and Time magazine. Kurtz's monologues are lucid and concrete (especially as he reads Time's assertions that America is winning the war), yet also bizarre and unhinged. The contrast makes him difficult to read. He's certainly mad, but is he madder than the men in Central Command who ordered his assassination?
Kurtz's most concise repudiation of his military commanders and his most pointed explication of the madness of war is a brief observation found in Milius's original screenplay: "We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene." This line, more than any other, gets at the heart of Apocalypse Now. The movie isn't about the immorality of war; it's about the amorality of war -- the inevitable and absolute moral confusion that attends war, a moral confusion found at the outer boundary of civilization. Is it reasonable to expect civilized behavior in war? Kurtz's actions are most definitely uncivilized, but as Willard notes, "charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." Even more telling are Willard's observations about Kurtz's assassination of the alleged South Vietnamese double agents, the crime that has most riled Central Command. After their deaths, North Vietnamese attacks against Kurtz's compound ceased. Whether or not his superiors approve of his tactics, he was right about the duplicity of his victims. Even more important, Willard notes that the Viet Cong are terrified to go anywhere near Kurtz's compound. His fearsome tactics work. Which is crazier: Kurtz's brutal inhumanity or Central Command's refusal to acknowledge that brutal inhumanity is the natural state of war?
Apocalypse Now offers no simple answers to the questions it poses. It is neither a war film nor an anti-war film. Or perhaps it is both. Perhaps it's a cinematic Rorschach test for viewers' political sensibilities: The pro-war will discover meanings entirely lost on the anti-war, and vice versa. Wherever you stand politically, though, you will find meaning. The movie's deep, resonant ambiguity fits its enormous scale. The ambiguity is rooted in the marriage of Coppola's left-wing sensibilities with Milius's right-wing sensibilities, and couldn't have been produced if Coppola had stuck to Milius's script and filmed a classic war movie as he'd originally intended. Coppola's dangerous decision to chuck the original ending and to write additional scenes on the fly during the interminably long shoot resulted in a film that is apolitical by way of its perfect balance of political oppositions. Apocalypse Now resists reductive ideological readings. It finds higher truths about war's madness while acknowledging its inevitability, an inevitability born of war's fundamental connection to the darkest, most savage parts of the human soul.
Whatever my opinion of it may have been in the past, and whatever my opinion of it will be in the future, Apocalypse Now is the greatest sort of film and the highest sort of art: It demands that you wrestle with it, demands that you open up your heart, your mind, and your soul to it. It requires multiple viewings. It appears to change as you change because its thematic, intellectual, historical, dramatic, and visual scope and scale are so massive. If it appears mysterious and rough around the edges, that's only because human beings and the world we inhabit are mysterious and rough around the edges. Apocalypse Now offers an entire lifetime of challenging entertainment. If you love movies, it belongs in your collection.
As previously noted, Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux are presented via seamless branching, spread across Discs One and Two of this set with an intermission at the halfway point of each cut. The two-disc presentation not only improves image quality, but it gives one a concrete sense of how carefully Walter Murch (The Conversation) balanced each cut in the editing room -- they divide roughly in half at exactly the same moment. The films look absolutely gorgeous. In the 1990s, Technicolor revived its dye transfer process, which produces vivid, fully saturated colors at least as beautiful as anything that can be achieved today with digital color timing. The process was used to create the release prints for the theatrical run of Apocalypse Now Redux as well as the masters used as source elements for the original DVD releases of both cuts of the film. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's (The Last Emperor) stylized color schemes -- which shift from almost sepia to emphases on red, blue, and green -- were visually spectacular on the old discs. They're just as good here. Detail is slightly better on this release than on the previous DVDs, giving the image more texture and beauty. Artifacts from digital manipulation are almost nonexistent, and the source materials are just shy of pristine.
Back in 1979, Apocalypse Now was the first major motion picture to utilize Dolby Stereo Surround technology. As a result, the DVDs' slight expansion of Walter Murch's meticulous sound design into a Dolby 5.1 surround track yields stunning results. It's difficult to believe you're listening to a nearly 30-year-old film with an analog soundtrack. The entire soundstage is used to great effect. Explosions, the various sounds of soldiers and war machines, and other ambient noises are perfectly spatially located. Surrounds are used not only to great effect, but also with great style. LFE is appropriately thunderous when need be, yet more delicate sound like quiet dialogue is always crystal clear. The track is perhaps not as bombastic as a modern film soundtrack, but it's so artfully constructed you'll be too impressed to care.
The primary supplement on both discs is called "Watch the films with Francis Ford Coppola." It consists of a separate video introduction for each cut of the film, followed by a commentary that accompanies either version (the commentary is also accessible via the audio menu so you can skip the intros if you so desire). The skeleton of the commentary is identical for each cut, with material added to Redux. As with the commentaries for the Godfather films, Coppola's track here is top-notch. He provides all manner of anecdotal production information, as well as detailed observations about the picture's themes, structure, and design. The thing I love about Coppola's commentary is that it vividly conveys how collaborative and serendipitous the process of filmmaking can be -- making a movie is a series of open-ended decisions for which the filmmakers have little guidance other than their own sense of aesthetics.
Disc One Supplements:
"The Hollow Men" (16:55) is an unexpurgated version of Marlon Brando's reading of T.S. Eliot's poem. The footage is much more than a deleted master shot, though. The reading is set to a montage of footage that didn't appear in the film, from local children playing, to one of the extras who played a decapitated head on the stairway at Kurtz's compound having a smoke between takes. The condition of source elements is a little rough, but the footage is excellent.
"Monkey Sampan" (3:00) combines footage of locals performing The Doors' "Light My Fire" in broken English with a haunting deleted sequence in which Willard's PBR encounters a sampan overrun with monkeys.
There are a total of 12 additional scenes, removed from the 1979 version of Apocalypse Now and not restored for the 2001 cut. Most are brief and banal, but they give you a sense of the quantity of footage shot for the picture. The most interesting of the bunch are Willard's reading a letter intercepted from Kurtz's wife (she's apparently as weird and poetic as he is); some additional Dennis Hopper philosophizing; a minute-and-a-half expansion of Willard's face-to-face with Colby (Scott Glenn), in which the assassin who preceded him speaks about the fresh bodies strewn about the Kurtz compound; and a six-minute sequence in which Willard interacts even more with Colby and Hopper's photojournalist. All of the scenes are framed at 2.35:1. The source elements, which haven't been properly color timed, are in rough shape.
Finally, a section called "A/V Club" has a collection of production featurettes:
* "The Birth of 5.1 Sound" (5:47)
Walter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ioan Allen from Dolby Labs discuss the audio evolution from Star Wars's "baby boom" stereo design to Apocalypse Now's introduction of full stereo surround, which eventually evolved into 5.1 surround.
* "Ghost Helicopter Flyover" (3:50)
The featurette discusses and examines Walter Murch's careful sonic design of the helicopter flyovers that make up the opening shot of the film.
* "The Synthesizer Soundtrack"
Bob Moog's long and detailed essay from Contemporary Keyboard magazine about the Herculean task of realizing the film's synthesizer score.
* Technical FAQ
A text-based supplement that answers questions about the 2.0:1 aspect ratio of the home video releases of Apocalypse Now, the various release versions of the 1979 cut, and whether or not Willard calls in an airstrike on the Kurtz compound at the film's end.
Disc Two Supplements:
A section called "The Post Production of Apocalypse Now" contains a quartet of featurettes that can be played individually or streamed together via a Play All option:
* "A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now"
* "The Music of Apocalypse Now" (14:43)
* "Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now" (15:19)
* "Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Final Mix" (3:07)
The featurettes are constructed of new and archival interviews with contributors to the film. They provide a wealth of detail about the lengthy and intensive work that went into piecing the film together once shooting was complete. The titles of the pieces give you a solid idea of the content they contain.
Disc Two contains three additional featurettes:
* "PBR Streetgang" (4:10) offers contemporary interviews with Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, and Frederic Forrest. They discuss the experience of working on the film, and Coppola's methods of directing actors.
* "Apocalypse Then and Now" (3:40) reveals Coppola's motivations for creating Apocalypse Now Redux.
* "The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now" (4:05) explains the Technicolor dye transfer system and its use in the restoration of Apocalypse Now and the creation of Apocalypse Now Redux.
Due to continued rights issues, the incredible feature-length making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola is not included in this set. That's bound to be a major bone of contention for some fans. The documentary's absence is particularly noticeable because the discs' other supplements so obviously avoid treading over the same territory it covers. We're given a wealth of information about the film's long and difficult postproduction, but almost no dirt on the long and horrifically difficult shoot (Coppola's commentary track gives some sense of the stress and strain he was under during filming, but the featurettes avoid the subject entirely).
However, don't let the absence of Hearts of Darkness prevent you from adding Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier to your collection. "Complete Dossier" may be a bit of a misnomer, but the supplements and the presentation of the films are spectacular. The good news, too, is that if and when the Hearts of Darkness rights issues are resolved, a stand-alone release of that film will merge perfectly with the material contained here, completing the dossier. It's a shame they weren't able to give us a three-disc set right now, but The Complete Dossier is still impressive.
Aspect ratio purists are also going to have a beef with this release. As with the previous single-disc releases, Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux are presented in 2.0:1, not the theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. The picture was carefully reframed for home theater presentation by Vittorio Storaro, and approved by Francis Ford Coppola (Storaro's reasoning for altering the aspect ratio is covered in the "Technical FAQ" featurette on Disc One). Whether you buy his reasoning will be a matter of personal taste. Considering the greater ubiquity of widescreen televisions today than when the films were originally released on DVD, I don't think Storaro's reasoning makes a lot of sense anymore. On the other hand, I can't reasonably complain about the aesthetic quality of the 2.0:1 framing. Anyone who comes to the DVD completely unaware of the reframing won't know the difference.
One final thing makes The Complete Dossier a little less than complete: The footage of the destruction of the Kurtz compound, the theatrical program excerpts, and the trailer from the single-disc release of Apocalypse Now are absent, as is the re-release trailer from the single-disc release of Redux. The Kurtz compound footage is the only egregious deletion.
Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece. It belongs in your collection. If you already own the previous releases, do yourself a favor and upgrade to Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier.
This is how my review ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice, Apocalypse Now
Perp Profile, Apocalypse Now
* 2.00:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Distinguishing Marks, Apocalypse Now
Scales of Justice, Apocalypse Now
Perp Profile, Apocalypse Now
* 2.00:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 202 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Distinguishing Marks, Apocalypse Now
* "Watch the Films with Francis Ford Coppola" Feature
* "The Hollow Men" Reading by Marlon Brando
* "Monkey Sampan" (Additional Scene)
* Additional Scenes
* A/V Club
* "Apocalypse Then and Now" Featurette
* "PBR Streetgang" Featurette
* "The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now" Featurette
* Redux Marker