Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier Review

This review contains some plot spoilers
Vietnam, the late 1960s. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone renegade and has set himself up as a god amongst the local Montagnard tribesmen. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned on a mission to travel upriver to Kurtz’s compound and “terminate him with extreme prejudice”.

Francis Coppola’s career arc obeys the Purple Patch theory of creativity. His early films, made in the 1960s, are full of interest and show a young man bursting with talent and finding what he can do with it. Post 1980, Coppola has been in decline. He had a very long way to fall - Jack has to stand as one of the worst films perpetrated by a major director – but there are interesting points on the way down. (I’ve reviewed two of them, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish for this site.) But whatever else he makes, he will finally be judged on his output of the 1970s.

His four features go all over the stylistic and tonal map: the two Godfathers are measured, classical narratives, while The Conversation is modernist and enigmatic. Apocalypse Now is an epic compendium, at base a war movie with a plot line derived from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. But it’s an epic that’s surreal, absurd, with moments of horror mixed with black comedy. It no doubt overreaches itself, and it’s a wonder it was ever completed, given the circumstances of its four-year making. A typhoon destroyed the sets, Martin Sheen – who had replaced Harvey Keitel – had a heart attack, Coppola continued shooting without having a clue as to an ending, and it’s clear from the documentary Hearts of Darkness that the insanity of the war had taken root in the production. It’s the work of a man going for broke, and being in a position to command the large resources of Hollywood as he does so. It’s a film that demands a big screen and a top-notch sound system and can, in the right circumstances, have a profound impression on people who see it. I first saw it at the Prince Charles cinema in 1984, in 70mm and six-track Dolby (my first cinema showing of any kind of stereo film), and it stands as one of the defining cinematic experiences of my life.

Over the years, film magazines have often published “classic scenes”. What these are, of course, is classic dialogue scenes. Although there are plenty of quotable lines in John Milius and Coppola’s script (Willard’s narration supplied by Michael Herr), and there are certainly several sequences which anyone who has seen the film will remember, this isn’t ultimately a film dependent on its dialogue. Think of the opening montage, with Willard in his hotel room and The Doors’s “The End”; on the soundtrack; the air raid scored to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”; the USO scene with the Playmates; the psychedelic interlude at Do Lung Bridge; Willard’s fulfilment of his mission, intercut with the slaughtering of a cow…while all of these depend heavily on visuals and sound, they have very little or no actual speech. And when you have Vittorio Storaro as your DP and Walter Murch doing your sound design, that’s quite some light and sound. Both men, quite rightly, won Oscars…the only two that the film won. Kramer vs. Kramer was the big winner that year.

More than halfway through, we finally arrive in Kurtz’s kingdom. His entourage includes Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist, and Scott Glenn as a deserted soldier. This is the most controversial part of the film, and certainly the most dialogue-driven as Kurtz tries to justify his actions to Willard. This is a Brando, shaven headed, his great achievements behind himself, shortly to go into retirement. It’s not a role that requires much in the way of acting: he gets by on sheer presence alone. Apocalypse Now is a long film, even longer in its Redux version (of which more later), and it’s unarguable that the film slows down at this point, before picking up for the assassination/cow slaughter sequence referred to above. The final words are Conrad’s: “The horror…the horror…”

Apocalypse Now was released in its original two and a half hours in 1979. Two versions were released. The 70mm prints (in six-track Dolby Stereo Surround) have no credits at all, save for a copyright notice at the very end. (Coppola’s intention was to make this film a special event, like a theatre production, and cast and crew information would be supplied in a programme.) 35mm Scope prints (some of which had three-track Dolby soundtracks: left, centre, right but no surround) had a seven-minute credit sequence at the end, the text appearing over a background of explosions. This was often mistakenly taken as the village being destroyed and later video releases and the Redux version played the credits against a black background. (The “explosions” credit sequence is included as an extra on the previous DVD release of the theatrical cut, but is the major omission amongst the extras here.)

Then, in 2000, Coppola decided to revisit Apocalypse Now. The result was Apocalypse Now Redux, running 49 minutes longer. Coppola had been dissatisfied that the 1979 version didn’t really reflect his intentions: he’d had to cut it through commercial worries about his length and, he says, to make it more like a conventional war movie. (Though many people, myself included, consider it to be nothing of the kind.) So he reinstated extra material, most notably the French plantation sequence, in order to give the film a greater sense of the surrealism and insanity he’d seen around him. Opinions vary: personally the Redux version is overlong, and the plantation sequence does slow the film down at the wrong time. But at least we have both versions so we can make a choice.

Whole books have been written about Apocalypse Now and no wonder: it’s a very rich film and a review of 1000 words or so can only scratch the surface. It’s a film that can be returned to again and again. If it does attempt too much, and not all of it does come off, it’s to be reminded of the value of sheer ambition, of a kind you don’t often see in commercial cinema.

Paramount’s Complete Dossier of Apocalypse Now is encoded for Region 1 only. It comprises two dual-layer discs, and is a particularly complex example of DVD authoring. When you put each disc in your player, you are invited to select either the theatrical version or the Redux version, which leads you to a different menu depending on your selection. Each version is split across the two discs: Theatrical 80:36 + 72:41, Redux 99:17 + 102:53. Both versions break at the original intermission point.

Apocalypse Now was shot in 35mm Scope with anamorphic lenses, which gives an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. However, all DVD releases including this one present the film in a ratio of 2:1, needless to say widescreen-enhanced. This is a controversial issue, intended by Storaro in particular to reduce the black bars as seen on a 16:9 screen (given overscan, they may even disappear altogether). This may be a DP- and director-approved modification, but it loses a mark from me because of this. In all other respects this is a stunning transfer: the colour palette strong and true to the original, with solid blacks and plenty of shadow detail in the darker scenes.

In its original 70mm release, Apocalypse Now used a then-new six-track Dolby Stereo process, which in its configuration matches a modern-day 5.1 track. This is obvious right from the start, as the first thing we see, over a black screen, is a helicopter making a 360-degree circuit of the auditorium, or in this case, your living room. Murch’s sound mix is complex and highly immersive, with moments of calm interspersed with sequences at ear-shattering high volume. (Anyone interested in the editing and sound design is referred to Michael Ondaatje’s fascinating book-length interview with Murch, The Conversations.)

The extras on these two discs are very comprehensive. The documentary Hearts of Darkness is not present: rights issues precluded it. Also missing is the “explosion” credits sequence with optional Coppola commentary which is included in earlier releases of the theatrical version.

Coppola provides a short introduction, different according to whichever version of the film you are watching, before launching into a full-length commentary. As he has shown on other commentaries, he can quite easily talk about his own films even for three hours or more, and we’re quite happy to listen to him do so. This is really one commentary, with the extra Redux sequences edited in without obvious joins. He talks right up to the end of the credits. “In future I’d like to make little films,” are his final words.

The extras on Disc One continue with “The Hollow Men” (16:55). This is a complete reading by Brando of T.S. Eliot’s poem, extracts of which are heard in the film. Brando’s voice is backed by outtakes from the film and location footage.

Not all the material which was shot – which made up a widely-bootlegged five-and-a-half-hour workprint version - ended up even in the Redux version. The next two extras comprises some of this material.

“Monkey Sampan” (3:02) is a strange “lost scene” from the film, oddly reminiscent of Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. Interesting, but clearly extraneous to the film.

Other deleted scenes are presented separately, timecoded, presumably mastered from a video copy. These are: “Saigon Streetlife” (0:45), “Military Intelligence Escorts” (0:42), “Intelligence Briefing (Extension 1)” (2:16), “Intelligence Briefing (Extension 2)” (3:15), “Willard Meets the PBR Crew” (1:02), “Letter from Mrs. Kurtz” (1:28), “Booby Trap” (0:52), “Do Lung Bridge…’That Road is Open’” (0:55), “The Photojournalist” (2:29), “Colby” (1:33), “The Tiger Cages” (4:27), “Special Forces Knife” (6:35). Picture quality here is rough indeed.

“The A/V Club” is a small selection of featurettes on the technical side of the production, intended for filmmakers in particular. These are “The Birth of 5.1 Sound” (5:47) and “Ghost Helicopter Flyover” (3:50). These are accompanied by two text pieces, an article “Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack” by Bob Moog (reprinted from the January 1980 issue of Contemporary Keyboard Magazine) and a technical FAQ for the film.

On both discs, the Redux extra menu includes a “Redux marker” option, which indicates on screen which scenes are new to this version. I couldn’t get this to work on my PC, however.

Disc Two’s extras begin with a set grouped together under the title “The Post-Production of Apocalypse Now” - “The Editing of Apocalypse Now” (17:54), “The Music of Apocalypse Now” (14:43), and two others under the subheading “Heard Any Good Movies Lately?” – “The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now” (15:19) and “The Final Mix” (3:27).. There is a “Play All” option.

“PBR Streetgang” (4:14) is a short item with interviews with the four actors who played the crew of the boat, recalling the long shoot in the Philippines. Laurence Fishburne was all of fourteen at the time. “Apocalypse Then and Now” concerns the reaction to the film at its Cannes premiere as a work in progress in 1979 (it won the Palme d’Or jointly with The Tin Drum) and the showing of Redux in 2001. “The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now” describes the use of Technicolor’s dye-imbibition printing process, which gives more vivid colours and is less prone to fading, which was used for the release prints of Redux (4:11). Finally, there is a list of DVD credits.

If that were not all, there are a number of Easter Eggs. On Disc One, on the theatrical version’s special features menu, click right from the words “Watch Apocalypse Now…”. The date May 11, 1979 appears. Click on this, and you will see Coppola’s memo to the film’s first public audience on that date. Also on Disc One, go to the Scene Selection Menu for the Redux version, go to Scenes 11-15, highlight and click on the Playboy bunny to the left. You will see an advertisement for G.I.s to make up the audience for the USO show sequence.

On Disc Two, go to the Scene Selection menu for the theatrical version, highlight chapter 4, click left to highlight the image of Kurtz, and you will see a “torture list” for Kurtz’s compound. In more or less the same position in the Redux scene selection (except it’s Chapter 5), highlight and click on some cups. This reveals a memo to the crew apologising for stomach problems due to none-too-fresh squid. On either version, go to the Post-Production section, highlight “A Million Feet of Film” and click right. Click on the small figure that appears and you will see what appears to be a badge saying “Apocalypse Now Coppola Cinema Seven 1977”.

For the most interesting DVD extra, go to the last page of the DVD credits, click on “Previous” and press left. Click on the mushroom cloud which is highlighted. John Milius is pretty much absent from this DVD, but here he is, in a scratchy piece of film explaining the origin of the title Apocalypse Now (0:55).

This DVD edition may be called The Complete Dossier, but it isn’t quite that. An ultimate edition would be a three-disc set including the Hearts of Darkness documentary. I would also, for completeness’s sake, include the original 35mm credits sequence. But to nitpick further would be churlish: this is otherwise a major film of the last thirty years in a DVD package that is up there with the best of them.

10 out of 10
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