It was Werner Herzog who first risked life, limb, and sanity in the name of creation on the production of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, where, equipped with a stolen camera, a borderline insane leading man, and a loose script, he created what may well be the ne plus ultra of cinematic fever dreams. The film purportedly chronicles the last days of a dwindling Spanish army lost on a great river while looking for the legendary city of El Dorado, and watching it is comparable to seeing the very fabric of existence come apart at the seams. Among the slim competition to Aguirre’s status is Francis Ford Coppola’s monolithic Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam-era reworking of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness, in which a group of soldiers travel upriver through the jungle on a classified mission. Although the setting of the river lends similarly frayed ends of sanity to both films, Apocalypse Now is very much its own beast, a wrenching spectacle of twisted humanity that functions less as a straightforward narrative than as a Rorschach blot test. A series of increasingly surrealistic set pieces probe the infinite depths of man’s primal spirit, and from early on the film draws you into a state of horrific stupor. Coppola had hoped that the film would show audiences the full moral dilemma of Vietnam, and in doing so, he uncannily followed in Herzog’s footsteps. In hindsight, it seems only necessary that the creative forces behind the film similarly endured such nightmarish circumstances, not only like Herzog, but like the American forces in Vietnam itself.
Had the originally intended director, George Lucas (yeah, think about that pebble of history for a minute), carried out the production, Apocalypse Now would have been shot on 16mm with a miniscule budget, but Coppola felt an epic Hollywood-style production was more befitting the material—and the environment needed for the performances he desired. An initial 13-million-dollar budget nearly tripled over the course of the legendarily disastrous production, which ultimately saw the Godfather auteur putting his own life savings on the line as Murphy’s law fought with him for control of the film almost every step of the way. Among the main obstacles: a lead actor (Harvey Keitel) needing replacement, a war interfering with the shoot, a lead actor (Martin Sheen) suffering a heart attack, a typhoon destroying the sets, and a lead actor (Marlon Brando) refusing cooperation for a third of his three-week, three-million-dollar stay on the set. And it was well into this quicksand that Coppola was still writing furiously, amending John Milius’s screenplay, trying to find an appropriate ending for his drug-addled vision of war as hell.
You might call Apocalypse Now an accidental masterpiece, but this manifestation of creative determination and hell-on-Earth experience just might also reinvigorate your belief that a greater power guides us at our most pivotal times. There’s little to reconcile between the two primary schools of appreciation—or lack thereof—on Coppola’s film: that it represents an ambitious work of great talent that nevertheless gets away from itself in the end, or that it is a cinema-redefining accomplishment that cunningly uses what are obviously troubled elements to subversive and ingenious ends. Nevertheless, even those critical of the chaotic final third seem in consensus that it is at least a very important work deserving of serious consideration. The release of Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001 further deepened the film’s self-reflexive mythology, that cut being intended to represent what the original film would have looked like without the necessary compromises in running time being made for distribution deals. If the original feels more purely strung out on sensory overload, Redux feels like the more complete of the two, complicating the primordial tenacity with politics, sex, and romance. The episodic nature is less apparent in Redux, the pacing surprisingly smoother as a result. Consider them two sides of the same shimmering coin.
Aguirre has Popol Vuh and Klaus Kinski to help dole out madness, but the Doors and an especially opaque Brando are at least their equals in Coppola’s dreamy creation. Few opening scenes are more iconic, and Apocalypse Now’s suggests less in the way of a man-made work of art than a naturally existing sculpture warped by the elements over time: synthesized helicopter blades and a black screen give way to palm trees, napalm, and the opening lyrics of “The End” in a montage that approximates the numbed, haunted existence of Captain Willard (Sheen), the soulful-eyed soldier who serves as audience surrogate. His mission—to terminate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando), a prodigious military talent who has gone renegade in Cambodia and risks embarrassing the official American presence in Vietnam—is rendered as a slow regression through time, from the exacting death of modern warfare to the sacrificial rituals of prehistory, all connected not by the politics and conflict of the time (which, like the politics of most any time, are bullshit) than by the timelessness of human violence and our tenuous relationship with life and death.
Apocalypse Now is many things, and at times seems to be about everything (a quality aided by the lack of credits before or after the movie proper; how better to suggest your film is the very ether of dreams?). But what stands out more than any singular element is its sheer accessibility, that this might be the most audience-friendly art-house film ever made, and that’s where the sheer majesty of Coppola’s daredevil balancing act comes into true focus. Coppola’s art is stripped of pretension; what lies on screen may as well be Coppola’s—and probably several other peoples’—heart, laid bare for all to see, somehow expressed through arguably the most populist of all mediums. It may be messy, but it’s also vivaciously alive. It burrows into the corners of your psyche you’d rather not acknowledge are there.
Hoping to bring out the masses in droves, Coppola glorified the lurid nature of his material while promoting the film (he was finally able to afford such indulgences in Redux), but the ultimate experience stems less on base entertainment (from the village air strike to the carnivalesque sequence at the Do Lung Bridge, the film is equal parts exuberant and terrifying) than it does the perpetually dawning realization of just how deeply hurt can spiral into the soul. Willard’s opening bender and an early monologue by Brando (concerning a snail) set the existentially ominous tone; few films are as frequently harrowing to watch, although there are occasional moments of levity (Sam Bottoms, as surfer soldier Lance, is hysterically distracted at the aforementioned bridge) amid the horror (Brando pontificates on the time he found a village’s worth of children’s’ arms cut off). Such raw moral insights (abstract and even vague at times, but what great art isn’t?) come at the cost of a traditional plotting and pat resolutions. So be it. In simplest terms, Apocalypse Now approximates—and is about—the feelings of a generation in turmoil, and of every generation forced to shoulder the petty demands of the elite, and as such might be the most potent cinematic time capsule ever conceived. It may just be the most ferocious of all American films.
I don’t want to overstate things here, but the only conceivable improvement on the quality of this set would be that found on an original 70mm print. The lush, color-coordinated palette is done exquisite justice here, although the print hasn’t been fine-combed for imperfections like you’d expect: The occasional speck is noticeable throughout, and there’s a scratch on the left side of the print at the 1:35 mark (1:53 when watching Redux) that I appreciated the hell out of (digital projection bores me; I like the blips). As for sound, what may be the most prodigiously mixed of modern American films has made for one of the most prodigiously rendered home-theater experiences these ears have ever encountered. The bridge-exploding finale of Kilgore’s massacre will test the threshold of your entertainment system, and then some.
A shitload. Disc one lets you watch the film with commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola on either version of the film (the Redux observations have been edited out for the original cut), a carryover from the Complete Dossier DVD release, and a damn good one. Disc two alone is host to 20 featurettes: a 50-minute conversation between screenwriter John Milius and Coppola (the high point: the director’s realization that Dr. Strangelove was a significant influence on his film); an hour-long conversation between Martin Sheen and Coppola (a joy); the November 6, 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness reading (worth a thousand geek-outs); the short film The Hollow Men; the "lost" Monkey Sampan scene (something between amazing and terrible; just because you can edit doesn’t mean you should, says Tom Servo); approximately 30 minutes of additional scenes, some intriguing, some downright embarrassing; footage of the Kurtz compound destruction with credits and commentary by Coppola; "The Birth of 5.1 Sound," in which Apocalypse Now is positioned as, ahem, the Godfather of modern movie sound; a 40-minute interview between Roger Ebert and Coppola at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival; interviews with the supporting cast; trailers for Tetro, The Doors, and the upcoming Blu-ray release of The Conversation, and finally, a total of seven additional featurettes on the sound design, music, editing, casting, and processesing of the film. Disc three includes the 1991 documentary feature Hearts of Darkness, shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor during shooting and as such is possibly the most intimate behind-the-scenes portraits available for any film (some find it more resonant than Apocalypse Now itself; its vitality is inarguable). Hearts of Darkness also features commentary by the Coppolas, recorded separately; that their viewpoints never totally align is telling (that’s right, even the special features have special features). Then there’s an excerpt from John Milius’s script with Coppola’s original notes. Rounding out this odyssey is a storyboard collection, and photo collection, and marketing archives (including the 1979 theatrical trailer, four 1979 radio spots, the 1979 theatrical program, and a ton of lobby card and press kit photos).
All that’s missing from this set is a ticket voucher for the film’s eventual IMAX re-release.