Apocalypse Now: Three Disc Blu-ray
Well here's a way, and this takes a big admission from me, I have never seen the film from beginning to end. Okay that's not strictly true, I have a long time ago as I remember, equally I don't remember being sober at the time, and since then I've kept seeing snippets and never the whole film, always thinking that I've already seen it.
With the new Blu-ray release and an epic three discs on offer, I felt like the time to revisit it had come, and boy am I glad I did. This is as much an epic as it ever was, and it has to be said that time has been a great friend to this film with some performances and the message seeming stronger and more relevant than ever before.
Willard's mission turns into a journey of self-discovery as much as it is a journey of understanding of both Kurtz and the war, and it's as much for us as it is for Willard.
There are two versions of the film on the first Blu-ray disc, the original 1979 theatrical release and the director's Redux version with scenes that were first cut now reinstated and other work carried out by the director. For the purposes of the review I'll be looking at the Redux version of the film however barring the mentioning of certain scenes which may not be in the theatrical version, the review below belongs to both versions of the film, and yes I did watch both versions for the review of the Blu-ray, as always.
Apocalypse Now has so many iconic moments, the first of which are the opening scenes themselves. The Captain looking to the ceiling fan, the helicopter sounds, the jungle, the theme and the napalm. It's no wonder it feels so recognisable and as though I've seen it a million times.
I do remember a couple of aspects of the film from when I originally saw it, one was how bizarre it all seemed and how over the top, another was the performance from Dennis Hopper which seemed just as intense and felt too much, and the last was the performance from Marlon Brando which felt a little difficult to reconcile with the rest of the film.
However what is interesting is that viewing it in its entirety today, none of these things seem true anymore. With time the hype behind the film and the criticism of it has faded and the reality of war is a lot closer to the general public. I've heard and read that this was the first real look at the Vietnam war in film and since then the war has been visited time and time again so nowadays it has much less impact.
Time has indeed been very good to Apocalypse Now and has actually distanced a lot of the troubles, doubts and controversies and allowed the film to mature, or for us to mature to the film.
Now I see the value in Hopper's performance, the allure of Martin Sheen's muted performance, and the captivating performance of Brando. Much more the entire film seems closer to reality than I remember, and I'm much more accepting of the craziness. There's next to nothing outside of the score, the obvious age of the actors and the Vietnam setting that makes this film feel dated.
It's a powerful story with so much to offer the viewer and for us to think about both during and after the film. The considered pace allows you to absorb some of these reflective moments, the moralistic and more spiritual aspects of the story, particularly of Willard and Kurtz. Of course there are sequences of complete and utter madness, the iconic helicopter attack for one, but amongst all that there is still time to absorb, consider and surf.
The more thoughtful side is helped along by the introspective and thought provoking monologue from the leading character. Willard's voiceover taking us through the events proves a very powerful tool and works perfectly with the film. So many films I've seen have a voiceover that feels forced and in the way of the story and the characters. Here it helps us connect to the main character and pull out some of his emotions and understandings of events when he, as are we, are often left as the observer.
It's fascinating to watch the Willard character take the same journey as Kurtz, seeing the madness around him, learning about the man he has been tasked to kill, and beginning to understand him. What I was so surprised at on this viewing is how well that idea comes through and how well I understood too, something I missed on my first ever viewing.
Apocalypse Now also shows us the madness of war and what it can do to people, apart from the obvious. It ranges from some powerful and engaging sequences of battle to some strange off-kilter scenes that bring you closer to the characters in the film and the men who would have fought in the war. The film pushes these messages through to you effortlessly and it's a wonderful film for it.
I love the scenes with Marlon Brando at the end of the film with the inspired decision never to show him fully in shot, something that appears from the extras to have actually been a necessity and not the initial choice of the director, but now seem a perfect artistic decision. For many of the outcomes of this film I'm reminded of a broken shark.
Brando has a quiet thundering command of the screen and you are totally focussed on him when he's slowly moving in and out of the light and delivering his Kurtz speeches, and you hang on his every word. It's not just Kurtz delivering his speech, its Brando delivering one of his most engaging performances.
Martin Sheen does a great job and carries his character through his reactions and his eyes more than any other part of his performance, there's never a lot for him to become excited about and show too much emotion over, but he delivers the strongest performance I've seen in such a character that almost totally relies on reaction, and come the end of the film he is the focus.
The film is littered with great performances, as I said before Dennis Hopper's performance is excellent and does match his character's state of mind. For everything that was written about him afterwards, and there was some criticism of his portrayal, with time his performance now seems amazing.
There is also the fantastic Robert Duvall who is both frightening and exciting as the leader of the First Cavalry, now mounted on helicopter gunships rather than horses. He leads some of the biggest sequences in the film and he does it with such stature and power, as well as providing one of the most recognisable film lines there are. His short speech about his character's war delivers so much commentary of the war and how soldiers see it, and his delivery is fantastic.
The film is long, theatrical or Redux, and it does feel that way. There were a few moments where I was faltering a little and the slow pace of a scene was pulling at me. This didn't ever last too long and as the scene picked up or we were moved to the next I was engaged again. It wasn't boredom with the film, more a desire for the pace to pick up a little and move on with the story. I was so engaged with Sheen's character and the journey up river that these moments never put a dent in the enjoyment or commitment in the rest of the film for me.
Not only is the story wonderfully written but so are the characters and most of their dialogue, and when you see some of the extras you do find it amazing that they managed to get to such scripts and filming with so much going on, especially with scripting being done overnight and filming on a moment's notice. What does bring it all together is the thoughtful and reflective voiceover from Sheen's character.
Apocalypse Now is beautifully shot, relying on some excellent cinematography and clever lighting in the later night time sequences. It contains some very complex and difficult feats of filming which manage to capture some epic and iconic moments on screen from the opening of the helicopters against the napalm, to the helicopter charge on the villages, right through to the journey's end at the smoke filled river and the darkness of Kurtz's compound.
As the film moves on, further down the river, there is a great feeling of descending into madness along with the main character. This is brought forth not just in the writing and the performances, but also in the visuals and the tone of the film. Willard himself is following the route of Kurtz both physically and psychologically, as are we, to the point where we pass through areas of surreal imagery and come out the other side in the darkness of Kurtz's world.
What more can I say that I, or any of the millions before me, have said already? The film is a masterpiece of film-making, delivering a film that excels in every aspect and where all the components are as strong as each other, from script to screen. Apocalypse Now is a fascinating film for many reasons, not least being the film itself.
The picture is nigh on flawless on the film and looks wonderful on Blu-ray and a bigger television, the detail pours through the scene and the crispness can be seen when the camera is often pulled into the faces of Sheen and Brando or showing a scene cram packed with background action and detail. It reproduces a range of colours very well, looking rich and bold in the jungle and when we are plunged into darkness the blacks are deep and rich and the clever use of lighting pulls detail out when required delivering a picture quality that is well deserving of being on Blu-ray. This isn't any quick re-mastering attempt you may have seen on other re-releases of films, you can see the work that went into recreating this for the re-release, and it looks even better on this latest Blu-ray release.
DTS HD Master Audio
This care and devotion is also true of the audio which embraces the home cinema audio system and brings you right into the middle of the film. Sounds have been isolated and move around the speakers with the action on screen from the large of the helicopters in the opening scene, to shots being fired and the sounds of the rain. The sound is fantastic and you can hear the effort put into isolating the individual components and rebuilding the audio for the home cinemas of today, or rather the previous 5.1 release. It's just as a fantastic experience as watching the re-mastered picture on Blu-ray from the quiet moments on the river to the helicopters arriving to battle to the epic sound of Wagner.
An Interview with John Milius; A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola; Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse; The Mercury Theatre on the Air: Hearts of Darkness - November 6, 1938; The Hollow Men; Monkey Sampan "Deleted Scene"; Additional Scenes; Kurtz Compound Destruction with Closing Credits; 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; Apocalypse Then and Now; The Final Mix; 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola; PBR Streetgang; The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now; Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse; John Milius Script Excerpt with Francis Ford Coppola Notes; Storyboard Collection; Photo Archive; Marketing Archive
An Interview with John Milius
Francis Ford Coppola interviews John Milius, the man who wrote the script for the film together with Coppola, discuss the script and the film and through it we hear as much about Milius as we do about Coppola. Milius talks a lot about the script and the story, as well as Coppola and the filming. It's a very interesting interview and Coppola steers Milius through key scenes and ideas in the film and how he came to develop them. It's fascinating hearing them both open up about it and look back, particularly Coppola, and be so honest about some of his own thoughts.
A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola
Again Coppola steers Sheen through some of their shared memories of the film and Sheen's recollections of playing the lead role in the film from the good to the life threatening. Again, like the previous extra, it's fascinating and insightful, and very open and frank from both actor and director. At times it's very charming to see the two of them discussing the film and even finding out new things about the film and each other. I was totally captivated by the two of them in conversation and they do remember some great moments about the happenings behind the scenes and between takes.
Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse
Fred Roos talks about how he and Coppola cast films, and in particular the cast tests they did for Apocalypse Now, looking at each of the key roles and the actors who eventually played them, as well as some of those that didn't, revealing some details about them and their roles. Along with this we see footage from the tests themselves and get a real feel for the process and why the actors were chosen. There are some more interesting facts revealed in this interview, especially about the actors who might have played Willard.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air: Hearts of Darkness - November 6, 1938
This is a unique recording of Orson Welles Mercury Theatre delivering a radio production of Hearts of Darkness. The audio quality may be terrible but the tension and atmosphere is fantastic from the short story that came as a big inspiration for the story of Apocalypse Now.
The Hollow Men
Marlon Brando reads while the soundtrack of the film plays over this edited montage of clips from behind the scenes filming at Kurtz's compound. This extra has some great atmosphere and footage.
Monkey Sampan "Deleted Scene"
A scene not used in the final cut of the film that shows the boat encountering a seemingly abandoned fishing vessel on the way up river.
Twelve scenes that never made it to this final cut but all provide something interesting to reflect on from the film. It's great that even here none of these scenes feel superfluous or just thrown in to add to a deleted scenes section.
Kurtz Compound Destruction with Closing Credits
Coppola explains the controversy behind the endings and the alleged multiple endings. This is the sequence of the Kurtz compound being destroyed. It turns out that they were obliged to remove the compound and just decided to blow it up and record it, here it's edited together but Coppola explains the reasoning for not using it and showing the ending we saw.
The Birth of 5.1 Sound
A discussion about how Dolby Digital 5.1 sound was used for the film and paved the way for the cinematic print of 5.1 audio, this being the first film to be released with a 5.1 track integrated into the film. For those who love the technicalities of film-making and audio, this does get rather interesting.
Ghost Helicopter Flyover
This is a short featurette with some of the key sound people talking about the opening sequence and how it came to be. It also contains some of the original sound design boards to show how the sound effects would move around the channels as well as a superb visual showing the audio moving around the speakers as you watch and listen to the film. This is another key piece for those interested in the audio side.
Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog
An article from 1980's Contemporary Keyboard magazine in which Bob Moog discusses the soundtrack of the film available for browsing on screen. It provides for an interesting read.
A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now
A look at the editing of the film with the people who worked on the edits, including Coppola, talking about their time on the production and the challenges involved. There are some fascinating facts about how much footage there was, and staggering to hear how much footage there was just for the helicopter scene itself. It also looks to the post production sessions adding the voice-over which provide some more fascinating behind the scenes moments of the lines being written as they record it.
The Music of Apocalypse Now
A behind the scenes look at how the music was created and scored for the film. It almost seems to be the most chaotic aspect of the film looking back on it. The percussion track seems amazing the way they did it. This featurette is an interesting piece that takes you behind the scenes, if only there was more.
Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now
Another interesting featurette that takes us behind the scenes to recorded sessions where discussions about the design of the sound were had, these are cut together with interviews of those involved looking back and talking about the design of the 5.1 tracks and the effects.
The Final Mix
A short featurette tells us about the final sound mix. Not as interesting as the shorts before it.
Apocalypse Then and Now
Coppola and Walter Murch talk all too briefly about the re-edit of the film and the comparisons to the editing process originally.
2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola
Roger Ebert interviews Francis Ford Coppola at the American Pavilion in Cannes where he talks about the first cut of the film, Marlon Brando, and the film as a whole. It's a very good interview with Coppola eager to talk about it.
The actors who played the characters in the boat talk about the film and their experiences making it. Another piece that's just way too short.
The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now
Another short piece that is actually rather interesting to hear as it talks about the way the new print was made for the film and there are some strong words about the comparisons of video to print.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
Interesting documentary which does at time get deeper into the heart of production than you'd expect from a featurette but is much more than anything you've seen before on a behind the scenes piece. This is more a short film about the production and the people behind it and it is inspired that it is narrated with and therefore compared with the voice of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre reading the Hearts of Darkness play. At times worrying and fascinating, and yet it feels incomplete and often only telling some of the surface story. However some of what it shows provides some of the highlights of the extras, like the scenes of Martin Sheen as he takes direction and plays his part all too real for the opening scenes.
John Milius Script Excerpt with Francis Ford Coppola Notes
This is a page by page walk through of a section of the script with notes from Milius and Coppola discussing various aspects of the story. Brilliant to read through, although make sure you have a big screen.
This provides a huge amount of storyboarding from the helicopter sequence. What's so great about this is that it auto plays so there's no need to keep hitting forward.
Two sections of photographs from behind the scenes, one of the Unit's own photography, and then some of Mary Ellen Mark's photographs from on set.
Trailers and radio adverts, lobby cards, press kit photos, posters, but the highlight is an electronic copy of the 1979 theatrical program given with some screenings. There are some excellent shots in amongst these.
Apocalypse Now, the film to the side for the moment, is a definitive Blu-ray box set and is a benchmark for any Blu-ray release for a film. If you want to know about a film this is the kind of Blu-ray release you want. Okay there are a few standard featurettes that you see in any feature, you know the ones taken from the marketing material, however the majority of the two discs of extras (and those are Blu-ray sized discs) are filled with decent to excellent featurettes and mid sized documentaries, not to mention Hearts of Darkness. This is how to do a Blu-ray release.
Then there's the re-mastered audio and video tracks, which come from the previous excellent work that was done on the film but have been tweaked and given their full potential on the Blu-ray, again, how to do a Blu-ray release.
The film itself has so much to offer and I think even more these days, time has actually allowed this film to mature or perhaps for the audience to mature to the film. The amazing performances from some superb actors and the epic scale and delivery of the film means Apocalypse Now is a classic which reaches near god-life status on Blu-ray.