Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: John Miluis and Francis Ford Coppola (narration by Michael Herr)
Stars: Martin Sheen (Capt. Benjamin L. Willard), Marlon Brando (Col. Walter E. Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore), Frederic Forrest ("Chef" Jay Hicks), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Sam Bottoms (Lance B. Johnson), Laurence Fishburne (Tyrone Miller, "Mr. Clean"), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1979 / 2001
Country: U.S.
Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD
Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece about the madness of war, has always been a flawed epic. Few films can rival the grandiosity of its scale and thematic ambitions--perhaps only D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) surpasses it in sheer magnitude, visually and emotionally. It is one of the few films that reflects an inspired vision, even if that vision is clouded at times, eventually sinking into a form of chaos that mimics the film’s thematic concerns with insanity. Yet, that is where the film’s power resides--in the way its increasingly chaotic visual and narrative structures parallel the characters’ descent into madness. Many wrote off the confusing conclusion as a failure, but it is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement because it accepts the impossibility of providing an adequate conclusion to such a story.

Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, with which it shares many similar thematic concerns about the tensions between civilization and savagery and a metaphoric use of an upriver journey into the darkness of the jungle as a metaphor for a descent into the darkness of human violence. Coppola and cowriter John Milius move the narrative out of 19th-century Africa and into the quagmire of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. The ultimate destination of the journey is somewhere in Cambodia, where a decorated Green Beret officer named Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has apparently gone insane and marshaled an army of devoted followers who will take his every order without question.

Because Kurtz is operating with “unsound methods”--an ironic statement if ever there was one--the military sends Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on a secret mission to “terminate Kurtz’s command.” In other words, Willard is being sent to assassinate one of his fellow officers. Throughout the journey, Willard pages through Kurtz’s dossier, trying get a handle on him, trying to understand why, in all the madness surrounding them, the top brass would fear this particular man.

Clearly, madness is the film’s organizing principle. As a journey, its destination is a place of complete insanity, with Kurtz as a despot-philosopher ruling over a savage army. The final portion of the film at Kurtz’s compound turns it explicitly into a horror movie (a literalization of “The horror! The horror!”), with corpses, severed limbs, and disembodied heads scattered throughout the frame, constantly reminding us of death and desecration. Each step of Willard’s journey up the river is a step deeper into this chaos.

The irony, of course, is that his journey begins in the madness of the Vietnam War, which had an insanity all its own. Willard’s first contact is a deranged, gun-crazy lieutenant colonel named Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who thinks little of decimating a Vietnamese village because the beaches around it have waves ideal for surfing. The question becomes, then, why is Kurtz insane by military standards but Kilgore is not? Are the severed body parts adorning Kurtz’s compound any worse that the bodies mutilated by Kilgore’s aerial attack?

From there, Willard’s upriver journey grows increasingly surreal. At one point, he and his crew come across a USO performance in which Playboy bunnies strut their stuff on a stage to the increasingly uncontrollable enjoyment of hundreds of soldiers, showing that even in the most hellish conditions men can still obsess over sex. At another point, they reach the last U.S. military outpost in Vietnam to find a bridge being protected by a confused array of soldiers who have no idea who they are fighting or who is even in command (when Willard asks one soldier who his C.O. is, the soldier replies frantically, “Ain't you?”). Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (1900, The Last Emperor) take full advantage of the film’s dye-transfer Technicolor process to steadily increase its surrealistic qualities, so that by this point Willard appears to be wandering through a battlefield reimagined as some kind of bizarre, carnivalesque extravaganza. War itself has lost any identifiable meaning or goal and has become a parody of itself.

After that, there is only Kurtz’s compound, nestled deep into the furthest depths of the jungle inside a crumbling temple. Marlon Brando was widely ridiculed for his lumbering, mumbling performance as Kurtz--anticlimactic was the only word people could think of, and to some it still is. Bathed in inky black shadows, his shaved head glistening as his seemingly disembodied voice floats out of the darkness, rambling and often incoherent, he almost doesn’t seem worth the journey.

Yet, at the same time, his very ambiguity gives the film its greatest jolt for it clarifies the ultimate meaninglessness of Willard’s journey. Kurtz could not have possibly lived up to Willard’s expectations or ours because he is ultimately just a human being, even though he is raised to god-like status in the eyes of his deranged followers. That these final scenes are rambling and murky, filled with endless exposition and gaudy visual effects is the best way the film could end. It is, in fact, the very antithesis of anticlimactic because Willard truly finds the heart of darkness and it is not that far removed from where he started.

Twenty-two years after Apocalypse Now debuted in unfinished form at the Cannes Film Festival, where it ended up sharing the Palm d’Or with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, Coppola created a new, longer version titled Apocalypse Now Redux. Some 49 minutes longer, including two extended sequences and a handful of shorter bits that had been left on the cutting room floor back in 1979, Redux is a fascinating experience, even if it is ultimately a weaker film.

My assessment of Redux as a weaker film than the original cut is directly related to my view of the film’s overarching narrative structure, which is that of a descent into madness. Of the two major sequences re-edited back into the film for Redux, one adds to this structured descent into madness while the other detracts from it.

The first sequence involves Willard and his crew coming across a military outpost that has fallen into disarray. This is the first instance where we come across soldiers who have no idea who is in command, which will be paralleled later at the bridge in the heat of battle. The Playboy bunnies are staying at this particular camp because their helicopter has run out of fuel, and Willard trades two drums of gasoline for two hours of time with the bunnies.

The sequence itself is not particularly good, as it drags on with two of Willard’s crew, the would-be saucier Chef (Frederic Forrest) and the professional surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), in awkward sexual scenarios with two of the Playmates. It is a grimy, somewhat disturbing sequence, but it at least functions to continue the descent into chaos. It also offers an explanation for why Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne) is so trigger-happy in the following scene in which he inadvertently sets off the massacre of a boat-full of innocent Vietnamese: It turns out he was a virgin and was denied any time with the Playmates, thus his sexual frustration has mounted to the point of hysteria.

The second reinserted sequence occurs after the bridge scene, but before the crew reaches Kurtz’s compound in Cambodia. In it, Willard and his crew come across a plantation near the border of Cambodia that is still run by French colonists, despite the war that is raging all around them. The sequence is largely expository, as the French colonists rage about France’s various military and colonial failures and how their ability to maintain control of this piece of land is a form of nationalistic pride.

This sequence, which is quite lengthy, offers an interesting moment in which European colonialism in Southeast Asia is foregrounded in a way that it is not in any other part of the film (although it is often implied). But, in doing so, it brings the narrative momentum to a dead halt. If we view the narrative drive as moving toward madness and chaos, the detour in the French plantation is a step backward, especially as Willard and his men enjoy a civilized meal and Willard has a tastefully photographed sexual encounter with one of the women there. If anything, this sequence plays as a brief respite in the film’s otherwise headlong trajectory toward Kurtz’s compound and the ensuing narrative and visual chaos--the calm before the storm, perhaps. But, in the end, it simply weighs the film down at a point when it should be charging ahead, having built up so much narrative momentum over the previous two hours.

But, even if the reinserted footage ultimately weakens the film as a whole, Apocalypse Now Redux is still a powerful--often devastating--cinematic experience. The hair-raising tales of the film’s production--from typhoons destroying the sets, to Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack in the middle of production, to outrageous cost overruns, to Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos taking back the military equipment he had loaned to the production in order to fight rebels--are legendary. Yet, it may have been the hell of production that allowed Coppola to construct such an incredible film, one in which the chaos of making it translated into the chaos of what is happening on screen.

Apocalypse Now was received with mixed reviews when it debuted in 1979. Three years and $30 million in the making, there were tremendous expectations riding on it, especially because Francis Ford Coppola was the most successful producer/director of the decade. It is perhaps only in retrospect that we can fully appreciate the monumental achievement of this film, despite (or, better yet, because of) its flaws. That Coppola felt the need to return to it and try to improve it in some way says less about the original 1979 version than it does about Coppola’s ultimate dissatisfaction with the project that nearly killed him. More than two decades later, it is a nightmare that he has still not been able to put completely to rest, but whether he recognizes it or not, Apocalypse Now remains one of the great achievements of the American cinema, and no amount of tampering can change that.

Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.0:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Subtitles English, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola
  • Introduction to both films by Coppola
  • “Monkey Sampan” deleted scene
  • 12 additional deleted scenes
  • Technical FAQ
  • “The Hollow Men” featurette
  • “The Birth of 5.1 Sound” featurette
  • “Ghost Helicopter Flyover” featurette
  • “The Synthesizer Soundtrack” article by Bob Moog
  • “A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now” featurette
  • “The Music of Apocalypse Now” featurette
  • “‘Heard Any Good Movies Lately?’: The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now” featurette
  • “The Final Mix” featurette
  • “Apocalypse Then and Now” featurette
  • “PBR Streetgang” featurette
  • “The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now” featurette
  • Redux marker
  • DistributorParamount Home Video
    Release DateAugust 15, 2006

    This two-disc set contains both Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux. Each film is spread out over two discs, with the division point being right after the sampan massacre in both films. The discs include a “Redux Marker” option in which an on-screen icon can be made to appear during the footage that was added to create the Apocalypse Now Redux.

    Before assessing the image quality of the films, a few words need to be said about the aspect ratio. As with the other widescreen video releases of Apocalypse Now on both laser disc and DVD, the films on this DVD are not presented in their original theatrical aspect ratio. Shot with an anamorphic process, they were projected in theaters on 35mm film at roughly 2.40:1 (on 70mm it was roughly 2.21:1 because the six-track magnetic sound took up some of the image space). However, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has convinced Coppola to alter the original framing in order to get more resolution from the TV screen by transferring the movie at an aspect ratio of 2.0:1. Of course, with the growing presence of widescreen TVs and projectors, this is a more misguided argument than ever. Nevertheless, transferring the film at 2.0:1 was a conscious decision on Storaro’s part, and he has done it on other films, as well (including Coppola's Tucker). The bottom line is that Apocalypse Now on DVD is not the same as Apocalypse Now in a theater, which is evident in some compositions that seem unduly cramped on the sides.

    Now, having said all that, I must say that I was duly impressed with the quality of the anamorphic transfers of both films. The image is sharp and clean, with excellent detail. Apocalypse Now was one of the last films to use the old three-dye Technicolor process, and the intensity of the colors are maintained very well. Black levels are solid, and grain is kept to an absolute minimum, as are any artifacts, scratches, or dirt. So, with the exception of the aspect ratio dilemma, these are both excellent transfers.

    When Apocalypse Now was first released back in 1979, it boasted a revolutionary, state-of-the-art six-track soundtrack, and it still sounds impressive today. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, this is an enveloping soundtrack, right from the opening shot where we hear a helicopter move behind us from left to right before the speakers fill with the mesmerizing sounds of The Doors’ “The End.” All the famed action sequences, especially Colonel Kilgore’s helicopter attack, are aggressive in their use of imaging and directionality.

    Previous DVD releases of both Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux were essentially barebones. This was a significant disappointment, but Coppola has done quite a bit to rectify that with this two-disc Complete Dossier release, which boasts a significant range of supplements.

    Each film begins with a brief video introduction by Coppola. You can then listen to his feature-length screen-specific audio commentary on both films. Since the two films are roughly 75% the same, his commentary is virtually identical in those portions of the film. During the extended and re-added sequences in Redux, he discusses his thought processes behind adding them back in and how they affect the film as a whole. As on his commentaries for the Godfather films, Coppola is fascinating to listen to. He is clear, lucid, and extremely thoughtful in his comments, thus giving meaningful insight into these great films.

    This new set also includes almost half an hour of additional scenes that were left on the cutting room floor. Only one of them, the so-called “Monkey Sampan” scene, was taken from actual film elements, which is probably why it is included separately from the others in the menu. The other 12 scenes, which vary from 30 seconds to several minutes, were transferred from an old, worn video source (you can see the timecode in the lower righthand corner of the screen). They are presented in their proper widescreen aspect ratio, but they are faded and extremely low resolution. Anyone who has seen the bootlegged Apocalypse Now rough cut that circulates among DVD collectors will recognize these scenes, which include extended versions of the briefing scene and a long monologue by Dennis Hopper’s character. It’s too bad, though, that Coppola didn’t record commentary to explain why these were cut.

    A particularly intriguing supplement is “The Hollow Men” featurette, which runs about 17 minutes and includes Marlon Brando’s entire reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem, only portions of which made it into the final film (either version). It is a treat to see the entirety of Brando’s performance, plus it is set against footage of the production shot by Eleanor Coppola, which is some of the only true behind-the-scenes on-location footage contained on this disc.

    The rest of the two-disc set contains a number of informative featurettes, most of which focus on the film’s post-production, especially its revolutionary sound design. In “The Birth of 5.1 Sound,” Ioan Allen of Dolby Laboratories explains the history of motion picture sound and how Apocalypse Now essentially pioneered the six-track sound system that currently dominates both theatrical and DVD presentations. Other featurettes on the film’s sound include “Ghost Helicopter Flyover,” which is a brief, but in-depth look at the creation of the film’s memorable opening soundscape, “The Music of Apocalypse Now,” “‘Heard Any Good Movies Lately?’: The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now,” and “The Final Mix.” These featurettes include new interviews with Coppola and editor Walter Murch, along with several others involved in the music and sound design. Most intriguing is the behind-the-scenes footage of various meetings and sessions in the post-production facilities, including the recording of Martin Sheen’s voice-over narration.

    The title of the featurette “A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now” pretty much sums up the challenges faced by the film’s numerous editors, including Murch and supervising editor Richard Marks, both of whom contribute significantly. The use of the Technicolor dye transfer process for both films is too briefly recounted in “The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now” featurette. The “Apocalypse Then and Now” featurette is also an extremely brief bit in which Murch discusses recutting the film for Redux (it also includes a snippet from a press conference in which Roger Ebert interviewed Coppola at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival). The “PBR Streetgang” featurette includes interviews with Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and Laurence Fishburne during the 2001 release of Redux.

    Lastly, there is a “Technical FAQ” that addresses six common questions regarding Apocalypse Now: “Was the film shot in 70mm?,” “Why are the home video version of Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux in the 2.0:1 aspect ratio?,” “Was there a five and a half hour version?,” “Did Willard call in the air strike and were their multiple endings?,” “Why were there no end credits in the original theatrical prints of Apocalypse Now?,” and “Was Apocalypse Now Redux released with 70mm prints?”

    So, overall, this is a good range of supplements that address most of the pertinent technical aspects of the creation of both films. However, astute viewers will notice a decided lack of anything dealing with the film’s notoriously difficult location shooting in Thailand. Coppola references the superb 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which many hoped would some day be released on DVD either separately or as part of an Apocalypse Now special edition. Perhaps Coppola, who clearly had control over all the supplementary material, feels that the film’s troubles were covered well enough there and didn’t need to be rehashed. If that is the case, Hearts of Darkness, which has long been out of print and has never been available on DVD, needs to be released.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Video

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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