The best war movies generally aren’t about war at all. “My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam,” director Francis Ford Coppola states at the Cannes press conference that begins the legendary documentary Hearts of Darkness, the chronicle of the difficulties involved in making Apocalypse Now.
Coppola’s visceral masterpiece isn’t about warfare; it’s about the madness of war. It seeks to be not primarily a political statement, but an all-out assault on the senses, disorienting and overwhelming the viewer much in the same way that Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) experiences Vietnam.
And yet despite the inhospitable living conditions and unending violence, Willard thrives in the jungle. It’s the only place he knows how to any more after a three-year stint that ended with an attempt to rejoin society that miserably failed. He takes on the mission to kill the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) because what else is he going to?
Coppola loosely connects narrative threads as Willard travels the country toward Cambodia, where Kurtz is holed up, but mostly, we’re thrust into the moment just as much as Willard’s crew (Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest), who don’t know anything about the mission.
As the film progresses, the action moves from the sensory-shelling (Robert Duvall’s gung-ho Lt. Col. Kilgore, who possesses nothing that could be referred to as qualms) to the increasingly surreal — by the time the film reaches Kurtz’s temple and the madness that accompanies it, like Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed photojournalist, it’s clear that a major tonal shift has taken place. And yet, the film has a hypnotic quality that makes such a change seem natural.
Apocalypse Now is the kind of film that could have (and perhaps, should have, considering the production foibles) collapsed under the weight of Coppola’s ambition and the huge amount of resources he employed to make it a reality. But 30 years later, the film still feels remarkably cogent and forceful, without the kind of dead weight that can negatively affect large-scale epics like this.
Lionsgate’s remarkable three-disc full disclosure edition actually contains three films, with the first disc devoted to the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2001 redux, which runs almost a full hour longer. The films are seamlessly branched, allowing for them to both fit on one disc. On the third disc, we get Hearts of Darkness, an essential work that transcends mere bonus feature status.
The Blu-ray Disc
The image for Apocalypse Now and the redux is quite stunning and certainly the best it’s ever looked on a home video presentation, but probably the best thing about this release is that the film is finally available to be seen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, not the cropped 2.0:1 image that cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had long imposed on the film for its non-theatrical presentations (and not just this one — see The Last Emperor). That right there should be enough to sell anyone on the Blu-ray, but it sure doesn’t hurt that the 1080p image is fantastic, with an earthy, yet dynamic color palette and excellent clarity and definition, whether in bright or low-light scenes. The image retains a fine layer of film grain most of the time and is free from scarcely a hint of damage. Hearts of Darkness is also presented in 1080p with a full frame image that benefits from the lack of DVD’s digital compression.
The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track is everything one would hope for Apocalypse Now, with the film’s rock-oriented soundtrack and frequent loud explosions displaying plenty of dynamic range. The legendary Walter Murch’s immersive and unsettling sound design also gets great play here, with even the subtlest of effects presented cleanly and clearly.
If only every catalog title featured as impressive an array of supplements, with a solid amount of new features. On the first disc, we get an audio commentary from Coppola, which can be played with both the theatrical and the redux cuts.
On disc two, we get fantastic new features like an hour-long conversation between Coppola and Sheen, who have lots of memories from the set to share with one another, as well as a conversation between John Milius, who adapted the Joseph Conrad novel into the screenplay, and Coppola. Also new are a short featurette with Fred Roos on the casting of the film and a 1938 recording of Orson Welles’ radio reading of Conrad’s novel.
The rest of the disc is packed with hours and hours of previously available extras including deleted scenes, a Brando reading of the T.S. Eliot poem he recites in the film, and technical featurettes on the sound design, editing, soundtrack and score and color palette.
There’s also an interview with Coppola by Roger Ebert at Cannes in 2001 that hasn’t been released in its entirety before, as well as looks back at the film by cast members around the time of the redux release.
Disc three includes Hearts of Darkness, along with a commentary track by Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola. The disc also includes script selections with notes by Coppola, storyboard and stills galleries and a marketing archive, which includes posters, radio spots and trailers.
The set also comes with a 48-page booklet that’s filled with photos, production trivia and a note by Coppola.
The Bottom Line
This is the edition of Apocalypse Now to own. Lionsgate hasn’t cut a single corner, with thorough extras and a finally corrected aspect ratio.