Apocalypse Now in 4K? After The Wild Bunch this is one title likely to get me to invest in a new format. Francis Coppola & John Milius’ Vietnam War epic may not be perfect, but it’s one of the most exciting movie experiences ever and one of the top achievements of the first film school generation of moviemakers. The release is agreeably all-inclusive: the original Road Show cut and the two revised versions are here along with the excellent making-of feature Hearts of Darkness. Re-tooled and polished up for picture and audio, this qualifies as a prime audio show-off disc too.
Apocalypse Now Final Cut
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital
1979, 2001, 2019 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 147, 196, 183 min. / 40th Anniversary Edition / 1979 70mm Road Show cut, 2001 Redux cut, 2019 Final Cut versions / Street Date August 27, 2019 /
Starring: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Jerry Ziesmer, Scott Glenn, Bo Byers, James Keane, Kerry Rossall, Cynthia Wood, Colleen Camp, Linda Carpenter, Father Elias, Bill Graham, (Christian Marquand, Aurore Clément, Michel Pitton), R. Lee Ermey.
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editors: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Walter Murch, Richard Marks
Sound Montage and Design: Walter Murch
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction: Angelo Graham
Special Effects: A.D. Flowers, Joseph Lombardi
Stunt coordinator: Terry Leonard
Assistant Director: Jerry Ziesmer
Original Music: Carmine Coppola, Francis Coppola
Written by John Milius and Francis Coppola, narration by Michael Herr
Produced by Francis Coppola, Gray Frederickson, Fred Roos, Tom Sternberg
Directed by Francis Coppola
They might have thought to install seat belts in the first 20 rows of the Cinerama Dome when Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now came to town. It was an overwhelming audiovisual experience, a cinematic onslaught in a New-Wavish package. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey had audiences exited in such a fine confusion: what were those last thirty minutes all about, with Marlon Brando lolling like a musk ox and mumbling to himself?
Was Vietnam really like that? The movie cued heated arguments, perhaps because no two veterans had the same experience. My brother-in-law was a Marine working with exotic landing craft. A CE3K co-worker declined to offer details because too much of what he experienced was ‘crazy.’ A family friend spent his ‘in country’ tour as a warehouse slug and often had to sleep on packing crates. An editing partner joined the National Guard, and trained in the desert every few weekends. I personally was the perfect age for conscription, but a high birthdate number in the 1972 draft lottery saved my student-deferment hide.
Apocalypse is certainly not the movie to see for a documentary picture of the war. Yet its insane excess doesn’t feel like a lie. The epic film is a realistic fantasy, a stylized attempt to express a ‘poetic truth’ about an ugly war, and wars in general. Francis Coppola had experience writing big war movies starting with Is Paris Burning? in 1966. His screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton presented the controversial General as both a patriotic warrior-genius and a reckless military fanatic. Thus the Oscar-winning film was accepted by both extremes of our political divide.
The finished Apocalypse Now is a different animal from the earliest drafts by John Milius. I read one at UCLA’s Theater Arts Reading Room around 1974. Milius envisioned the fighting in Vietnam as unending comic-book insanity — Colonel Kilgore’s name was originally Colonel Kharnage, if I recall. The finale was a zonked-out fantasy battle to either top or John Wayne’s ‘Fort Apache’ battle in The Green Berets, or to mock it. Expecting thousands of Viet Cong attackers, Colonel Kurtz organizes his defense as a series of concentric circular trenches. When the ammo runs out and barrels melt down in the first trench, Kurtz’s irregular army retreats to the next trench where await fresh weapons and ammo. The capper is difficult to imagine on film. For the final battle Kurtz is dressed literally like a DC Comics superhero, in colored tights and a cape. Milius can’t have been proposing a radical anti-American effect like that of William Klein’s Mister Freedom. But that’s how the draft read.
Perhaps what I read was some proto-idea Milius threw together at USC? Coppola’s Apocalypse did indeed take a strong left turn into deep-dish Joseph Conrad territory. The novel Heart of Darkness seems to have provided a thematic life preserver when Coppola had to improvise a final chapter that could be filmed with his scarcely-cooperative three-million-dollar star. Marlon Brando arrived at the Philippine location too out-of-shape to perform any kind of action scene. With his back to the wall Coppola came through with a good third act, a brooding contemplation of dark, elemental savagery.
Sometime in 1977 or 1978 I heard from friend Mark Stern, that he had attended a special event screening Coppola conducted in Westwood, showing hours of cut footage from the movie to an invited audience. He wanted to gauge their reaction and to perhaps keep the movie alive in the public mind. I think it worked, as the attendees came out as true believers convinced that something incredible was coming. In the early 1990s editor Michael Thibault loaned me a 3rd or 4th generation VHS of the elusive ‘Apocalypse Rough Sketch Pad,’ with several hours of footage not seen in the movie. It included what seemed like an entire hour of a chanting, dancing, drinking & drugs ritual in Kurtz’s compound. The rough material, all of it potentially interesting, made me respect Coppola and his editors even more: they had the fortitude to throw out reels and reels of expensively-filmed scenes, carefully shaping the narrative into a fever dream of ever-darkening incidents.
These days when I bring up Apocalypse Now my ‘industry’ friends often praise its soundtrack. I don’t believe we had ever heard a sound design as complex and rich. Walter Murch indulged his full sonic imagination, going to town with all those surround channels. The layered tracks, the blending of the helicopter noises into the electronic music — all remarkable. Even the transitional cues seem to meld with key sound effects, producing a specific emotional impression. Murch certainly came off as a prime innovator — who was spending as much attention to sound? For American Graffiti Murch had gone to the trouble of de-focusing and perspective-izing all those top ten tunes, as heard from car radios on the street.
The audio-scape of Apocalypse beautifully supports the Michael Herr-John Milius narration. It’s rare for a movie to work so well, with so many voiceovers. Plus, I’d imagine every sound designer alive would envy Murch the ability to take apart and re-mix original songs from the Doors and Jim Morrison.
Is Apocalypse Now Marlon Brando’s last ‘great’ movie? Although I strongly remembered Martin Sheen as early as The Subject was Roses, I think he at last became a household name with this show. Robert Duvall added to his list of ’70s classic performances, claiming one or two of the most-quoted movie lines ever. The show also made a solid name of the experienced Frederic Forrest, and launched the less experienced Laurence Fishburne. Sam Bottoms received his best role, at least for visibility, as did the veteran actor Albert Hall. Scott Glenn was cut out of the first release version.
Audiences didn’t know what to make of Harrison Ford’s brief part — by the time Apocalypse came out he had already become one of the most famous people on the planet with Star Wars. Helping bouoy the third act immensely is Dennis Hopper’s manic chatterbox of a photographer. It’s the role he was born to play, rattling off some of the best spaced-out dialogue ever: “You can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions!”
Vittorio Storaro’s striking images maintain the film’s scary Wonderland vibe even when the story momentum grinds to a standstill. A 1979 article in American Cinematographer took a somewhat mocking attitude toward the Italian cameraman’s theories of colors having intrinsic psychological signatures. But it certainly worked for us, especially in the occasional near-psychedelic shot, such as the one of Captain Willard’s head rising out of the water, on his mission of assassination.
In the long run I think Apocalypse Now has held up as no ‘realistic’ Vietnam war movie has. True, there aren’t that many. Cimino’s The Deer Hunter succeeded now and then but (for this viewer) sank into hollow sentiment at the finish. Coppola, Milius, Herr and Brando emphasize that war is just an obscenity pure and simple, the juncture of everything corrupt, hypocritical and savage about us imperfect humans. The war was indeed fought by young men who a year before were teenagers listening to Top-40 radio, ‘rock’n’rollers with one foot in their grave.’ The Vietnamese civilians staring through the chain-link fence make the USO show seem even more vulgar and grotesque. This is the American culture we’re spreading around the world?
The show gets plenty heavy, but not even its darkest episodes are pretentious; they’re too honest and unvarnished. In repeated viewings Brando can seem static, sitting in the dark pouring water over his bald head. But his speech about ‘little children’s arms’ expresses a Conradian horror that civilians can understand, without Coppola having to shove visual atrocities in our faces.
When we see regular combat troops Apocalypse fully expresses the ‘bored terror’ of life on the edge. The poor guys way out in the trenches at the Do Lung bridge seem like lost boy scouts abandoned in a corner of Hell. Not only do they not know why they’re fighting, they don’t even know who’s in command. When Willard asks, a crazed soldier replies, “Ain’t you?” That’s perfectly right — nobody’s in charge. One way or another, it’s every soldier for himself.
Lionsgate’s 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital of Apocalypse Now Final Cut happens to be the Amazon deal of the moment, which is why I sprang for it — it’s something great to feed the new 4K player. The package is rather flimsy but what counts is the six separate discs it contains, three 4Ks and three Blu-rays. All three separate versions of the film are present in 4K, plus an incredible number of Blu-ray extras. A code for a digital version is included as well.
I noticed some shots that seem sharper than I remember them, but the 4K boost didn’t feel as strong as with some newer movies, or the specially- restored Vertigo, which really pops in 4K. I like the movie as much as ever, especially listening to it. So far I’ve only looked at the original cut. I’ll give the redux or the final cut versions a try again somewhere down the line. For me the added scenes gum up the works, bringing the forward momentum to a standstill. The many extra set pieces made the show seem more like an ordinary war movie. The notion that the river trip takes the PBR back into time sounds like something that should have remained a theory, sub-subtext.
The episodes with the Frenchwoman and the Playboy bunnies feel like the old war movies that always found a way to slip sexy women into the plotline. I wonder if Carl Foreman’s The Victors (1963) will ever resurface — the whole movie is based on that idea. But we don’t resent Coppola’s revisions. Many movies now exist in multiple cuts and there’s no rule that says we must prefer the ‘original’ versions. For instance, Coppola’s re-do The Cotton Club Encore greatly improves a movie that (to me) was already great.
The disc menus don’t waste time. The Blu-ray with the special extras launches into a long list of interesting items. The Orson Welles radio version of Heart of Darkness is a full 37 minutes long. The Hollow Men is outtakes of Marlon Brando reading parts of T.S. Eliot’s poem (16 minutes). The ‘Monkey Sampan Lost Scene’ is a workprint of a grim Herzog-like encounter on the river near Kurtz’s compound. Other ‘additional scenes’ appear to be from the legendary VHS tape that circulated thirty years ago. Those of us who saw the film only in 70mm didn’t see the full ending credits roll until Apocalypse arrived on cable TV. Coppola talks about this sequence in an added commentary. ‘PBR Streetgang’ consists of good interview material with the actors playing the navy boat crew. ‘The Color Palette’ reminds us that the 2001 Redux version was printed in the period when Technicolor was experimenting with reviving its imbibition printing process. I even like the fifty-minute 2010 interview with Coppola and John Milius … who is a dramatic storyteller at all times.
Several welcome extras go into detail on the film’s audio, aided by excellent graphics. The Birth of Surround sees Murch, Coppola and Ioan Allen talking about the development of surround-sound formats — Apocalypse helped make that happen. ‘The Ghost Helicopter’ is more stereo sound discussion, partly using the ethereal heard-but-not-seen helicopters of the film’s opening.
The documentary Heart of Darkness begins with Coppola saying, “My film is not a movie. My film is, uh, not about Vietnam, it IS Vietnam.” As a making-of feature it’s just as entertaining (and funny) as Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams about Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Both Herzog and Coppola find themselves swallowed up in tropical jungles. The documentary disc also has a number of extras beginning with the ‘Tribeca Q&A’ and 22 minutes of 8mm behind the scenes footage. A number of shorter pieces don’t seem to be listed — the new items never seem to stop, and none are filler or fluff.
Any movie that keeps you and your best friend from film school awake discussing and arguing ’til 3AM can’t be dismissed as bad … it was great to have such formative experiences. I knew immediately that I wanted to save my handout credits program, with my Cinerama Dome ticket stub attached.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Apocalypse Now Final Cut 4K
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Supplements: Introduction and audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola; Interviews with John Milius, Martin Sheen & Francis Ford Coppola.
Featurettes Casting Apocalypse with Fred Roos; The Birth of 5.1 Sound; Ghost Helicopter Flyover sound effects demo; A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now; Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now; The Final Mix; 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola; PBR Streetgang; The Color Palette of Apocalypse Now, The Hollow Men, Dutch Angle, the Photos of Chas Gerretsen.
Documentary feature Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by George Hickenlooper & Fax Bahr (with Optional Audio Commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola)
Radio Show The Mercury Theatre on the Air: Heart of Darkness — November 6, 1938
Monkey Sampan Lost Scene and additional scenes
End credits sequence with Coppola commentary
Article The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog
Tribeca Film Festival Q and A with Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Soderbergh
Never-Before-Seen B-Roll Footage
Apocalypse Now Dolby featurette (HD)
A History of Apocalypse Now on Home Video (HD)
John Milius Script Excerpt with Francis Coppola Notes (Still Gallery)
Photo Archive Unit Photography, Mary Ellen Mark Photography
Marketing Archive, 1979 Teaser Trailer, 1979 Theatrical Trailer, 1979 Radio Spots, 1979 Theatrical Program, Lobby Card and Press Kit Photos, Poster Gallery, Apocalypse Now Redux Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three 4K Ultra HD and three Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed: March 03, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Josh Olson on Apocalypse Now: