DVD Review: Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier
By Adnan Tezer Aug 21, 2006, 14:13 GMT
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, this classic and compelling Vietnam War epic stars Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, who is sent on a dangerous and mesmerizing odyssey into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade American Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has succumbed to the horrors of war and barricaded himself in a remote outpost. Also stars Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford. ...more
CATEGORY : Movies, DVD
LOCATION: Dallas, Texas
spent the last 5 years in Los Angeles as an
> actor/screenwriter. I gradauted with a Bachelor's in journalism from The
> University of Texas at Austin in 1999
The opening is that of a jungle in a long shot. There is a distorted, hypnotic echo of helicopters swarming back and forth like birds of prey. The opening guitar stains of “The End” by The Doors can be heard. The jungle then explodes in an orgasmic fireball of napalm and smoke. Jim Morrison’s voice lifts from the smoke.
“This is the end…beautiful friend. This is the end…my only friend the end.”
It is at once horrific and disorienting yet you watch as if in a beautiful trance of death. We have no idea what is happening or why. Then we see a close-up of a man upside down. He stares into the camera as images of fire and flame are superimposed in the frame. Is this a memory…a dream…a nightmare…or a vision of the future? We are unsure if this is something that happened to the man that he cannot forget or if he is hallucinating. As this progresses, we see the man, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) drunk and restless in a Saigon hotel room “waiting for a mission…getting softer.” This is the greatest opening in the history of cinema and the journey that we take along with this man is Apocalypse Now, here released in a two disc special edition entitled The Complete Dossier.
It is one of the most celebrated, discussed, and masterful films ever made. Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal, trippy meditation on the Vietnam War is just as potent and powerful as it was when released to the public in 1979 - after one of the most infamous and tortured film productions in cinematic history. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel “Heart of Darkness,” writer/producer/director Coppola along with co-writer John Milius present us with the mission of one Captain Willard. He desperately wants a mission to get back into the jungle…and for his sins they gave him one. The military presents him with a mission that seems simple enough…proceed up the Nung River under the cover of a PBR boat, locate the renegade compound of one Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando,) and terminate the colonel “with extreme prejudice.” Kurtz, who in the words of the Army general (brilliantly played by G.D. Spradlin) who presents Willard with the mission, was “one of the most outstanding officers this country’s ever produced.” Kurtz had been a storied officer, “a humitarian man,” as well as “a man of wit and humor,” who, upon joining Special Forces late in his career, had started to employ brutal, “unsound” methods to fight the enemy.
The army charges Kurtz with murder upon the discovery that he ordered the deaths of 4 South Vietnamese he suspected of working for the Vietcong. He has now barricaded himself deep in the jungles of Cambodia surrounded by Montagnard tribesman that look up to him as a god. Willard is told that Kurtz has gone insane and that he must be eliminated. There is no question as to why Willard has been chosen for this mission. He may be a soldier in his mind, but at heart he is an assassin…precisely the type for a black ops mission that “does not exist nor will it ever exist.” The film is the journey that Willard goes on down the Nung River in the PBR boat with its crew of 4 as he attempts to locate and confront Kurtz. The PBR Streetgang “rock n’rollers with one foot in their graves” includes the strong father of the boat Chief Phillips (Albert Hall,) manic saucier Chef (Frederic Forrest,) stoned-out surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms,) and the youthful, trigger-happy Mr.Clean (a 14 year old Laurence Fishburne.) All four are perfectly cast and have an instant rapport that will be one of the many lasting memories of the film long after it ends.
Along the way as Willard and the crew progress down the river they encounter several metaphors for the insanities of war in the form of Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who “loves the smell of napalm in the morning” and enjoys surfing after bombing villages, a chaotic USO show with Playboy bunnies, a massacre that evokes memories of My Lai and in this post-9/11 world Haditha, and a maddening stop at the Do Lung bridge where the Americans rebuild the bridge each day only to have Charlie blow it up later that night. Willard does find Kurtz’s compound and comes face to face with his tribesman as well as a whacked-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) and Colby (Scott Glenn,) who had been sent on the identical mission as Willard but had decided to pledge his loyalty to Kurtz. Willard admits early on, in the brilliant voice-over narration written by Michael Herr, that he isn’t sure what he’d do when he found Kurtz. When Willard finally does sit before him and listens to his “horrors,” we realize he still isn’t sure.
Many have debated the film merits as being the best film about Vietnam. It may not be (Oliver Stone’s Platoon has a place at that table) but it is the greatest war film and one of the greatest films ever made. While Stone’s film is the ultimate portrayal of the grunt in the jungle, Coppola creates the most powerful and haunting meditation ON war itself. We see and feel everything through Willard. Martin Sheen’s superbly minimalist performance draws us in from the very beginning and as he changes up the river, so do we. We feel his apprehension, anger, fear, and growing insanity as he learns more about Kurtz and his soul then the army had hoped.
Brando’s performance as Kurtz, although still heavily criticized for his legendary lazy approach to the role as well as his gargantuan salary (one million dollars per week for three weeks work) and childish antics on the set, strangely plays into the performance. His iconic presence plays perfectly throughout the first three quarters of the film where he is only seen by Willard and us through old army photos and heard through intercepted letters and audio recordings. We are just as anxious and curious as Willard is to confront him. Brando’s own physical and spiritual problems (he had already started letting his weight get out of hand and had renounced acting as “something for children to do”) ARE Kurtz. Kurtz is man who has lost his soul and has let his mind, his body, and all that he loved and believed fall aside. If you look at it in that context, Brando delivers a haunting, eerie, unhinged performance that uses his own sorry state to portray Kurtz as he really is…a once great man who has lost his way and is begging to be put out of his misery. His haunting inoculation monologue is some of his greatest work ever.
It is sad but Brando’s pathetic personal life would give him the ability to channel two of his greatest and last creations…Paul in Last Tango in Paris and Kurtz here. Does the film slow down in the last hour when Kurtz is finally confronted by Willard? Yes, but it is supposed to. This is the culmination of the journey. There can be no quick and easy solution when Willard is still uneasy about killing Kurtz, not to mention which how he can do it and escape before being chopped up by Kurtz’s men. The much talked about ending, which was the final nail in putting Coppola completely over the edge during the filming, feels right…even if it was a desperate or last minute decision…it resolves the conflict between Kurtz and Willard in a symbolic, physically and emotionally violent, grandly majestic, and strangely (if you’ve seen it enough times you’ll understand what I mean) hopeful way. If you pay attention to the placement of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men which Kurtz reads from as Hopper’s photographer babbles to Willard, you will notice that it ends with the words “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Whether it was intended or not, the ending of the film follows with the ending of the poem.
Duvall burns through the screen as the gung-ho Kilgore who, if you see the parallels between Apocalypse and Homer’s The Odyssey, can be seen as the Cyclops that Willard must get past. The helicopter raid he leads set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” set the bar for on-screen war scenes. It is an orgasmic feeling as Wagner peaks with majesty, the initial rockets are launched from the choppers, and the gunners start firing. Then you see the aftermath and you are almost ashamed for reveling in the natural adrenaline that is produced. Only Spielberg’s opening D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan can come close to, if not outright exceed, the raw power and hypnotic savagery of this sequence. Look for a young, pre Star Wars Harrison Ford as a geeky, nebbish army captain at the beginning of the film during Willard’s mission briefing and Coppola himself “Don’t look in the camera” in a Hitchcockian cameo as a manic news camera man. No stretch there.<!--page-->
It was a grueling 16 month shoot in the Philippines which had everything from Sheen replacing Harvey Keitel as Willard, typhoons, massive cost overruns, Brando coming in unprepared, lazy, and out of shape, Dennis Hopper being constantly on acid, bad press from the media, Sheen suffering a heart attack, and Coppola himself going insane amidst the pressure of finishing the film without a working ending and burying himself in a cloud of marijuana smoke and Playboy Playmates while his wife and children watched. Coppola would emerge with the last true classic of the 1970s but he would never be the same nor would the industry he along with the other 70s auteur directors like Scorsese, Schrader, Ashby, Altman, Penn, Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, and Friedkin helped recreate and revitalize. Yes there would be an occasional film from Coppola that would remind us of the greatness that once was (Rumble Fish, Gardens of Stone, Tucker) but more often you would get debacles like The Cotton Club, Godfather III, and Jack. If Coppola truly went insane and will never be what he once was, he still cannot be criticized for he gave his soul for his art and produced four of the greatest films of the 1970s. In a way he was in parts Willard and Kurtz during the making of the film; slowly going insane as he went further up the river. And as Willard himself notes “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.” Coppola went all the way. Luckily for us, he brought back a masterpiece and a testament to the darker nature of man.
Both versions of the film, the 1979 theatrical release which runs 153 minutes and the 2001 Redux version which runs 202 minutes are presented in the set, both with video introductions and highly informative and emotionally honest commentaries by Coppola. The Redux commentary is the exact same track as the theatrical version only with Redux-added footage commentary added in. There is a Redux marker that can be activated on the Menu screen that will alert you via an on-screen marker when Redux footage is being presented. Which version is better is a debate that will be ongoing for all eternity. Personally, I prefer the original 79 release but that is as a purist.
Most of the added footage particularly the encounter with the Playboy bunnies after the USO show and the infamous French plantation scene are fascinating to watch as a fan of the film but you can see how they severely slow the film down and ultimately why they were left out in the first place. Also, the added scenes of Willard laughing and joking around with the PBR Streetgang goes against the grain of Willard’s isolation from the crew. The extra scenes with Duvall’s Kilgore, particularly the sequence where the Streetgang steals his surfboard and Kilgore send patrols after them, make Kilgore seem like a buffoon. The frightening menace left in your mind after Kilgore’s last moment in the 79 version where he says with war-loving sadness to Willard “Someday this war’s gonna end” is lost in the Redux version. Coppola says the scenes add to the insanity and absurdity of the film. It’s already present. The French plantation scene plays more like a history lesson and an opportunity for Coppola and Milius to be blatant about their political beliefs regarding Vietnam. You already know how they feel without the scene. However, the scenes of Brando reading Time Magazine to a captive Sheen perfectly illustrate Kurtz’s anger and frustration with the hypocrisies of the American government and media during the war.
Disc One of the set includes the first halves of both films, their respective commentaries, and introductions. Also included is a complete 17-minute Marlon Brando reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, heard only briefly in the film. This is set to a montage of outtakes from the film and the set. There is a three-minute lost scene “Monkey Sampan” as well as 12 additional scenes running 26 minutes taken from the infamous 5 ½ hour workprint of the film only available as a bootleg. Having owned a rough copy of it for years, it was nice to see these scenes cleaned up and presented here. You can tell these were lifted from a VHS source as they are all time coded at the bottom right. Some are in better shape than others, but for those who have only read about and never seen them, it is a real treat. The real standout is “Special Forces Knife” which thankfully Coppola included in which you learn the ultimate fates of both Colby and the photojournalist.
I would’ve liked a scene specific commentary by Coppola on these but no luck. The A/V Club section details the legendary Oscar winning sound and music of the film with the 6 minute featurette “The Birth of 5.1 Sound,” the 4 minute “Ghost Helicopter Flyover,” a text article “The Synthesizer Soundtrack” by the legendary music pioneer Bob Moog, and a six question “Technical FAQ” which answers some of the more legendary and infamous questions raised by various versions and scenes in the film.
Disc 2 contains the second halves of both versions and the respective commentaries. There is “The Post Production of Apocalypse Now” which is broken down into the 18 minute “A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now,” the 15 minute “The Music of Apocalypse Now,” the 15 minute “Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now,” and the 3 minute “Final Mix.” The four minute “PBR Streetgang” reunites Forrest, Hall, Fishburne, and Bottoms as they recall with fondness their memories making the film. There is the four minute “Apocalypse Then and Now” that details the making of the Redux version and shows footage from the 2001 Cannes Film Festival of Coppola doing a Q & A with Roger Ebert. Lastly, there is the 4 minute “The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now” that goes into Vittorio Storaro’s Oscar winning cinematography and how he improved on the 2001 Redux prints. The DVD packaging is particularly inventive and fun as it is encased in a document-like light brown box with “Confidential” stamped on the bottom middle and an Official United States letter seal that opens the box.
The only omissions that keep this from truly being “The Complete Dossier?” The most notable is the absence of the acclaimed 1991 Fax Bahr/George Hickenlooper/Eleanor Coppola documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” which consists of interviews with cast and crew members regarding the notoriously difficult shoot intercut with audio and video recordings taken by Eleanor Coppola (Coppola’s wife) during filming. There is so much information here about the film that its absence from the set is glaring. Apparently, legal wrangling regarding rights to the film prohibited its inclusion. It has still not been released on DVD and is only available on VHS. I smell a triple dip somewhere down the line.
The only other missing extras are the destruction of the Kurtz compound footage with commentary by Coppola which was included in the original 1999 DVD edition of the theatrical cut as well as excerpts from the original program that was handed out to the audience at the initial screening of the film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. If you still have that DVD, hang onto it. One can only wonder why those extras were not included here.
Despite those omissions, Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier is one of the best DVD sets of 2006 and should be on your shelf. The omission of the “Hearts of Darkness” documentary is the only reason for my not giving this five stars overall. The film itself is as close to perfect as you’ll get with films. As Coppola himself said at the 79 Cannes showing “My movie is not about Vietnam…my movie is Vietnam.” It is one of the greatest films ever and why cinema is the greatest art medium. At its highest form, film has the power to inspire, to frighten, to teach, to confuse, and to caution. Apocalypse Now does all.