Apocalypse Now Revisited

Francis Ford Coppola’s classic war movie gets re-released in a restored digital print at UK cinemas this week before a special edition Blu-ray release on June 13th.

Francis Ford Coppola’s classic war movie Apocalypse Now gets re-released in a restored digital print at UK cinemas this week before a special edition Blu-ray release on June 13th.

The new restored print is a reminder of this extraordinary 1979 film, which remains one the most ambitious productions ever attempted in Hollywood but also a lasting depiction of the insanity of warfare.

Set during the Vietnam War, it depicts the journey of a US special operations officer, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is sent to assassinate the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has established his own outpost in the jungle.

Willard joins the crew of a patrol boat (Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne and Frederic Forrest) and he meets various characters on his trip, including the surf-obsessed Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and a manic photographer (Dennis Hopper).

Evolving over a number of years, with a script by John Milius loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Coppola decided it would be his next project after the huge success of The Godfather films.

It was rare then – and even rarer now – for a filmmaker to use his personal finances to help bankroll a film but Coppola did just that and it is to his lasting credit as this is a film that major studios wouldn’t even think of making today.

The gruelling production is now the stuff of legend, as the arduous shoot in the Philippines involved the director replacing his original lead actor (Harvey Keitel), sets wrecked by typhoons, Martin Sheen having a heart attack and numerous delays to the production and eventual release date.

On its original release the film was met with somewhat muted acclaim after an unfinished cut screened at the Cannes Film Festival in April 1979, before its wider US release later that summer.

But over the years it has become one of the most acclaimed films of the 1970s and its achievement and cultural influence has proved to be more lasting than perhaps some at the time realised.

Part of the initial confusion was the different versions of the ending that Coppola put out on the initial release and the extended ‘Redux’ cut released in 2001 which added scenes shot but never used for the original.

This new, restored version is the original cut that deliberately omits opening titles and end credits, although the sound and visuals have been given a sparkling upgrade overseen by Coppola.

It was the first time I’d seen this version on the big screen and it was really quite something to see and hear with decent projection and sound.

I’ll post some thoughts soon on the forthcoming Blu-ray, but I’d highly recommend seeing this film in a cinema to appreciate not just a classic film, but one that set new technical standards for the industry.

There’s obviously been a lot written about Apocalypse Now, but here were my initial thoughts on seeing the latest release on the big screen:

  • This is definitely the best version I have ever seen: My first experience of Apocalypse Now was on TV in 1988 and although I didn’t fully understand the film then, it still struck me as haunting and captivating. Subsequent viewings on TV and video only whetted my appetite to see it on the big screen and this restored version not only captures the amazing visuals but especially emphasises the pioneering sound mix.
  • It is better the 2001 Redux version: Ever since seeing the Redux cut, I’ve had problems with that version, which adds 49 minutes of scenes including an extended sequence involving a French colonial family. Whilst interesting, the original cut which omitted them is better paced and more tightly constructed.
  • The incredible sound design by Walter Murch: It is difficult to actually stress how important the sound editing and design was to the film and how it proved to be a watershed for the wider film industry. Walter Murch and his team not only recreated the sounds of the jungle from scratch but took the design of sound on film to new levels, using a computerized mixing board, fusing sound elements with the score through synthesizers and giving birth to 5.1 surround sound.
  • The stunning visuals by Vitorrio Storraro: Coppola recruited the Italian cinematographer after seeing his work on Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and his astounding work on Apocalypse Now provides some of the most memorable cinema visuals of all time. Not only are sequences truly epic, but the use of colour and light is stunning.
  • The movement of the story: Although the original script went through rewrites and Coppola agonised over the ending of the film, the movement of the story makes a great deal of sense. Although long by modern standards (2h 27m), it neatly mimics the journey of Willard as we venture with him up river towards Kurtz and his destiny.
  • The Vietnam metaphor: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a great basis for a film about the US experience of Vietnam, but Coppola’s film itself has become an even better one. The madness and ambition of the production – at times breathtaking – mirrors the insanity of the war itself. Willard (the US) has to confront the dark side of himself (the industrial, military complex) as represented by Kurtz. We see the trauma of the troops adjusting (the opening), commanders trying to salvage a bad situation (the briefing), the might of US military power (Kilgore and the napalm attack on the village), the excess (the Playboy event for the troops), the murder (the boat massacre) and ultimately the confrontation (Willard meets and kills Kurtz) in which the US sees the darkness of itself.
  • The rejection of war movie clichés: Notice how the Vietcong aren’t really the enemy in the film (they are massively overpowered in the beach sequence) and it focuses on the journey of a man who is mostly an observer (a witness, essentially) of the US army as it passes him. Kurtz is a Frankenstein creation of the US army. They only want to kill him because he has gone off the reservation (his ‘missions’ are too good) and become something of an embarrassment.
  • The spiritual accuracy of the film: Some military advisors to films have criticised Apocalypse Now as containing fantastical inaccuracies in its depiction of US troops in Vietnam. Whilst certain elements have been exaggerated for effect, part of what made the war so shocking to the American public was that US troops did – at times – engage in bizarre behaviour which involved drug use, loud music and war crimes. Whilst sections of the film may not be literally accurate, they stand as a compelling reminder of the grand madness of the conflict and how it affected those involved.

The forthcoming Blu-ray is one of the most significant home video releases of the year, but in the meantime the cinema is the best place to catch one of the enduring classics of US cinema.

Apocalypse Now is being re-released by Optimum Releasing at selected UK cinemas from Friday 27th May

> Apocalypse Now at the IMDb, Wikipedia and MUBi
> Find a cinema near you showing the restored version via Google Movies UK