Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is released on Blu-ray this week in a comprehensive three disc set. This extensive collection is a definite must-own for any Apocalypse Now fan and could quite possibly prove to be one of the landmark Blu-Ray releases to date. Disc one includes both the original theatrical cut of the film as well as the 2001 Redux release. Disc two is packed with special features including deleted scenes, interviews and making-of documentaries. Disc three contains Eleanor Coppola’s legendary documentary Heart of Darkness and a host of storyboards and photographs. In total there are over 9 hours of bonus footage and even an additional 48 page collector’s booklet thrown in to boot.
The film itself looks better than ever with its Blu-Ray transfer rendering scenes such as the helicopter assault and the arrival at Kurtz’s jungle stronghold crisper and more vivid than ever before. Watching Apocalypse Now has always been a fairly immersive experience with the ominous tone and atmospheric soundtrack luring you in and shutting you off from the outside world. Now in superb high definition and with crystal clear sound, that experience is only heightened.
I imagine most cinephiles are familiar with the film’s finer plot points, but for the un-ititated here’s a brief synopsis.
In war ravaged Vietnam, American Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a dangerous top-secret mission into deepest, darkest Cambodia. He is under orders to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) a rogue Green Beret who has formed his own guerrilla army in a remote outpost of the jungle. Willard undertakes the perilous journey into the heart of the jungle to eliminate Kurtz (with extreme prejudice of course) and along the way the sights he witnesses force him to question the logic of war itself and address his own heat of darkness.
Willard is accompanied on his journey by a motley crew of soldiers who share his descent into the murky depths of the jungle and prove a lot less resistant to the psychological pressures that they encounter. Former pro-surfer Lance turns to drugs and spends a lot of the movie high as a kite, a state which actor Sam Bottoms had no trouble replicating thanks to his own medicinal commitment to the role. Then there is reluctant soldier ‘Chef’ who slowly sees his nerves torn to shreds thanks in no small part to a traumatic run in with a tiger. Larry Fishburne’s ‘Clean’ and Albert Hall’s ‘Chief’ make up the rest of the crew and as they get further and further down river, the mood on the boat, as well as the tone of the film itself gets much darker and much more perilous.
The film’s portrayal of the anarchic, almost lawless, nature of the Vietnam War is one of the major factors in making it stand out upon release. When the crew arrive at a remote outpost in the dead of night and in the middle of a blistering gun fight over control of a rickety wooden bridge, they are greeted by the sight of desperate soldiers begging the crew to take them onboard. When Willard goes ashore amidst a barrage of explosions and shell-shocked soldiers, the terrifying nature of the war is really hammered home. Apocalypse captures the insanity that can engulf men at war like no other film had done before it. Whereas most Vietnam films up to this point had shied away from the darker elements of the conflict, Coppola’s film was centred around it and pulled no punches. In the tradition of All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths Of Glory, it was a scathing critique of war itself.
The Redux version was released in 2001 and is in effect a director’s cut which saw the director go back and add in additional scenes he was forced to cut from the initial release. These include a further encounter between the soldiers and the Playboy Bunnies, Willard stealing the enigmatic Colonel Kilgore’s surfboard and an extended sequence on a French plantation which turns the film’s focus on Vietnam’s colonial past. Little of the additional scenes add anything truly vital, but it does noticeably increase the gruelling length of the soldiers’ journey and help to emphasise the surreal nature of the mission they are embarking upon.
The behind the scenes stories from the filming of Apocalypse are already the stuff of legend. There’s the hugely inflated costs and shooting times, typhoon’s and hurricane’s destroying the set, Sheen’s near-fatal heart attack, the troops promised by the Philippine government for extras being instead sent off to war and of then of course there’s Brando’s particularly difficult nature and ample stature. The presence here of the landmark documentary Heart of Darkness therefore serves as a perfect companion piece to the film itself. Shot as an almost prototype behind-the-scenes diary of the film’s troubled production and helmed by the director’s wife Eleanor, this documentary shows in no uncertain terms the emotional and psychological toll the making of the film took on Francis Ford Coppola and his crew. This valuable insight into the extreme nature of the shoot only helps to heighten the experience of watching the film as when you then re-watch the movie itself, you have an even greater appreciation of the perilous lengths the cast and crew were subjected to in making the film.
The wide array of bonus materials is an absolute treasure trove for any Apocalypse buff. There are two in-depth but extremely informative discussions, first between Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen and then the director and the film’s principle writer, John Milius. Also present is one well preserved deleted scene involving a monkey laden boat (really) as well as a number of extremely grainy but nevertheless intriguing other cut scenes. There are then various vignettes and mini-doc’s covering areas like the film’s colour pallet and complex editing process (the section’s title ‘a million feet of film’ gives a good indicator of the enormity of the task). There are also several sections looking at the film’s sound covering both the sound design in general and its memorable soundtrack. It may all prove a little dense for some, but for any fan of the film or even just of war films in general, these bonus materials are extremely enlightening additions.
Overall it’s a superb package and a worthy addition to any burgeoning Blu-Ray collection.
A newly restored digital print of Apocalypse Now hits cinema screens 27th May and is released on Blu-Ray 13th June.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Runtime: 153 min