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APOCALYPSE NOW
The Complete Dossier

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  153 Minutes (Original), 202 Minutes (Redux)
Release Date:  August 15, 2006

“Every man has a breaking point.  You and I have them.  Walt Kurtz has reached his.

And he has obviously gone insane.”

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 contains 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 promising newcomers, 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 screentime.  The horror, indeed.  

Video ***1/2

This remastered disc is a treat for the eyes, and fans will notice an improvement over Paramount’s already good initial DVD offering for Apocalypse Now.  Here, colors are brighter and fuller, images sharper and cleaner, and there is no noticeable grain or interference to mar the visuals.  The only thing I find fault with is that the movie STILL isn’t correctly framed.  Though Paramount has claimed 2.20:1 is Coppola’s preferred ratio for the film, it still should be seen in 2.35:1…if you look closely enough in one or two scenes, you can even see a bit of panning & scanning taking place, which I don’t like at all.  Still, until the ratio is put right once and for all, this is an enjoyable presentation, and one fans new and old alike can be quite happy about.

Audio ****

This 5.1 soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Never have the sounds of war come so fully to life as they have here.  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.  In one of the new scenes, which takes place during a monsoon, the rain is so enveloping and real you might just find yourself looking out your window to be sure.  Absolute reference quality from start to finish…even die hard fans will find this new mix startling and jaw-dropping.

Features ****

At long last, Apocalypse Now has been given the red carpet treatment it deserves.  The two disc special edition is loaded, and my only qualm was the decision to divide both the original and the Redux versions over the two discs...wouldn't it have been better to put one on one and one on the other?

Oh, well...you can hear terrific audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola for both versions.  I've been waiting for him to do a track for this movie ever since DVD went mainstream, and I have to say, for a true movie lover, this was worth the wait.  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.

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.

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.  The Complete Dossier has them both, as well as everything you could want to know about how this great movie came into being.

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