Apocalypse Now Blu-ray review
|REVIEWS - BLU-RAY REVIEWS|
Blu-ray does wonders for Coppola's Vietnam classic...
Was it not for his aversion to numerous varieties of poisonous bugs - and the thought of travelling to anywhere that might contain said creepy crawlies - George Lucas may never have created the Star Wars franchise that so many of us know and love; and the world as we have known it since 1977 may have been a very different place indeed. You see, George's friend and fellow film school student Francis Ford Coppola had earmarked him to direct an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, transplanted into the still raw setting of the Vietnam War by writer John Milius.
George, however, passed on the offer and instead went back to tinkering with his long gestating space opera, leaving Coppola to pick up the directorial reins on the movie that took top spot in Shadowlocked's Top 100 Movies Of The 1970s, the incomparable Apocalypse Now.
Ironically, had Coppola had his way, there's a good chance that you may never have seen the film on a big screen, if at all. Obsessed with delivering state of the art sound, and essentially birthing the enduring Dolby 5.1 standard in the process, Coppola's original plan was to build a single theatre in the geographical middle of America that could handle the ambitious sonics that he had in mind for the movie; and having it exclusively show Apocalypse Now for ten years.
Thankfully he didn't achieve this part of his dream, but he did effectively usher in a new era of cinema sound, though huge credit must be given to Walter Murch for his sound design, which is discussed in a brief extra included with this new release. This groundbreaking innovation is first witnessed in the opening minutes of the film as the (synthesised) whup-whup-whup of helicopter rotor blades glide impressively around your surround sound system as part of a dreamy sequence; before culminating in the napalming of a huge expanse of trees.
This opening sequence, set to the psychedelic strains of The Doors (an intentionally ironic statement by Coppola, to begin the movie with The End), is an effective harbinger for the entire movie. Though the plot - in which loose cannon Willard is given orders by a young Harrison Ford to take a boat trip deep into the Cambodian jungle to assassinate Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) - is very much the backbone of the movie, there are parallels with Peter Weir's classic Picnic At Hanging Rock in that the viewing experience is much like watching a dream within a dream.
Any fan of classic movies will be more than familiar with Coppola's masterpiece, but watching the many iconic scenes again on this new Blu Ray release feels like seeing them - truly seeing them - for the very first time. Every plume of smoke, every lick of flame, every tree, every leaf, every drop of water on the Colonel's shaved head - it's all so crystal clear.
Most iconic of these set pieces is the rousing sight and sound of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore's (a supremely Alpha Male Robert Duvall in perhaps his most famous, and Oscar nominated, performance) swarm of helicopters as they launch a dawn raid to effectively capture a prime surfing beach, to the stirring strains of Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries. This beautiful, emotive, destructive sequence was made for high definition and surround sound, and is the epitome of the chaos, bombast and machismo that defined much of the American involvement in the Vietnam war.
While the noise, the smoke and the explosions are all wonderful to experience, the quieter moments are equally important. From the long stretches of bonding between Willard and his crew - boat captain George Phillips (Albert Hall), highly strung Jay 'Chef' Hicks (Frederic Forrest), fresh faced Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms) and the impossible young Tyrone 'Mr Clean' Miller (a stunning performance by a fourteen year Laurence Fishburne, who had lied about his age to land the role) - to the shadowy interactions of Willard and Kurtz towards the film's conclusion, everything is a pleasure to witness.
Quite simply, just taking the film alone, the Apocalypse Now experience on Blu-ray is damn near perfect, whether in the form of the original 1979 cut or the longer 2001 Redux (both presented here with Coppola commentaries), but with this new three disc edition and its treasure trove of extras, there is a credible argument thatthis may well be the most essential Blu-ray disc that there ever is, ever was, and ever will be (though George Lucas and Peter Jackson's respective classics - Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings - will certainly challenge this).
Spread over not one, but two Blu-ray discs, there’s a veritable treasure trove of supplemental gems for the Apocalypse Now fan. The jewel in the crown, of course, is Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's incredible Hearts Of Darkness documentary (presented here with a commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola), which confirms many of the rumours and legends that have surrounded Coppola's movie over the years. A fascinating mixture of footage shot at the time and excerpts from Eleanor Coppola's journals (as well as her secretly recorded conversations with her husband), the feature highlights just how much the director's journey towards madness echoed that of Willard's throughout the year and a half spent on location (a slight overrun from the originally projected four months).
The documentary pulls no punches as Coppola, after exaggerated reports of Martin Sheen's death hit the media following his heart attack, declares that even if it were true, nobody reports his death until he says so, a statement largely driven by fear of financiers pulling out of the movie. Coppola also reveals that Brando was scheduled to be on set for three weeks, at the not inconsiderable cost of a million dollars a week, but turned up grossly out of shape and not having read Conrad's source material, leading the director to swiftly rethink the way he portrayed Kurtz on screen.
Peppered with a veritable smorgasbord of tasty tidbits about the movie, including the original casting of Harvey Keitel for Sheen's role, the use of actual cannibals as extras, the logistics of filming with a tiger, and an extremely candid look at Sheen's real life meltdown (which ironically foreshadowed his son Charlie's very public breakdown three decades later). In all, Hearts Of Darkness is an interesting and engaging movie as its feature film counterpart.
The other disc, too, is essential viewing, packed with many of the features found on the previous Complete Dossier DVD release from 2006, but also containing several well thought out new goodies. Such favourites included a one-on-one interview between Coppola and writer John Milius and a very comfortable and candid conversation between Coppola and Martin Sheen, shot in 2010 in the same room that Sheen recorded his iconic narration for the movie. In it, the two veterans discuss a fascinating array of subjects, including their thoughts and perceptions of the likes of Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, and Sheen's heart attack, for which Coppola apologises for his historic comments about the reporting of Sheen's death and also reveals that back when he was putting the film together, he honestly couldn't tell which scenes contained Sheen's younger brother Joe Estevez, who stood in for the actor while he was recuperating, and that he still can't even now.
A brief documentary on the birth of 5.1 sound with Ioan Allen from Dolby Labs offers an interesting history of sound design and insight into Coppola's original plans, all in the space of six minutes, and is the perfect accompaniment to another brace of short, sound related extras.
The remainder of the extras include Brando reciting TS Eliot's poem The Hollow Men, Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of Hearts Of Darkness, a handful of deleted scenes, a brief set of reflections from the PBR boat crew, the excised end credits footage of the Kurtz compound being destroyed after filming (as demanded by the Philippine authorities as a condition of shooting there, and cause of great confusion when it was originally included in the movie as to whether it was an alternative ending) and a 2001 interview from the Cannes Film Festival in which Roger Ebert gets Coppola to recount some great stories about Hopper and Brando.
In conclusion, this three disc Blu-ray release is everything that the Apocalypse Now fan could have wished for, and those of you who are familiar with the movie will need no convincing whatsoever that this is an absolutely essential addition to your collection. Equally, however, those of you who have never seen Apocalypse Now should bump this to the top of your must buy list, not only for the movie itself, but for the Hearts Of Darkness documentary which truly is of the 'you couldn't make this up' ilk; and a must for anyone interested in how a film of this genre is made.
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