At the beginning of the twentieth century, novelist Joseph Conrad depicted man’s decent into darkness with his acclaimed Heart of Darkness. Almost eighty years later, Francis Ford Coppola adapted Conrad’s work for a new medium with Apocalypse Now, updating the story to take place during the recent Vietnam war. With this creation Coppola created a poignant commentary on the nature of war and the conflict those who fight within those wars must face, as well as creating a classic film that nothing, not even his own meddling in 2001 with Apocalypse Now: Redux, can stop from being absolutely brilliant.
I used to think war films were all about showing how macho and tough soldiers could be. When you think of old war movies starring the likes of John Wayne, you don’t think about how war affected the man. Instead you think about how the soldier endured war and conquered all that opposed him. As I’ve never been an incredibly macho guy, the idea of war movies never appealed to me. That’s where Apocalypse Now completely blindsided me. While it is the story of how a soldier conquered the obstacles before him, you quickly realize that he himself was drastically changed, and that no soldier leaves the war unchanged, if he can even manage to make himself leave at all.
The soldier in question in Coppolla’s epic is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). Willard has been given a task that immediately puts him at odds with his own assignment: to assassinate a fellow soldier who has strayed from the Army’s way of thinking, Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). As Willard travels through Vietnam towards Cambodia on a small boat of navy soldiers, he contemplates how similar he and his target are while at the same time facing the many atrocities that made both Vietnam and war in general so horrific. It is these same experiences that expose the darker side of mankind and the darker side of Willard – that same darkness he feels connects him to Kurtz.
Considering how the passage of time has treated Apocalypse Now, it’s hard to approach the film with an open mind. The movie is constantly on “Best of” lists, including best movies, best movie moments, and best lines from movies (who isn’t familiar with the “love the smell of napalm in the morning” or “the horror” lines?). Still, over time we often see how movies that impressed us once might disappoint us later on. Not so with Apocalypse Now. The movie that has impressed viewers for over twenty five years is just as poignant and topical today as it was when it was originally released in 1979 and (I suspect) it will be until mankind finds a way to eliminate war. Coppola doesn’t pull any punches with his picture, a film that depicts war as openly and honestly as possible. By creating such a realistic depiction of violence and how it affects the soldiers within, the movie almost becomes an anti-war film without even trying, which may be the best way to get that message across. There’s no need for liberal picketing or complaining. Just show the truth that, as Sherman said, “War is hell,” and let people make up their own mind about how they feel about it.
That same passage of time that has caused Apocalypse Now to rise to become one of the greatest films of all time has also treated the cast of the movie pretty well. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall headline the film, big names at the time the movie came out, but look at the supporting cast as well. Harrison Ford and Dennis Hopper both appear briefly, and an almost unrecognizable teenage Laurence Fishburne appears heavily throughout the movie. You simply can’t criticize a cast that has gone on to achieve such greatness beyond Apocalypse Now. You can only look at this film for the signs of what was to come for each of the cast members.
A review of Apocalypse Now at this point in time would be incomplete without a mention of Coppola’s 2001 revision of the movie. Due to budgetary issues, concerns of the movie being too surreal, and the need to put some product out there, the original 1979 version of Apocalypse Now was trimmed down from what Coppola originally had in mind for the movie. After reviewing the movie in the 1990s, Coppola decided the movie wasn’t anywhere near as surreal as he thought, and wondered what the reaction might be to the original film he had planned. The result: Apocalypse Now: Redux a fifty minute longer version of the film. Unlike Coppola’s good friend, George Lucas’s recent revisits to his own films, Redux doesn’t change the film as much as give the audience a bit more information. For the most part the additions are inconsequential, helping the story flow better and ease a few strange transitions between scenes with odd plots like a stolen surfboard. One large addition is included as Willard’s boat encounters a French plantation as they travel along the river. The scene didn’t appeal to me, but other than that I saw no real issues with Redux. To be fair, I didn’t have twenty years of familiarity with the movie however, so long term fans of Apocalypse Now may think differently.
Apocalypse Now has already seen several incarnations on DVD, both in its original and Redux formats, so what makes “The Complete Dossier” any different? Well, for one, for the first time you can watch either the original cut of the movie or the Redux version within the same edition. The DVD release even carries a nice feature for people like me who aren’t intimately familiar with the original cut, allowing you to watch the Redux version with a marker that appears on screen to inform the viewer what footage was new to Redux.
Stating what’s on the discs is getting a little ahead of myself however. I don’t usually make a point to draw attention to disc packaging, but in this case I’d like to make an exception. Titled “The Complete Dossier”, the outer sleeve of the DVD is themed appropriately, taking on the appearance of one of the dossiers Willard carries through the movie, complete with wax seal (don’t worry, it’s Velcro on so you don’t have to damage your package to get to your DVD). Inside the sleeve is the actual DVD case which contains some stunning images from the film along with dossier looking text to describe the disc contents. It’s a nicely themed package which definitely deserves some recognition.
The movie is divided between the two disc set, presumably to allow the disc to navigate the chapters for the desired version, skipping over Redux chapters if you’re only watching the original edition or including them if you’re watching Redux. The first half of the movie (Act I) is on disc one, with the second half (Act II) on disc two. Both discs include a decent amount of bonus features, from deleted scenes to behind-the-scenes documentaries.
The one major thing missing from this set is “Hearts of Darkness,” a documentary filmed by Coppela’s wife which does an amazing job of showing the toll making the movie took as Coppela faced his own decent into darkness. The documentary was included with the previous release of Redux but is sadly missing from this set, despite being referenced several times in Coppela’s commentary tracks and other parts of the disc. Instead, the major focus of the supplementary material of this release seems to be toward the audiovisual geeks. Apocalypse Now was a major accomplishment theatrically, with over a million feet of film to edit through and as one of the first movies to utilize Dolby 5.1 stereo sound. Most of the DVD featurettes focus on these subjects, appealing to the “A/V club” (as the DVD puts it) with explanations of the sound mix of the Ghost Helicopter opening, the music of the movie, and a reproduction of an article by Bob Moog on his synthesizer creation.
That’s not to say this release will only appeal to A/V geeks like me. There are smaller featurettes looking back at the movie through the casts eyes, an introduction to whichever version of the movie you’re watching and a new commentary track by Francis Ford Coppola that’s actually interesting to listen to (again unlike his good friend George Lucas), and the full length reading of “The Hollow Men” by Marlon Brando. Despite nearly an hour being added back to the movie, there are still a dozen “never before seen” deleted scenes that flesh out some of the characters even more. In other words, this is a huge DVD set, perfect for fans of the movie, audiovisual geek or no.
Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier proves itself to be one of the best DVD releases this year. It's an amazing release with some great supplementary information and an impressive theme for its packaging. Only the documentary “Hearts of Darkness” could be added in to make this set truly feel “complete” (although the original trailer for the movie might have been nice too). If you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, or have been holding out to see the Redux version, this is one of the better opportunities you’re going to get to see a classic movie on DVD.