Tuesday, October 19, 2010

APOCALYPSE NOW: FULL DISCLOSURE (Paramount/American Zoetrope 1979) Lionsgate/American Zoetrope Home Video

Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) is a movie that could never be today; in as much as its’ infamous and meticulously documented folly of director-driven obsession and near-death of its star, Martin Sheen (who suffered a heart attack) would be enough for any nervous studio exec to pull the plug and send everyone home for good. Two mitigating factors prevented the cancellation of Coppola’s shoot; the first, Coppola’s grand and devouring mania to will his vision into existence beyond all comprehension for his own self-preservation. Second, that the film was being funded by United Artists – a production house catering to independent film makers in an unobtrusive way, giving them full authority and autonomy to make whatever movies they so desired.
In the past UA’s good faith policy had been extremely well-placed, its lucrative alliances with such heavy hitters as Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Albert R. Broccoli marking an enviable win-win situation for all concerned. However, in the mid-1970s, such blind allegiances began to test the patience of all concerned – and more importantly, at least from UA’s perspective, strain their coffers to the point where it had begun to impact their ability to continue to do business as a viable alternative apart from the more stringent dictates of other corporate-owned studios. Add to the mix the 1978 departure of UA’s guiding force, Arthur B. Krim, with a mass exodus of UA’s top-flight talent who followed Krim to the creation of Orion Pictures after a particularly nasty split with its parent company, Transamerica. UA was left with a middling roster of executives who, fearful of making a misstep, ultimately brought about the ruination of the company by allowing its status quo ‘don’t ask, don’t interfere’ policy to endure and foster movies of quality that nevertheless were more costly than the company was ultimately capable of producing.  
Apocalypse Now is frequently cited as one of the most intense and genuine movies ever made about the Vietnam conflict; a moniker it justly deserves. But even before cameras began to roll, a snafu with film maker Carroll Ballard resulted in a lawsuit over the rights to produce it. In retrospect, it proved a very bad omen of things to come. With a script by Coppola and John Milius drawing its central themes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now remains an arguably honest, exceptionally bleak and very foreboding entertainment. But behind the scenes, Coppola encountered a journey more arduous and self-destructive than perhaps any put forth on film; one that threatened to destroy all of the cache he had built up as one of Hollywood’s premiere movers and shakers on his two previous Oscar-winning efforts for Paramount: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
Indeed, Marlon Brando - a Coppola favorite, (though not his first choice to play Kurtz) - was of no help to the director on his outing, arriving on set morbidly obese and flubbing his lines so often that Coppola was forced to patch together his performance in the editing room during post production. To minimize Brando's girth on set, Coppola shot another actor from behind in long shot and focused primarily on Brando's face; his body draped in black and often barely lit or emerging from the shadows. For years the character of Kurtz was thought to be based on Tony Poe; a Paramilitary officer with a morose thirsty for the more extreme brutalities of combat. Coppola however, has always suggested that the character was based on Col. Robert Rheault whose 1969 arrest over the murder of a double agent had garnered considerable press.
As production in Manila progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace, Coppola was faced with a natural disaster - a typhoon that decimated several large sets already constructed for the film. Six weeks behind and $2 million over budget, arguably Apocalypse Now's greatest impediment became Coppola himself. Unable to reconcile the footage already photographed with a screenplay that was forever changing in his mind, Coppola wrote and rewrote entire sequences, shooting to excess, only to excise much of it in his final cut. After principle photography wrapped, Coppola informed editor Walter Murch that he had a mere four months to assemble the sound elements for the film; an insurmountable task given that sound libraries in Hollywood back then contained virtually no convincing audio effects for mechanized weaponry used during the Vietnam War.
After cajoling UA to postpone the movie’s debut from May to October of 1978, Coppola was still not ready for a premiere by December of that year. In April 1979, Coppola elected to screen a three hour 'work print' of Apocalypse Now for audiences at Canne that proved a disaster, capped off by film critic, Rona Barrett's snap assessment, labeling the movie "a disappointing failure." Regrettably, this negative publicity would continue to dog Apocalypse Now to its official premiere in August of 1979. Despite an impressive $150 million as its worldwide gross, the pall from the experience of making - then remaking - Apocalypse Now had physically and emotionally exhausted Coppola and all but crippled his ability to procure future financing as an independent in Hollywood. Where only two years earlier Coppola had been the fair-haired heir apparent who could have written his own blank check and aspired to make any movie of his own heart’s desire, he had suddenly and spectacularly fallen into the category of the industry’s red-headed stepchild; an opinion and a stigma that continued to linger and was all but cemented in perpetuity with 1982’s cataclysmic failure of One From the Heart.  On Oscar night, Apocalypse Now won only two statuettes, each in relatively minor categories for sound editing.
Arguably, Apocalypse Now was the wrong movie for its time; the Vietnam conflict having ended a mere four short years before the movie’s debut – a grace period in which the ruinous and ongoing psychological consequences of returning soldiers, virtually ignored for their contributions abroad and worse, publicly spat on their own native soil as perceived war mongers and baby-killers (when, in fact, most had honorably served their country with valor, justice and pride under the most onerous of wartime conditions); these truths remained a travesty obfuscated by the hippie counterculture, and something of an embarrassment to the United States government who could in no way delineate a clear-cut victory from all the shell-shock and disbelief overshadowing the South East Asian conflict. But these were precisely the realities that Coppola sought to bring forth from the national blind-sighted obscurity with an even more frank and unvarnished spectacle meant to humanize the inhumanity of it all.
Arguably, Apocalypse Now played more like a bucket of salt poured into this still very raw and gaping wound; the pall of its own lengthy and extremely difficult incubation leading the critical charge and backlash from the critics. Further still, perhaps America was not ready to face the realities of war or simply felt they had been brutalized enough in their popular entertainments with the release of Michael Cinimo’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (both released in 1978).  Whatever the reason, Coppola’s movie became one of the scapegoats for putting a period to the era of director-driven ‘auteur’ movie making; the final stake being driven into its heart by Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). However, as is often the case, time does very strange things to cinema art, and Apocalypse Now is today regarded as perhaps the pluperfect representation of the Vietnam War, its fictionalized narrative somehow revealing far more impactful and lasting truths than either of its aforementioned competitors. Viewed today, Coppola’s movie is indeed a startling artistic achievement with arguably no competitor then or now to match its oppressively genuine vision.
Coppola’s self-destructiveness, his becoming absorbed into the project to the point of almost losing his way and, in fact, his sanity, has yielded to a shockingly real masterwork that burrows deep and upsettingly into our collective consciousness. The iconography of imminent doom seems utterly void of melodrama; the behind-the-scenes chaos somehow permeating the verisimilitude in ways unattainable through art for art’s sake alone. In effect, Coppola, Sheen and the rest of the cast and crew have gone through their own trial by fire, the ravages endured leaving behind indelible and permanent marks on the chemical makeup of their characters and, in fact, the movie itself.    
Plot wise: in 1969, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), an emotionally barren, psychologically scarred Vietnam vet, is hired by Lt. General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) to make journey on the Nung River in Cambodia in search of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated Special Forces operative feared to have gone rogue. It is an assassin's pilgrimage, fraught with danger on all sides and the very real possibility that Willard will not survive his ordeal. Willard is informed that Kurtz is insane and is currently in command of a legion of troops who have also become psychologically unhinged and now follow only his commands with implicit abandonment. These claims are supported by disturbing radio broadcasts made by Kurtz himself. Aboard the Navy patrol boat Riverine with Commander George Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Tyrone Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Willard rendezvous with an Air Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall).
At the mouth of the river Willard, Kilgore and his troops are feebly ambushed by the Viet Cong and shortly thereafter decimated. In the resulting carnage and decimation of a nearby village, Kilgore utters the film's most oft quoted line; "I love the smell of napalm in the morning... Smells like, victory" as he recalls an earlier battle. From here, the Riverine navigates increasingly more treacherous waters with Willard's own silent obsession to apprehend Kurtz growing ominous and self-destructive. The Riverine encounters a sampan in their midst, the crew – having been frazzled to the point of nervous breakdowns - blindly opening fire and slaughtering all on board only to reveal the vessel as civilian. Discovering that one of the wounded - a young girl - is still alive, Hicks demands that she be taken immediately for medical attention, whereupon Willard quietly shoots the girl dead; thereby alienating himself from the rest of his men; in effect Coppola drawing a parallel between Willard’s own psychological implosion and that of the mysterious Kurtz whom we have yet to discover but will shortly meet.
Further upstream, the Riverine encounters utter chaos at the Do Long Bridge, the last U.S. outpost on the river. A North Vietnamese attack has left the remaining U.S. troops stationed there without leadership. Willard learns that an Army Captain was sent earlier to find Kurtz but has since vanished without a trace. Meanwhile, aboard the Riverine, Lance pops open a purple smoke grenade that attracts enemy fire. In the resulting chaos, several of Willard's men are killed and Phillips, wounded by a spear through his chest, attempts to murder Willard by drawing him onto its protruding tip. Willard confides the real purpose of his journey to Lance and Hicks and the three men agree to see the mission through. As they draw closer to Kurtz's compound even they are shocked by the sight of a coastline strewn in butchered bodies. Willard orders Hicks to launch an airstrike if he and Lance do not return, but only a bit into the forest Willard and Lance are met by a manic photographer (Dennis Hopper) who attempts to explain Kurtz's greatness; a stark assumption irreconcilable with the many bodies and dismembered heads encountered along the road to a nearby Buddhist temple where Kurtz currently resides.
Bound and brought before Kurtz, Willard is given a crash philosophical take on the war in a hauntingly bloodless, bone-chillingly effective monotone monologue that culminates with Hicks' murder aboard the Riverine; his severed head dropped into Willard's lap by Kurtz. Sometime later, a weary villager frees Willard from his restraints and gives him a machete. Entering Kurtz's chamber, Willard slaughters his captor before dropping the weapon at his feet. The villagers allow Lance and Willard to leave the stronghold; the pair sailing into a very uncertain future.
Viewed today, Apocalypse Now remains a very sobering entertainment; dark and evocative of Conrad's novel while infusing the basic story with deeper, and then more timely meaning, that in retrospect continues to ring with ominous truth. In 2001, Coppola released a 'redux' version of his masterwork into theaters and then on home video, incorporating an additional 49 minutes. Back in 1979, UA had balked at the already lengthy run time, forcing Coppola to make further trims to Apocalypse Now’s general release. Now, the film has been reassembled once more, with Coppola tweaking the footage a little further still.  
American Zoetrope/Lionsgate Home Entertainment have joined forces to bring both versions of Apocalypse Now:The Full Disclosure Edition on Blu-Ray with breathtaking results. The packaging leaves something to be desired. For starters, my own copy did not come with the much touted 48 page booklet. Also, the disc clearly marked as 'special features' actually houses both versions of the movie, the disc marked as the movies, actually the special features. Just sloppy!  Clearly, someone was not on the ball during the final stages of prep on this box set.
Now, for the pluses: first - both versions of Apocalypse Now have been given a full 1080p ground-up video remastering with stunning clarity achieved throughout. The image is subtly textured, with more natural and very vibrant colors. Fine detail takes a quantum leap into the future, head and shoulders above and beyond the old Paramount Home Video release from 2002. Film grain – always problematically rendered on DVD, now appears quite indigenous to the source, contrast perfectly pitched with deep velvety blacks that compliment Vittorio Storaro’s evocative and lush cinematography.  The DTS 5.1 audio will really give your speakers some exercise, particularly the bass and subwoofer. Hold on to your chairs; the floor beneath them is about to movie with very intense vibrations.
There are over 9 hours of extras – too plentiful to delve into herein with any degree of accuracy. Included: an informative audio commentary by Coppola, the 1938 audio recording of Orson Welles reading Conrad's novel for radio, new and exclusively produced conversations with Coppola, Martin Sheen and John Milius, as well as the original full documentary 'Heart of Darkness' detailing the film's immensely troubled production. Bottom line: Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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