"This is the end."
The end of me rebuying "Apocalypse Now," anyway, because finally, after at least three previous home video editions, they got it right.
This is not a film I watch lightly. When I watch "Apocalypse Now," it is with intent. I treat it like a psychoactive substance. My relationship with "Apocalypse Now" goes back at least 20 years, and it's one of those movies I point at as proof that there is magic involved in the making of films. There's no way all the various ingredients of "Apocalypse Now" should add up to the movie that exists, but there it is. Chaos and madness and blood and sickness and ego and hubris, all of it adding up to the uber high concept idea of Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness," told in an updated Vietnam setting, executed in such a way as to make a silly idea into harrowing, vibrant art.
When I worked at Dave's Video, the laserdisc store in Sherman Oaks, it was the early '90s, and a lot of the titles that are making their debut right now on Blu-ray were just rolling out on laserdisc. The "Aliens" box set, for example, which we'll get into next week when Fox drops that whole series onto Blu-ray. That was a huge deal at the time. And when "Apocalypse Now" was released, it was given the Rolls Royce treatment. Big giant double-disc set, and that CAV transfer was pretty much the end of the world back then.
At the time, I pretty much held the opinion of Vittorio Storaro to be sacred writ. He remains one of the great cinematographers of all time, a guy who worked in one of the most volatile periods of world cinema, carving some indelible images out of light and shadow and sharing some inns and unforgettable artistic experiences with some of the great writers and actors and directors of the era. A friend of mine named Garrett worked in the Paramount department that was responsible for home video transfers, and Garrett specifically worked in the laserdisc department, helping to pick and master the various titles that were coming out. One afternoon, while he was in the store and I was bugging him with questions about the various things he was working on, he started talking about how weird some of the requests coming in from Storaro and Coppola seemed to be.
Like what kind of weird, I asked him. "Well, they want us to transfer the movie at the wrong ratio," he said. Turns out, Coppola and/or Storaro (I never got a straight answer about who initiated it) decided that letterboxing a film for a full 2.35:1 ratio on home video didn't work, even on the biggest screens, but they didn't believe in pan-and-scan, either, so they came up with a middle-ground solution. They created a new ratio for home video, transferring this visual marvel at 2.20:1 instead of at the full anamorphic widescreen ratio. That meant there were a number of places where shots were essentially recomposed by Storaro and/or Coppola.
And at the time, I remember swallowing the party line and telling customers how the entire thing was supervised by the filmmakers so it's "official," and how they weren't missing anything, and even then, even as I coughed it up because Storaro and/or Coppola said it, I deep down thought it sounded stupid.
You may call me a crazy purist, but once a movie exists, I don't even want the original filmmakers screwing with it. Once the audience has a chance to form their attachments to the film, that should be it. Pencils down. Test over. Visually, in terms of content… whatever. When you release it, and we see it, and we react, that's the end. That version should always be available for the audience. Any other versions you want to do later should be encouraged, but as a matter of choice, not a mandatory replacement of the original. In terms of "Apocalypse Now," that choice to alter the visual record by reconfiguring the aspect ratio was just the first step in altering the film itself, and I'm no fan of the over-three-hour cut of the film known as "Apocalypse Now Redux." I think it's flabby and unfocused, and I think it diffuses the power of the original cut in almost every way. But having it available with the original on this disc? No problem. Now the choice is in the hands of the consumer.
And more importantly, for the very first time, "Apocalypse Now" is finally a 2.35:1 transfer. What you're seeing now is finally the full image that was created and released in 1979. I've seen the film theatrically about six or seven times, in 70MM most of those times, and this is the first time the film has ever looked at home as good as it did in the theater. Actually, to be fair, this is a far better "print" than what I've seen in 70MM, so I think this is the single finest visual representation of "Apocalypse Now" that I've ever seen.
And the sound? Oh, lord. Walter Murch had a run of absolute genius in the '70s, where he built these experimental soundscapes for a bunch of movies, and when you see them now, they are still some of the most intense, engrossing, adventurous sound design being done. Murch's work here has been remastered for lossless audio, and it is a spectacular reproduction of the theatrical 5.1 experience, with sounds constantly moving around you. From the very beginning, with the helicopters whizzing form speaker to another before The Doors wash it all away, it is one of the film films I could "watch" with my eyes closed. That's how vivid it all is, how clearly the sound communicates environment and emotion.
Storaro's work on the film is inspirational. He makes it feel like the TV is sweating from the very start, and his use of palette, the way color pops out of the frame, is almost jarring. I love Sheen's breakdown in the hotel room as he waits for an assignment, and I think it's one of the great breakdowns on film. It feels authentic, like Coppola was just poking this poor bastard, waiting for him to have a collapse, hoping to capture something real onscreen. Like much of the movie, there's a gorgeous stylized surreal quality to the work, but there's also a near-documentary approach to certain things. Coppola created reality, then dropped his crew into it, and the way those lines blur is part of the film's power.
In the scene where Sheen's Captain Willard is being recruited to go upriver and find Col. Walter E. Kurtz, there are three guys at the table. Yes, it's awesome to see a young skinny Harrison Ford there as a wormy military aid, but my favorite guy in the room is the Teller-looking guy who just sits silently, passing photos along, eating his lunch until the very end of the scene. In real life, that's Jerry Zeismer, who could safely be described as one of the greatest assistant directors in the business, a veteran who has an almost unreal resume. I love that they call him "Jerry" when they refer to him in the scene, and I love how effectively banal he is, and how creepy that seems. And he gets the scene's great punchline, the line that pushes Willard out the door and onto the river. He's not an actor, but thanks to that scene and his delivery of "Terminate… with extreme prejudice," he's a legend.
I've studied the laserdisc version of this film, the theatrical version, and the DVD versions, and I still find as I watch the film that there are new details, new things that draw my eye, and that the transfer here is somewhat revelatory in terms of composition and color. The transfer's so good that it reveals certain flaws in the negative, printing issues that they've left intact because that's just the way the print is. Not many, but enough to really respect how sharp 99.9% of the transfer is. When Willard's reading the Kurtz file on the boat, you can read the lettering "Winston" on his actual cigarette. It's razor-sharp. Not a hint of aliasing or digital noise that i spotted anywhere in the transfer. The flaws that are visible here are flaws that are simply built into the process of shooting film in the late '70s in the Philippines. Some of the focus is soft, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. That's just how it was shot. But the play of light in the film is dazzling, and when the film plunges into the almost impressionistic sequences of darkness, this is the first time they've ever managed to make everything both properly dark and still visible. The tiger scene? Perfect.
What I think works best about the 1979 cut is the pace. There's an energy, a relentless motion to the film, and the way Willard is drawn into his hunt for Kurtz, the way we as an audience learn about him, the way we move closer to him, moment by crazy moment. It's hard to pull off a film like this, moving from set piece to set piece, but it works here because each of the set pieces is so incredible. It's like the world's freakiest Disneyland ride, with each bend in the river revealing some new bit of insanity. As Willard and the team from the boat roll up on the 1st of the 9th, and as they move past the incredibly meta-moment of Coppola and a "news crew" trying to shoot some footage, there's this ominous feeling that builds and builds, leavened by these wildly dark laughs and images that appear more painted than recorded. Duvall's Col. Kilgore is a deserving break-out, because he owns the screen every single moment he's onscreen. i love his tendency to pontificate, and the way he's easily distracted, like a war zone Mr. Toad. And perhaps it's impossible for audiences just seeing it today for the first time to appreciate just how jaw-dropping the "Ride Of The Valkyries" attack was when first screened. Personally, I still think it's one of the great pieces of war movie staging, and I think a lot of people forget the context, that the only reason Kilgore even agrees to invade that village is so he can secure the beach for surfing. It's the same sort of horrifying funny that made Kubrick's films so great, and I don't think Coppola gets enough credit for the mordant wit that runs through the film. Yes, I know John Milius and Michael Herr and George Lucas all contributed to the script, and I know there's a lot of direct Joseph Conrad, too, but in the end, the authorial voice that is clearest in the film is Coppola's.
Is "Apocalypse Now" accurate to the experience of Vietnam? Not according to any veteran I've ever spoken to. But what it does get right is the way it feels to slide out of control, to lose your grip on your moral compass and your sanity. Captain Willard makes a choice to confront absolute darkness, in himself and in others, and the film earns the feeling that the last half-hour or so is truly the end of the world. There's the scent of real madness to much of what you see and hear, and Marlon Brando has a gravity that is impossible to fight. I think he's perfectly used, and I can't imagine what his work would have been like if he'd actually shown up in shape or with the script memorized. Again… the process that is detailed in the exceptional "Hearts Of Darkness" documentary by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, based on the footage originally shot by Eleanor Coppola, would suggest that there was no way there was a coherent movie in there, and that Brando pretty much hobbled an already-troubled film with his behavior. But that authentic fear and panic and lunacy and tension all seeps into the images we're watching, and each and every time I see "Apocalypse Now," I find myself at an absolute boil when it ends. It is a film that disturbs me on a molecular level, a bit of dark sorcery, and Lionsgate deserves credit for putting together the absolute last word on the film with this amazing three-disc set.
If you'd like a chance to win a copy of this Blu-ray, then you need to do a few things. First, I want you to tell me what your favorite war movie is (and why) BESIDES "Apocalypse Now" in an e-mail that you send to Drew@hitfix.com with the header "AN Blu-ray contest". Then I need you to also include your name, your mailing address, and the best e-mail to contact you at. Do that any time before 10:00 AM PST on Thursday, and five of you will be sent Blu-rays. You'll also see those five winning answers in Friday's Morning Read.
"Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure" is in stores today.
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