“My film is not a movie, it’s not a film about Vietnam, it IS Vietnam”, the words spoken by visionary director Francis Ford Coppola when discussing his tortured masterpiece ‘Apocalypse Now’. There’s very little to say that hasn’t already been said about his meditative take on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness,’ but whilst most reviews tend to focus on the movie’s twisted narrative, unforgettable characters and dynamic cinematography, few focus on the revolutionary sound design. Not only did the film utilise its soundtrack almost as an extra character (who can forget the opening shots set to ‘This is the End’ by ‘The Doors’ or the iconic use of ‘Flight of the Valkyries’?), but the sound effects were genuinely ahead of their time. For example, take the opening scene, where the deafening whir of a helicopter effortlessly morphs into the gentle hum of a ceiling fan. It’s a wonderful moment in cinema that really pops with a set a decent surround sound home cinema speakers and a well-balanced sub-woofer.
Of course, just because the sound is impeccable does not mean the visuals are any less striking and now that it’s available on high-definition Blu-Ray, there has never been a better time to experience Apocalypse Now. In the 3 disk special edition, you’re treated to every iteration of the film, as well as all the extras you could possibly wish for. The 1st disk, of course contains the movie itself in its two forms, re-mastered for the first time in 1080p by Coppola’s in house team.
The original theatrical cut and the redux differ largely in that the redux involves a whole act which was originally cut from the film where Captain Willard’s boat happens upon a French plantation as well as a few other minor scene restorations. Having watched both versions I can honestly say the act was cut with good reason and the original cut remains the definitive article. Many might argue, but personally that’s my opinion and I’m sticking by it. There are other scenes added in the redux (an additional battle scene in the early section of the film and a quite interesting scene involving Colonel Kurtz reading a ‘Time Magazine’ article on the war) that add to the film’s desolate atmosphere, but an extra 50 minute run-time seems rather frivolous as no truly vital scenes were cut first time round. There is supposedly a cut of the film, which lasts nearly 5 hours, personally as much as I love the film I can’t imagine ever wanting to sit through it for entertainment purposes (though film scholars would no doubt be fascinated).
Regardless of which version you prefer though, both look fantastic in high definition. It’s always been a dark film and thusly quite hard to watch on home cinema systems, but the clarity of the high definition Blu-Ray has cleaned up the murkiness like never before. The sound on too snaps with an extra dimensional heft and although the vast features might not be as highly defined, they are still leagues ahead of the same features on my DVD copy of the film.
The film itself (for those few unfamiliar) revolves around Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, who is tasked with sailing into the Cambodian jungle to assassinate the crazed Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), once a highly decorated special forces agent who has gone renegade, lording over a tribe of Cambodian native savages as a god and conducting his own operations against the U.S Military. To extrapolate on the rest would be pointless as those familiar with the story won’t want to hear it and those unfamiliar are best left to discover the films wonders themselves.
The real find here is the 2nd and 3rd disks. The 2nd disk includes a new, interesting conversation between star Sheen and Coppola as well as a bevy of special features (more than 300 minutes worth) detailing all facets of the films troubled production. There are also a selection of deleted scenes, the most interesting of which (the grim ‘Monkey Sampan’ scene) Coppola still regrets leaving out of the film. The 3rd disk meanwhile is given over to a riveting, feature length documentary that deserves serious recognition.
The ‘Hearts Of Darkness’ feature is possibly one of the best reasons to pick up this fresh edition, it’s a riveting case study of the films development which is at times as gripping as the film itself. In Coppola’s own words, it was shot much like the war itself, they had “too much money, too much equipment and little by little they all went insane” and the period is documented with stunning clarity and humble poise by Ford’s wife Eleanor. The story of the film is quite fascinating, it was originally taken on by Orson Welles in 1939 who abandoned the film due to budgetary worries to shoot Citizen Kane (fitting how prophetic these worries turned out to be) and Coppola picked the story up in the 70’s as one of the first films to be shot under his new Zoetrope banner after George Lucas failed to make the film in the late 60’s (due largely to the fact studios assumed the filmmakers wouldn’t make it through the shoot alive). The film was transposed to the midst of the Vietnam war (a timely subject at that time) and the gruelling shoot drove Coppola almost to the brink of insanity, to the extent that he almost considered taking his own life. The parallels drawn between Willard and Coppola are shockingly apt and go some way into revealing just why Apocalypse Now remains such an effective film. It was a film which now only examined a man’s descent into himself, it was shot by a man going through the very same inner turmoil and as such the documentary makes for fascinating viewing whether you’re a fan of the film or not.
I could quite happily write an essay on Apocalypse Now (and I wouldn’t be the first) but in what little room I have here all I can suggest is that those of you reading who have yet to witness this monumental piece of history have no excuse not to pick up the definitive copy. Just make sure you have the home cinema setup to support the true majesty of Coppola’s vision. If you have to invest in a new pair of home cinema speakers and a televisual upgrade, then so be it!