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APOCALYPSE NOW
3 Disc Full Disclosure Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Lionsgate
Features:  See Review
Length:  153 Minutes (Original), 202 Minutes (Redux)
Release Date:  October 19, 2010

"Are you an assassin?"

"I'm a soldier."

"You're neither.  You're an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill."

Film ****

There is a point of no turning back in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now.  The boat carrying Captain Willard (Sheen) up the Nung river reaches the final Army post.  It is a dark, surreal setting, almost mythological in scope.  More than anything I have ever seen in film, this reminded me of the gates of Hell.  Frightened soldiers swim out into the water, screaming for the boat to help, like lost souls trapped in the river Styx.  The only light comes from the constant firing off of flares, which cause faces to emerge from seas of blackness like masks of horror.  The soldiers are shooting frantically at an enemy they cannot see.  No one is in charge. 

Death usually comes before Hell…but not in this movie.  It is beyond this frightening, chaotic setting that true death awaits, in the form of the Kurtz compound.

I should back up.  Apocalypse Now was the first great American film dealing with the subject of the Vietnam War—at least from an honest perspective.  Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness, writer/director/producer Coppola found in this source the symbolism he needed to convey the insanity of war.  In Conrad’s novel, English traders take a steamer down the Congo River in Africa, and as they move further and further away from any semblance of civilization, so in turn, civilization seems to move from them.  Here, the setting is Vietnam, but the theme remains the same…the question of whether or not morality naturally exists everywhere, or if it only goes where we specifically choose to bring it.

22 years later, Coppola brought a new vision to the screen:  Apocalypse Now Redux.  This re-edited and remastered version contained some 49 new minutes of footage that has never been seen before.  For those who have watched the film countless times, it’s like seeing the parts of an old legend that you were never told about.  The extra scenes don’t make the overall picture any better or worse; they merely give the narrative a little more space and the journey a little more depth.

The film’s opening is one of the most hypnotic ever in terms of visuals and sounds…and no credits to read.  No matter how many times I watch the picture, I find myself ensnared right from the start by its surrealistic power.  We are introduced to Willard, who seems to be just another wounded soul treading the edge of sanity in the war…until he is given a mission to occupy his time and his ravaged mind.  In a superbly paced and structured sequence, Willard learns of his assignment to take a boat into Cambodia to seek out a deranged Colonel named Kurtz.  Kurtz has gone severely mad, with a god complex to boot.  Willard is to terminate his command, “with extreme prejudice”.  That line is the only spoken by a non-uniformed man present at the meeting, obviously a government representative of some kind.  It is the line that seems to reverberate throughout the rest of the picture.

As Willard and his men go further up river…that is to say, further away from the structure of the American Army’s presence, the sanity becomes more and more strained.  It’s safe to say that this movie does more than reveal or display the insanity of war.  It absolutely revels in it, and cherishes it.  It argues convincingly that loss of sanity in such a surrounding was more blessing than curse, and perhaps being insane was the most sane alternative offered.

All of this cultivates when the river and journey end, countless miles away from civilization.  The Kurtz compound, as I mentioned, is death personified.  There are bodies hanging everywhere, some lying about where they were killed, and even severed heads everywhere.  The buzzing of flies is prevalent.   As Willard remarks, even the smell of the place was like slow death. 

Then, of course, there is Kurtz himself (Brando), the one time shining star of the military academy, who now runs this compound of natives and villagers like some kind of god.  He recites poetry, mumbles sorrowfully, and kills arbitrarily.  He knows what Willard is sent there to do…and though he easily could, he doesn’t try to stop him.  He almost seems to want it.

Kurtz may be insane, but in a moment of clarity, he expresses with almost a sense of admiration why the Americans would not win that war.  He has seen the enemy.  The enemy are men like anyone else; they have families, morals, values, ideas…but when it came right down to it, they simply put all of that aside and did their duty—no matter how horrifying—because they had the ability to do whatever it took to win the war.  Without remorse, and without judgment.

The finale of the movie is a mesmerizing climax, whereby Willard finally carries out his mission.  Is it as simple as the end of a deranged, evil man?  Maybe not.  For Kurtz, the horror is at an end.  But look into Willard’s eyes as he sails away.  For him, it may be just beginning.

Fans of the picture will easily recognize what new material the Redux version brings to the table.  There are scenes that are funny, like Willard and crew making off with Kilgore’s surfboard, scenes that are bizarre and disjointed, like a second meeting with the Playboy helicopter further up river, and scenes that are just plain surreal, such as the ghost-like French clinging to their run down plantation near Cambodia.  Even Kurtz gets an extra moment or two, as he reads a rather ironic article from Time magazine.

Though third in billing, it should be noted that Martin Sheen’s powerful performance is what anchors the film, and gives it a sense of structure amidst the chaos.  But equally good are Robert Duvall as Lt. Kilgore, who aids Willard in his quest to get up river, and takes out a village in an explosive sequence while his men surf the squalls.  You can also see early performances from two stars on the rise, Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishburne.

And of course, there’s Marlon Brando as Kurtz.   Every time I watch this film, I have a different opinion of his performance.  Many times, I’ve dismissed it as the mere flexing of a legendary ego—you must remember he practically dismantled the script in order to improvise and create what he wanted to do—but this time around, I sensed something more solid.  I never gave Brando enough credit for understanding his character, but he truly does, and if you’re paying attention to Kurtz, and not Brando, you really can begin to comprehend his own personal journey that brought him to the same place where Willard’s journey would come to fruition.

And to think, all Brando cost Coppola was top billing and a million dollars for about 10 to 15 minutes of screen time.  The horror, indeed.  

Video ****

Did it REALLY take this long to see one of the greatest American war classics in its true original theatrical aspect ratio?  After years of languishing with presentations that only took you halfway to true Scope widescreen and having to suffer with obvious moments of pan and scan during a few critical scenes, Lionsgate has done right by fans in giving them the true 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation fans have been missing for far too long.

And WHAT a presentation...when you've seen a film as many times as I've seen Apocalypse Now, you don't expect to be surprised, but surprised I was.  The colors are incredible, and the details I never noticed before are almost too numerous to mention.  In one wide shot of the Kurtz compound, I saw painted on a rock in the background the words "Our Motto: Apocalypse Now".  Wow!  Even in the dark scenes, I didn't notice any grain or compression, despite having essentially two very long movies on the same single disc.

This film has obviously been preserved, cared for and restored like the classic that it is, and there's never been a better way to reap the benefits of that than this high definition presentation.  Simply amazing!

Audio ****

It keeps getting better.  Audio presentation has never been a weak spot for any digital version of this movie, but with uncompressed DTS, it's again a whole new and very surprising experience.  From the distant rumblings of explosions that keep the .1 channel subtly busy, to the great musical score and Doors’ songs, to the out and out chaos of battle, this is a mix that keeps all channels occupied. 

The audio is lively, forceful, and dynamic, and very clean.  One of the year's most incredible revelations has to be the helicopter assault, with the roar of battle, explosions, and thunderous score of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring like the end of the world.  It's a true hold-on-to-your-seat experience.  What a complete and absolute treat!

Features ****

Three discs' worth of extras...how can you go wrong?  On the first disc, with both versions of the movie, you can hear terrific audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola for both versions.  Mr. Coppola is quite relaxed, generous with details, and able to laugh about some of the hardship he endured trying to realize this classic.  Coppola also offers an on-screen introduction to the Redux version, with a word or two of explanation of how that was actually the original cut before he gave into his own fears and trimmed it down.  For those with iPhones, you can even try two versions of controlling the menus and movie with your device...unfortunately, I can't comment on how well it works.

The second disc boasts the bulk of the extras, including two new video interviews:  the first features Coppola and actor Martin Sheen, and the second pairs Coppola with writer John Milius.  There is a look at casting the movie including some original screen tests.  All good, but perhaps the coolest of the new features are the original 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles reading from the original novel Hearts of Darkness, and the complete 2001 interview of Coppola conducted by film critic Roger Ebert.

The second disc also brings you the original DVD extras package, which was pretty generous in and of itself.  There are 12 previously unseen segments, the lost "Monkey Sampan" scene (quite surreal), and a full outtake of Marlon Brando reading T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (Mister Kurtz, he not dead yet).  There are retrospective featurettes, an audio/visual club segment for aspiring filmmakers, a cast members reunion, and looks at the color palette of the film and the sound design and mix.

But even that isn't all...best of all, this "Full Disclosure" edition brings a third disc that has Eleanor Coppola's documentary Hearts of Darkness, which enjoyed a theatrical run of its own and for my money is one of THE best ever films about the making of a film.  You can also enjoy it with optional commentary from Mr. and Mrs. Coppola.  Rounding out the third disc is a look at Milius' script with Coppola's own notes, a storyboard gallery, and marketing archive.

Finally, there is a new collectors' edition book for even more info and pictures.

Summary:

Two visions, one singular classic.  Apocalypse Now is a singular landmark in the history of American cinema, whether you choose the original version or Francis Ford Coppola's longer, more surreal take.  I'm still reeling with absolute delight at the breathtaking quality of this Blu-ray presentation...this movie has never looked nor sounded so alive before.  On top, it boasts one of the best extras packages of the year.  This is what the format is all about!

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