Apocalypse Now Review
What on earth is there left to say about Apocalypse Now, a film which has been more written about, analysed and taken apart than any other movie of its era. A film about madness which is itself an act of madness, Coppola's work remains riveting, spectacular and endlessly provocative. Gary Couzens has already discussed it in some depth here and I agree with his conclusions so there seems little point in my repeating them. I do have some observations of my own to make, however, and I will include them at the end of this review. One thing I will say upfront is that much as I love Apocalypse Now, I don't think we should confuse size and ambition with achievement and quality. It's a great movie but, for this viewer, it doesn't quite match the fully realised vision of The Conversation which strikes me as Coppola's masterpiece and a just about perfect film.
The Blu Ray
Optimum's new release of Coppola's film is an excellent package and looks set to be one of the best UK Blu Ray discs of the year.
This first disc contains both versions of the film - the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2001 expanded re-release entitled Apocalypse Now Redux.
The initial piece of good news is that Coppola has finally restored the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Previous home viewing versions were either panned and scanned or presented in Vittorio Storaro's preferred but widely despised 2.00:1 Univisium ratio. This version of the film finally lets us see it in the way it was photographed and it looks fantastic. Equally fantastic is the quality of the transfer. I've seen Apocalypse Now many times on TV, video, DVD and in the cinema - most recently in Bradford last week - and this is as good as its ever looked. The HD master has been restored by Coppola and the results are stunning. Colours are startlingly vivid throughout and the level of detail is staggering. I'm aware that I'm running out of superlatives but it occurred to me while watching the night sequence before the helicopter attack that earlier versions had looked like a muddy mess whereas here each element - the smoke, the firelight, the shadows of the men - has its own individual vitality. Even the rippling water seems to become a character. This Blu Ray does exactly what the format does at its best - it makes the film even more involving to watch.
Equal praise is reserved for the soundtrack. There are two options, both English - a DTS 2.0 track and a full 5.1 DTS HD MA track. The former is more than adequate but the latter is a thing of beauty, placing you right in the middle of this most immersive of films. I particularly liked the balance of ambient sound and dialogue which allows you to hear asides in the louder scenes which have previously been a bit obscure. The music sounds great too - play chapter 6 loud and watch the cat run for cover.
The only extra feature on this first disc is an audio commentary from the director who proves himself to be a most entertaining companion. There's nothing startlingly original but he is generous and much more self-effacing than you would expect from watching him in the Hearts of Darkness documentary. The commentary for Redux adds comments on the added sequences but otherwise both tracks are identical.
The majority of the extras appear on the second disc; a combination of lengthy interviews and briefer featurettes.
An Interview with John Milius
This interview, running 49 minutes, is fascinating because it allows the great John Milius to talk at length about how he conceived Apocalypse Now and the ways in which it eventually ended up as a Coppola project after being for a long time in the hands of the young George Lucas. Although there's nothing particularly new here, Milius is very eloquent about the links of the screenplay to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and how his work related to the social climate of the late 1960s. Fans of The Big Lebowski will be pleased to note that the director is repaying the Coen Brothers by apparently turning into Walter Sobchak. There's something very touching about the rapport between Milius and Coppola, especially at the end when they heave themselves up and dodder off to get some lunch – two old men satiated of their appetite for ancient war stories.
A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola
It's no surprise to learn that Martin Sheen has a lot to say about Apocalypse Now, since Willard is one of the defining roles of his career and its equally unsurprising to see how enthusiastic, funny and intelligent he is. Sheen was a favourite choice for the role but was unavailable so Harvey Keitel took over. When Keitel's work was unsatisfactory, Sheen stepped back in and experienced a nightmare during which he had a heart attack and nearly died. There are some great anecdotes here including Sheen's encounter with an unhinged Vietnam veteran, Coppola's trip to the Oscars with Bill Graham and his bag of cookies, and the experience of working with Marlon Brando. As with the other interview, it's gratifying to see how comfortable the participants are with each other as they ramble through their memories for an hour.
Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse
Fred Roos is a long-standing Coppola collaborator who was both producer and casting director on the film. Although this piece is only about eleven minutes long, it reveals a considerable amount of the decisions behind the cast choices and the method by which actors were auditioned – in a very 1970s group encounter session sort of way, actors were encouraged to improvise and take control of the group situation. Amongst the actors who didn't get parts was an up and coming young performer called Nick Nolte. It's particularly notable to see how Albert Hall takes absolute control of his audition scenes. Fred Roos goes on to discuss the casting of Willard – how Steve McQueen passed on the role and the decision to fire Harvey Keitel in favour of Sheen – and the selection of the extras which was made difficult with co-operation from the military.
The Mercury Theatre On The Air: Heart of Darkness – November 6th, 1938
Orson Welles fans will enjoy this piece which features the man himself in a dramatisation of Joseph Conrad's short novel. If you don't know the book then this gives a pretty good 36 minute primer and is is really rather gripping despite the inevitably dated quality of the sound.
The Hollow Men
A short piece in which Marlon Brando reads T.S. Eliot's 1925 poem. It's a great piece of literature which is largely about the chaos of Europe after the First World War – a recurring theme in Eliot's work including The Waste Land - and Brando's reading is quite wonderful. His voice requires concentration to understand and this concentration forces you to listen to the words with considerable intensity. The overall effect is quite astonishingly powerful when matched up with scenes and images from the production of the film and backed by Carmine Coppola's sinister music.
Monkey Sampan Deleted Scene
Now this is very peculiar. A group of peasants sing a tribal version of the Doors' Light My Fire as Willard stares intently at a sampan populated by monkeys who inadvertently seem to be torturing the only human on board. It's completely unnecessary to the plot but as a foreboding of what Kurtz is getting up to - “That's coming from where we going, Captain” as Chief says – it's quite effective.
A 26 minute collection of deleted scenes from the original workprint which can be also be accessed separately. They vary from the absolutely extraneous – a glimpse of Saigon life through a set of blinds – to the interesting but not entirely necessary – the extended briefing sequences – and, finally, to the rather good – the booby trap disguised as a dead baby and an extended bit of madness from Dennis Hopper. The picture quality of these scenes is very poor, understandably so as they come from a video copy, and they are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with a timecode in the corner.
Kurtz Compound Destruction With Credits
Anyone who bought the original DVD copy of the film about ten years ago will remember this feature which presents another ending during which the compound is destroyed by the American air force. It's a fantastic, psychedelic sequence on its own but whether or not it works in the context of the film as a whole is a moot point. Francis Coppola talks over this sequence which is a bit of a shame, interesting though his remarks are.
The Birth of 5.1 Sound
Walter Murch begins by explaining how Coppola decided that the film would only be shown in one cinema in Kansas. Needless to say, this proved impracticable so he looked for ways to present the film in a way that would preserve his vision. The only way that actually worked – after IMAX and Sensurround were considered - was the decision to use quadrophonic sound. Ioan Allen from Dolby explains the background to this sound experience and how it was used as a weapon to combat
the viewing of films on TV. It's a revealing piece of film history and demonstrates the importance of Apocalypse Now in developing the Dolby Digital 5.1 that we know and love today.
Ghost Helicopter Flyover
Richard Beggs, the re-recording mixer, discusses the use of the helicopter sound which opens the film. For those involved, it was the first time they had worked on a project using multiple sound channels.
Apocalypse Now: The Synthesiser Soundtrack
A text piece by Bob Moog, originally printed in Contemporary Keyboard Magazine in January 1980, which discusses how synthesiser sounds were used in the film.
A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now
The various editors and Coppola talk for seventeen minutes about being locked in a room for months on end, trying to come to terms with the vast amount of footage shot for the film. To give you an idea of the almost Sisiphyan task, the sequence in which the helicopters attack had produced 130,000 feet of film on its own. There are glimpses of behind-the-scenes film from the edit itself and a discussion of the voiceover sessions with Martin Sheen.
The Music of Apocalypse Now
As the title suggests, this features a detailed look at the choices made during the scoring of the film – Coppola's intention, stated at the outset, was to use the music to move backwards in time from 1969. Coppola worked with his father Carmine to create the final score in what seems to have been a stream-of-consciousness process but he also hired five synthesiser experts to create the sound which is so pivotal to the film's effectiveness.
Heard Any Good Movies Lately: The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now
By this point I had heard so much about the sound of the film that I didn't think there was anything new to learn but it's revealing to see how filmmakers constructed their soundtracks back in the days before computers were available to help them in the process. The level of creativity is astounding with Coppola insisting on the concept of the soundtrack being an entity in itself.
The Final Mix
Taking place over the course of nine months, the mixing process was arduous and, it seems, not entirely satisfying to Coppola. It's estimated that the sound mixers averaged twelve hours a day in the mixing room and one is, once again, astonished that no-one had a nervous breakdown.
Apocalypse Then And Now
This is a short piece which discusses the original reception of the film and the rationale behind the release of Apocalypse Now Redux.
2001 Cannes Film Festival
A 38 minute interview between Roger Ebert and Francis Coppola which is informative and reflective, celebrating Redux but mourning the lost era of 1970s Hollywood.
Dating from 2001, this is a collection of interviews with the four actors who play the men on the boat – Lawrence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall and Frederic Forrest. For all of them, it was a major formative experience and this is particularly true for Fishburne who was only fourteen when shooting began. It's sad to see Sam Bottoms who died shortly after this was filmed in 2001.
The Color Palate of Apocalypse Now
This final piece explains how Redux was printed using the Technicolor dye-transfer process to give vivid colours and minimise the fading over time.
This third disc contains the 1991 making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse remastered in 1080p and presented in fullscreen format with clips from the film letterboxed at 2:1. The picture quality is remarkably good considering the sources – 16mm film footage from the shoot makes up a good deal of the piece but there are also newly shot interviews with cast and crew members. The film clips don't look at their best when compared to the new HD version of the film included on disc one. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack is excellent and allows you to clearly hear conversations which are often slightly obscured by background noise. There is also an optional commentary from Eleanor and Francis Coppola, recorded separately, which isn't as revealing as I'd hoped but has some interesting information regarding Eleanor's lack of experience with a film camera.
The documentary itself is, of course, magnificent. For those coming to it for the first time, it's worth stating that it was, and perhaps still is, highly controversial. It consists largely of on-set film made by Eleanor Coppola in which she observes her husband slowly going crazy as he tries to make a film so big it could barely be grasped by the entire crew, let alone one man. Francis Coppola was not too keen on the results when he first saw them since his portrayal veers between tragic hero, trying desperately to hold onto his film in the face of unbelievable problems and maniacal tyrant, prone to self-pitying rants, whose response to Martin Sheen's heart attack was not, to say the least, sensitive. His eventual agreement to the documentary being released is a triumph of common sense over personal feelings because it's patently obvious to this viewer at least that Coppola is a heroic figure overall and the kind of larger-than-life director that has gone out of fashion in recent years. His presence is electrifying and he's just as big and charismatic as any of the characters in his films and one senses that he should maybe have played Kilgore or Colonel Kurtz himself.
It's a beautifully assembled piece of work, taking Eleanor Coppola's original footage and placing it in context with her contemporary recordings of conversations with her husband and newly shot interviews which radiate with humour and insight. John Milius is, as always, excellent value and it's nice to see comments from more uncommon interviewees such as Robert Duvall and the late Sam Bottoms. Francis Coppola also appears to put his own view of events but he seems a little cowed in the 1990 footage, as if he's lost some of his vitality and, well, madness. The whole style of the piece has been something of a template for making-of documentaries, although they are rarely as candid or funny as this – something of a similar standard can be found on the Titus and Hannibal DVDs and, notably, on Blade Runner.
The rest of the third disc concentrates on filling in the gaps. We get an extract from John Milius' original script which is garnished with notes from Coppola. This gives us a clear picture of how the project evolved from a Milius project into a Coppola one but you'll need a big screen or good eyesight to decipher the whole thing. There is also an eleven minute collection of storyboards and galleries of photographs from the unit and from Mary Ellen Mark photography. Finally, a marketing archive is present. This contains the original 1979 theatrical trailer, in 1080p, a poster archive, some bombastic radio spots and recreations of the original theatrical programme and the lobby card and press kit photos.
Apocalypse Now is a technical marvel and, thirty two years on, it still looks and sounds like nothing else on earth. The skill of Vittorio Storaro, Walter Murch and all the other creative wizards who helped to bring it to life deserves honouring as does the input of the actors, particularly Martin Sheen who is given a virtually impossible role, and Robert Duvall, who reaches a peak of crazy grandeur which the film can't top - and which might well have been beyond Gene Hackman, the original choice for the role. The screenplay, weak as it is on overall meaning, works perfectly well in stringing together a series of episodes about the war and the voiceover narration, by Michael Herr, connects us tightly to Willard as the hero. Of the two versions included on the disc, I vastly prefer the pacing and structure of the original 1979 cut. However, and this is not a popular opinion, I do like the scenes in Redux which are set in the French plantation since they add a historical context of colonialism which the film otherwise lacks.
But what is it really all about? Peter Viertel once wrote that some creative men have a need to "prove themselves" and it seems to me that Apocalypse Now is as much about Coppola proving his mettle as it is about Vietnam. It's a portrait of a man taking on a big project and forcing himself, against inhuman odds, to finish it. But there was a price to pay. When you watch Hearts of Darkness you can see this man getting lost inside an increasingly opaque obsession without quite understanding what he wants or how he intends to get it. If the film ultimately seems muddled and confused, that's a perfect reflection of the state of mind of the man who made it. Coppola seems to have got so far inside his material that he no longer sees it rationally and he leads us to expect a big finish that will explain everything but then conspicuously fails to provide it. But how could he have provided it - the build up to Kurtz is so awesome, so ominous that nothing we see could possibly live up to it. What we actually get - a discussion of the insanity of war and the allure of cruelty - is endlessly fascinating, as is Brando's quirky performance, but it's not really a conclusion; it just raises a lot more questions. You could interpret this as a bad thing, and in terms of popular narrative cinema it probably is, but it also allows the film to become a properly open text which invites questioning and analysis and positively begs the viewer to examine their own response. In the end, Apocalypse Now is only about the Vietnam war in the sense that Citizen Kane is about a sledge.