Apocalypse Now (Blu-ray)
Full Disclosure Edition
Circumstances conspired to delay the HTF review copy of this much-anticipated title so that I’ve only recently been able to view the main feature and the Hearts of Darkness documentary. I share the high opinion of the set’s audio and video quality already expressed by numerous sources, and the special features are so detailed and informative that I could become absorbed in them for days, and this review wouldn’t appear until 2011. (It’s especially tempting for someone whose connection to the film is so personal that I own a hard copy of the program distributed at the 70mm premieres.) So instead of the usual review, I offer the following reflections on a film that, when you add up the time in which it occurs, when it was made, and since it’s been released, covers most of my adult life. Indeed, it’s hard for me to remember a time when some aspect of Apocalypse Now wasn’t out there somewhere, somewhat like Kurtz.
Film Length: 153 min. / 202 min. / 96 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / 2.35:1 / 4.3:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 / English DTS-HD MA 5.1 / English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish; French
Disc Format: 2 50 GB + 1 25 GB
Package: Digipack in cardboard slipcover, plus “Collector’s Edition Booklet”
Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 15, 1979
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 19, 2010
(Note: The following discussion assumes familiarity with the plot of Apocalypse Now.)
I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the years when AN was being filmed and edited. That’s American Zoetrope country, which made AN’s trials and tribulations a story of local interest; so I was acutely aware of just how much time had elapsed before the film reached theater screens. At about the time AN was released, I relocated to Boston, and I remember driving to a distant suburban theater on a crisp fall Friday in September to catch a late afternoon showing. Release patterns were different then, and the film had only just arrived. The version I saw was the 35mm release that ended with the credit sequence featuring the fiery destruction of the Kurtz compound that Coppola subsequently withdrew (and has since appeared as an extra on multiple home video versions, including the Blu-ray).
I don’t remember much about the drive back, except that I was rattling on to the classmate who’d accompanied me about moments in the film that had lodged in my head. I was dazed and overwhelmed, and I couldn’t make sense of anything. Somehow I knew that this was the beginning of a long relationship – but not with my classmate, who clearly didn’t care for the film and hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.
It’s hard to remember now, but in America the initial reaction to this icon of cinema was one of disappointment. It was probably inevitable. After all the buildup and delay, Coppola would have had to deliver something with the cumulative impact of Titanic, Avatar and all three Lord of the Rings to have a prayer of meeting expectations. And because he was dealing with a national trauma whose wounds were still fresh and the significance of which remains a subject of debate even today (and will probably continue to be argued for as long as American history is written), there was no chance that Coppola could ever provide an answer, only more questions. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael didn’t review AN, but a year after its release, she summed up the reaction in a more general article:
I thought Kael was wrong then, and I still do, but I understand what she was getting at. AN takes a sharp turn about two-thirds of the way through (more if you’re watching Redux, which I could only manage once), when Willard reaches the Kurtz compound, and launches into unknown territory. I believe that turn is essential to the film’s continuing vitality, but it’s hard to claim that Coppola “intended” this result, given the chaotic and improvisational manner in which the film was made (a process well-documented in Hearts of Darkness). But as great artists often do, Coppola seems to have intuited (or even blundered) into something unique, alive and protean. As he says in his introductory note to the “Full Disclosure” Blu-ray:
AN has two major plot strands, roughly speaking. There’s the depiction of the Vietnam war, which gets crazier and more chaotic the farther we travel from Saigon, until, at the Do Long bridge, there’s only endless fighting without purpose, logic or even a commander. Then there’s the question of what happened to Kurtz, which is the mystery that keeps Willard moving upriver through the madness, when the PBR’s crew would rather be almost anywhere else. Every time I watch the film, those two stories tug and pull and reshape each other in what Dennis Hopper’s crazed photo-journalist would probably call a fit of “dialectics”– and every time the result is different.
The Vietnam sequences are easier to grasp, and they retain their power today. For this I salute the crack editing team that sorted through hundreds of hours of footage and emerged with such precise modulations between satire and tragedy that, even when you know what’s coming, you’re still kept off balance. You laugh at Colonel Kilgore’s gung-ho excesses and his surf obsession, but you also wince at the destruction he rains down on the village (and at the rescue helicopter a village girl blows up). You feel the absurdity of Clean’s exuberance when he’s dancing around the PBR to “Satisfaction”, then gulp when the same hopped-up adrenaline pulls the trigger on the family aboard the sampan. And you wail with Chief Phillips when Clean is abruptly shot down while his mother’s taped letter from home slowly plays on. Many war films worked with similar thematic elements, but AN was one of the first to concentrate so much of the detail and specificity of this particular war, as it had been reported to Americans and splashed across their TV screens, into a narrative populated by characters they could care about. (Platoon was still seven years in the future.) It was primarily these scenes that stuck in my mind after I left that first viewing in 1979.
Then we reach the Kurtz compound and find Marlon Brando reading T.S. Eliot. What the hell?
When I was in college, Eliot was a minor deity among English professors, which means that I’d spent many hours with his slim poetic output. When I first saw Brando/Kurtz reading “The Hollow Men”, I snorted out loud, because I knew there was only one reason to have him do so. Eliot stuffed his poems with references both obvious and obscure, and “The Hollow Men” bears two epigraphs; the first is from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which AN is loosely based: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” (IMDb says this is the poem’s first line; they’re wrong.) I snorted even more loudly when the camera panned over Kurtz’s books to reveal From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough. What was Kurtz doing with such obscure academic texts? The people who read those tomes today are usually English majors poring over Eliot’s youthful masterpiece, The Wasteland, a poem so scholarly that the poet himself provided footnotes (some of which are even more highbrow than the poem itself). If one is staring into the abyss, trying to make friends with “horror” and “moral terror”, as Kurtz says, these pedantic volumes are not likely places where one would seek guidance. Clearly, it wasn’t Kurtz who’d been spending too much time with T.S. Eliot. It was Coppola and probably his co-screenwriter, John Milius. They’d fallen into the old trap of telling us about Kurtz’s despair instead of showing us.
(And not telling it very well either. The preferred reading of a man who says what Kurtz does in AN should be an author like Nietzsche, Camus or Sartre – but certainly not Eliot, whose spiritual crisis led him straight into the arms of the Anglican Church and whose late poems were pure acts of devotion.)
Brando’s Kurtz seemed to derail the movie, and that was a common reaction when AN was released. Part of the problem was Brando himself. After the career resurgence of The Godfather, his infamous rejection of the Oscar made him an eccentric celebrity (again), and it was hard to see past that. Today, in an odd turn of fate, it’s easier to see Brando as Kurtz, after the actor’s own personal tragedies and the slow dissolution preceding his death.
But something else has happened with the two plot strands of AN over the years. Like an Italian sauce that becomes more flavorful when the ingredients permeate each other over time, Kurtz’s mystery and the quest to reach it have bonded in unexpected ways. In Se7en, Morgan Freeman’s Det. Somerset presciently warns his partner that they’ll be disappointed if they capture their suspect and he turns out to be anything less than the devil incarnate. Their suspect turns out to be just a man, but he gives them a glimpse of hell just the same. Kurtz presents a similar paradox. Willard is drawn to him not because of his mission, but by a need that Willard himself can barely articulate – a need for something transcendent, something larger, smarter, grander than himself, something that will make sense of the life he’s led, fill the emptiness inside him and tell him who he is and where he belongs (since, as he announces at the beginning, he’s no longer at home either stateside or in the jungle).
But when Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound, what he finds is . . . just a man. A man who is as frustrated, lost and despairing as Willard, and who has become so detached from the human being he once was that casual savagery means nothing to him, just as it means nothing to Willard when he executes the woman on the sampan. Surrounded by books – any books, because they’re all useless relics of a civilization to which he no longer feels any connection – Kurtz has no answers and simply waits for oblivion. This is the “god” that Willard has come to find.
Look back over AN, and you can see exactly the path that brought Kurtz to this point. The war plot is Kurtz’s story, in abbreviated form. You start with the officers and CIA man in Da Trang, with their files, orders and bureaucratese (“unsound” methods; “terminate with extreme prejudice”). Then you experience the war as it’s actually fought by officers like Kilgore – still disciplined, but of necessity a little crazy, or else how could they keep on fighting a war without a clearly defined goal or a coherent strategy? Then gradually, even the order that Kilgore represents falls to pieces, as the efforts to maintain morale devolve into a riot at the USO, and the efforts to follow routine turn into the random and pointless slaughter of the family on the sampan. Eventually all that remains is the anarchy of the Do Long bridge. Willard no longer needs to read Kurtz’s classified report. He’s just experienced it on fast forward.
The note scrawled in red that Willard finds among Kurtz’s papers is taken from Heart of Darkness, but it’s been subtly rephrased for maximum ambiguity: “DROP THE BOMB. EXTERMINATE THEM ALL.” Just who is the “them” to which Kurtz is referring? Who would a man who’s reached the end of that particular rope want to exterminate? The North Vietnamese? The entire country? The generals in Da Trang (those “grocery clerks” for whom Kurtz has such contempt)? The nation that was too weak to do what was necessary and that rejected him for seeing the truth? The entire human race? One wonders if even Kurtz knew.
Today when I watch AN and listen to Kurtz utter his famous dying words taken directly from Conrad (“The horror! The horror!”), I don’t hear Kurtz. I hear Chef screaming about wanting to go home and cook; I hear Lance howling about the dog (absurd in the moment, but it’s where all his emotion comes out); and I hear Chief Phillips crying over Clean’s body. These are experiences of genuine horror, and when enough of them accumulate, they empty out a person until he becomes what Willard was at the beginning of AN – and then what Kurtz is at the end. Coppola was right to end the film by immediately going to black – no credits, no nothing – when Willard departs the compound with Lance, because what happens next should be a giant question mark hovering in the air for the viewer to ponder. Where does Willard go now? Who does he see? What does he tell them?
As advertised, AN is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and this should finally put an end to the debates about the film’s appropriate width. Yes, there would have been some cropping for 70mm exhibition, and yes, arguments could be made for compromise when we were stuck with NTSC resolution – but this is Blu-ray. We finally have the full width of the Technovision frame, and the compositions are stunning.
So is the detail of the transfer, whether it’s the sweat beading on Willard’s face, the vegetation of the jungle, the debris and smoke during the battle scenes, the crowd and costumes at the USO – name a scene, and there’s something new to see in it. Black levels are excellent, which is crucial for sequences like the Do Long bridge and the scenes in Kurtz’s quarters. And the colors . . . well, AN is famous for what Kael call its “psychedelic” imagery, and here it gets depth and intensity that haven’t been seen since a theatrical screening.
This isn’t just a superior transfer; it’s a more faithful one. Over the years, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has indulged in revisionism that far exceeds the cropping that has been the subject of so much discussion. He’s also revised the color timing in numerous portions of the film. If you want an example, look at the sequence where Willard first encounters Colonel Kilgore on the previous DVD (the “Complete Dossier” version). The entire sequence is much darker and browner than on the Blu-ray, for reasons that still elude me. I could have found other examples, but it was hard to watch the DVD after experiencing the visual luxuriance of the Blu-ray. Suffice it to say that, while watching the new version, I never once had the feeling, as I often have before, that someone had come along and “painted over” portions of the film.
I have seen claims of excess compression, but no signs of it appeared on my viewing screen. Nor did I see anything to betray the presence of inappropriate noise reduction or other digital manipulation.
As for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, it is presented in it original 4:3 aspect ratio and looks every bit as good as the original source material will allow, given that much of it is either video or 16mm film and was shot under less than ideal conditions. It’s to the credit of the Blu-ray set’s producers that this essential documentary was mastered and released in high definition, allowing the best possible presentation of this “warts and all” portrait of a director on the edge.
One final note: In all the harsh pronouncements that have been made about Vittorio Storaro and his admittedly eccentric notions about the presentation of widescreen images on home video, one point tends to get lost. As this Blu-ray confirms, Storaro managed to capture some of the most unusual and indelible images in the history of cinema for AN. As Hearts of Darkness graphically demonstrates, he accomplished this feat under conditions so unimaginably challenging that many cinematographers would have quit and high-tailed it for home. Storaro earned that Oscar, and honor is due.
Walter Murch’s sound mix for AN has been demo material ever since its first appearance in stereo surround on laserdisc, and the DTS lossless track on Blu-ray is its finest presentation to date. Signature moments like the helicopter “fly around” that opens the film, the distant “arclight” strike and Kilgore’s Wagner-assisted attack on the village retain their detail and authority. But the more I listen to Murch’s work, the more I find myself listening to his use of silence, which, in the right hands, can be as authoritative as thunder. Listen, for example, to the way he cuts from the blare of Kilgore’s music to the quiet of the unsuspecting village. Or note the way sounds begin to disappear in the scene at the Do Long bridge, when “Roach” is summoned to dispatch a VC who’s hiding nearby and taunting the Americans; as Roach hones in on the enemy’s location, the soundtrack mimics his focus, hearing only what he hears – until Roach’s grenade explodes and the VC is dead. Now that is how to tell a story with sound.
The soundtrack for Hearts of Darkness is DTS 2.0 lossless, and like the film transfer, it’s serviceable. The essential requirement is that we be able to understand the speakers, whether in interviews or in documentary footage, and the track delivers.
New special features are marked with an asterisk.
Commentary by Director Francis Ford Coppola.
*An Interview with John Milius.
*A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola.
*Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse.
Mercury Theatre on the Air: “Heart of Darkness” – November 6, 1938. Reading by Orson Welles. The menu mistakenly says “Hearts of Darkness”.
“The Hollow Men”.
Monkey Sampan “Lost Scene”.
Kurtz Compound Destruction with Credits. The Coppola commentary cannot be switched off.
The Birth of 5.1 Sound.
Ghost Helicopter Flyover.
Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog.
A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now.
The Music of Apocalypse Now.
Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now.
The Final Mix.
Apocalypse Then and Now.
2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola.
The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now.
Also from Lionsgate. Trailers for Tetro, The Doors and a notice that The Conversation is coming in 2011.
Commentary with Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola.
John Milius Script Selections with Notes by Francis Ford Coppola.
Marketing Archive (trailer, posters, preview program, etc.).
Coppola borrowed liberally from T.S. Eliot; so why shouldn’t I? The experience of watching AN, especially in this new Blu-ray edition, reminds me of some oft-quoted lines from “Little Gidding”, the last of Eliot’s Four Quartets:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eliot was referring to the experience of seeing things anew after a religious awakening, but one can similarly express the experience of seeing a work of art differently due to time, distance, the work’s inherent dynamism, and yes, a new presentation that brings us closer to the work’s qualities than has been possible in many years. Such is the experience of seeing Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub