Features and Columns · Movies

Disc Spotlight: Apocalypse Now — Full Disclosure Edition

By  · Published on November 5th, 2010

I believe it was Robinson Crusoe who once said “Fess up, Friday” after discovering a urine puddle on his straw shack’s linoleum floor. As revolutionary as that statement was almost three hundred years ago, it took a young man by the name of William B. Goss to bring it into the digital age. Thanks to his initiative, #fessupfriday is the most-used hashtag in Twitter’s four decades of existence. There are certain movies that every cinephile should have seen, but only the brave foolhardy movie lovers immune to ridicule actually admit to the acknowledged classics that have so far eluded them.

Which brings me to Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam adventure, Apocalypse Now. #fessupfriday

The Movie:

Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is well on his way to a slow death by way of alcohol-fueled depression when he’s saved by two soldiers knocking on his door. It seems his special ops background is needed for a mission deep in the Cambodian jungle. He’s been tasked with finding a rogue soldier named Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando)… and then terminating him “with extreme prejudice.” Willard’s mission is no simple assassination though as the jungle and the war that fills it have a strange way of driving men insane. The madness has already claimed Kurtz, and while Willard seems close on his heels the true source and scope of the insanity reaches far beyond these two. The war itself is an asylum, and many of the men in command and on the ground are mad as Ho Chi Minh hatters. Now who’s up for a surf…

The beautiful collision of masterful visuals and sounds begins almost immediately with a static shot of the jungle interrupted by the rhythmic blade turns of a small helicopter. It crosses the screen and dust swirls to reveal a line of trees exploding in a fiery introduction to this hell on Earth. As Willard and his motley crew head upriver towards Kurtz’s compound their journey is revealed to be a descent into a nightmarish reality that mixes death and absurdity in equal measure. In one of the film’s best known sequences, Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is introduced during an immense air assault on a Vietnamese village set to the bombastic strings of Wagner’s “Rise of the Valkyries” booming from loud speakers attached to the choppers. Attack over, Kilgore walks the bloodied landscape offering his own canteen to a dying VietCong… until he’s told one of Willard’s group is a famous surfer back in the States. He rips the canteen away mid-sip and heads off excitedly to surf with the champion.

The entire film plays like dark hallucination thanks in part to the pitch-perfect performances, but just as relevant are the visuals and sounds that make up this nightmarish world. From the simple but evocative score mixing odd instrumental with classic songs of the era to sound cues that give voice to the jungle and machinery of death, the film’s audio provides a completely atmospheric experience. Visually speaking, Coppola finds and frames some of the best-looking scenes of his career. The chopper assault, the languid journey upriver occasionally interrupted by bursts of violence, and the entire final act in Kurtz’s camp are all visually dazzling set pieces.

Actor-wise the film is filled with recognizable and talented faces even in the smaller roles including Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, and a very young fourteen year old named Laurence Fishburne. Sheen has rarely been better than he is here in a performance that’s both raw and focused. His introduction is several dialogue-free minutes in a hotel room where his face alternates between anguish, despair, and defeat. Duvall shines as a dichotomy of precise military action and surreal interest, and the role coincides with a similar but unrelated Lt. Col. he would play that same year in The Great Santini. Brando is Brando, and while he has little to do here besides recite poetry the role would have been far less effective with any other actor. Dennis Hopper appears towards the end and gets in some Hopperisms as a photojournalist who’s fallen under Kurtz’s spell alongside hundreds of the locals.

There’s very little that can be added to the three decade-long discussion on this film. It’s won major film awards from Cannes to the Oscars, it’s consistently ranked in the top fifty films on both IMDB and AFI lists, and it’s often referred to in no uncertain terms as one of the greatest films of all time. It truly is a fantastic and fully realized journey into madness shown on both an intimate scale with Willard and the others as well as a much larger one. War is hell, and few films capture the experience as well as this one. The universal praise is endless and for the most part accurate. For the most part.

For all the film’s strengths, of which there are obviously many, it fails to satisfy in regard to the depth of its characters. Make no mistake, the characters here are fascinating and eminently watchable due to their presence and presentation. The main problem is that the viewer’s onscreen guide, Willard, starts and ends the film in pretty much the exact same state… crazy and disillusioned. Sure he’s accomplished a task, but the man is no better or worse off in the end than he was in the beginning. There’s no growth or real change and therefore no attachment to the man whose care we’ve been entrusted to. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue in a lesser film, but the overall greatness onscreen here makes the absence of real character stand out that much more.

That said, Apocalypse Now is still one hell of a film.

The Blu-ray:

While the film itself is a mostly positive mixed bag (for me and me alone apparently), there’s no such ambivalence towards Lionsgate’s presentation and packaging on this new Full Disclosure edition. The sturdy outer sleeve holds two items. The first is a thick digi-pack containing three Blu-ray discs, and the second is a full color booklet featuring an intro from Coppola, script pages, notes, artwork, memos from the set, and more.

Disc one holds newly remastered transfers of both the original 1979 version and the longer Apocalypse Now Redux cut from 2001 with both films being presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the first time. The image would be a thing of stunning beauty for a new film let alone for a movie that’s over thirty years old. The transfer was supervised by Coppola, and while the image is sharp with deep blacks and bright colors that fill the screen with a distinct clarity they’ve still managed to retain some of the original grain. Both cuts also both share a commentary from Coppola. Disc two is loaded with extras (listed below) including several recycled from previous DVD releases. New to this Blu-ray edition are video interviews with Coppola, Sheen, and writer John Milius, and a featurette on the film’s casting. Disc three features an HD transfer of the excellent making-of film, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. It begins as a traditional behind the scenes peek but soon descends into a litany of on-set disasters, troubles, and minor madness. Home movies taken by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, add to the personal and intense nature of the doc. The disc also includes script selections with notes from Coppola, storyboards, photos, and marketing materials.

The extensive special features on the second disc include:

Bottom Line:

If you’re a fan of Apocalypse Now, and anecdotal polling has told me you indeed are, then this new three disc edition should be an automatic buy. Both cuts of the film are remastered in strikingly beautiful hi-definition, and the compilation of extras is unbeatable. Hearts of Darkness is probably the best “making-of” documentary ever put to film, and the myriad other extras all offer fascinating insight into the film’s history, production, and reception. If you have a Blu-ray player… buy this release.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.