- Rated R
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All photos © Lionsgate
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
harging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” – Capt. Benjamin Williard
This notion can also be applied to the idea of reviewing “Apocalypse Now” 25 years after the original release. It’s a pointless endeavor, really, since the movie has already been deemed by nearly every critic as one of the greatest war films (if not the greatest war film) ever made. The critical success of “Apocalypse Now” is an even more impressive feat considering it was once believed impossible to make. Not even the illustrious Orson Welles could tackle such a monstrous undertaking, and so the task of adapting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” fell upon director Francis Ford Coppola. And much like many of the great war films to follow, “Apocalypse Now” is less about the actual Vietnam War and more about the social and political ramifications that came as a result of it.
Once a highly decorated military officer leading a promising career, Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has finally snapped and is now hiding away in Cambodia as the leader of a local tribe. In response, the military enlists Special Forces agent Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) to lead a top secret mission to assassinate the renegade officer. Making his journey through Vietnam on a Navy PT boat, Williard is joined by the boat’s operator (Albert Hall) and his crew of hapless soldiers – including professional surfer, Lance (Sam Bottoms), New Orleans cook, Chef (Frederic Forrest), and gun-toting teen, Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne) – as they track down the war hero.
The film takes an entertaining turn when the men join the company of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a bloodthirsty air cavalry commander with a love of surfing and (you guessed it) the “smell of napalm in the morning.” Acting as Willard’s escort over some of the nastier areas of the conflict, Kilgore treats his guests to a front-row pyrotechnic extravaganza when he leads an air raid over a small Vietnamese village. Scored to the orchestral melody, “Flight of the Valkyrie,” the scene not only stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of combining images with music, but it also single-handedly promoted the advent of 5.1 stereo sound in American cinema.
“Apocalypse Now” begins to fall apart after Duvall’s departure, with a sudden interest in evolving the atmosphere into one that heavily reflects Lance’s psychedelic drug trip. The weaknesses aren’t nearly as noticeable until Brando walks on screen, though. His performance as the whacked out Green Beret is pretty terrible, and it’s easy to see some truth behind the reports concerning Brando’s disregard for the project. Gaining 40 pounds and failing to read the script prior to shooting, the veteran actor doesn’t look nearly as lost as he probably was. The character of Kurtz comes off more like a sleepy-eyed beatnik than a military man gone mad, and though Dennis Hopper’s memorable performance as a drugged-out photojournalist helps to save the final act from total collapse, it’s hardly enough to make you forget that Brando was an overpaid prima donna who took advantage of his power within the industry however he pleased.
Still, “Apocalypse Now” delivers one of the best character studies in the history of the medium. Not that Willard is terribly complex, but it’s interesting to watch as he journeys from broken man to broken soldier, and from sympathetic comrade to an early form of savage that heavily parallels Kurtz’s own demise. The two men aren’t nearly as comparable by the end of the film as they are in the beginning, however, and though Willard exudes some of the same characteristics as the loony officer, he doesn’t choose the same path. Or does he? We don’t really know, since the film never actually addresses this question, but perhaps the answer can be found in the opening minutes of the film. Maybe this is all just the beginning of “The End,” or maybe it’s already over.
Full Disclosure Edition Review:
Even with popular movie franchises like “Back to the Future” and “Alien” making their way to Blu-ray for the holidays, it’s hard to imagine a more exhaustive box set than Lionsgate’s three-disc Full Disclosure Edition being released this year. Along with gorgeously restored prints of “Apocalypse Now” and “Apocalypse Now Redux” on Disc One, presented in 1080p in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios and new 5.1 DTS-HD audio tracks (not to mention a commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola), the third disc contains the excellent 1991 documentary, “Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” this time with Coppola providing commentary alongside his wife Eleanor.
There are also some exclusive storyboard and photo galleries to be found alongside the making-of doc, but Disc Two houses most of the bonus material, including all of the extras from the Complete Dossier DVD like the Marlon Brando reading of T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” 30 minutes of deleted scenes, and production featurettes ranging from editing (“A Million Feet of Film,” “Apocalypse Then and Now”), sound (“The Birth of 5.1 Sound,” “Heard Any Good Movies Lately?”), and “The Music of Apocalypse Now.” Of course, this being the film’s Blu-ray debut, the box set also boasts several new extras.
Francis Ford Coppola sits down with Martin Sheen for an hour-long discussion about the actor’s experience making the film, and moderates another with writer John Milius about the conception and evolution of the “Apocalypse Now” script. There’s also a short retrospective about the casting process with audition footage (including some of a young Nick Nolte) and a brief discussion about recasting Harvey Keitel with Sheen two weeks into filming, Coppola’s interview with Roger Ebert from the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the original 1938 Mercury Theater radio reading of “Heart of Darkness” by Orson Welles, and a 48-page booklet with never-before-seen archives from the set. It's all done so well that it might as well have been released under the Criterion banner.