Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier
August 15, 2006
Francis Ford Coppola,
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, G.D. Spradlin, Scott Glenn, Christian Marquand, Aurore Clément,
Made only a few years after the Vietnam War ended, Apocalypse Now (1979) was Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious fusion of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and the madness of the American experience in that war. Riding high on the success of The Godfather films, Coppola used his clout to go to the Philippines and make a movie that, by many accounts (as chronicled in the fascinating documentary Hearts of Darkness), was as difficult and crazy as the film itself.
Apocalypse Now has one of the greatest opening sequences ever put on film. A jungle is obliterated by a napalm strike to the strains of “The End” by the Doors. Not only is it ironic that the beginning of the film features a song entitled “The End,” but it also brilliantly establishes the dark, nightmarish tone of the film. Apocalypse Now indeed.
Captain Willard (Sheen) is a career soldier who has clearly spent too much time in Vietnam. We learn from his voiceover narration that he went back to the United States at one point but couldn’t readjust to life there and came back to the war and divorced his wife. Willard is the kind of shadowy figure whose job it is to assassinate high ranking officers and officials for the government and one can only imagine what this has done to his mind. Just as he about reaches the end of his rope (in a nightmarish scene that Sheen really went through), he gets assigned a new mission and, as he tells us, “When it was over, I never wanted another.”
He has to travel deep into the heart of Cambodia to find a renegade Special Forces U.S. Colonel by the name of Kurtz (Brando) and terminate his command with extreme prejudice. At Willard’s briefing we get the first tantalizing details about Kurtz’s career: he was a highly decorated and respected soldier being groomed for an upper echelon position but something happened to him along the way. He and his men began employing “unsound” methods and executed important Vietnamese officials that worked for the U.S. but who he claimed were double agents. Kurtz then disappeared into the jungle where he is worshipped as a god by the local natives.
Willard goes in with a low profile by hitching a ride on a Navy patrol boat (known as a PBR) with a colourful crew: Chef (Forrest), a New Orleans cook; Mr. Clean (Fishburne), a trigger happy teenager; Lance (Bottoms), a famous surfer from California; and the Chief (Hall), the no-nonsense captain of the boat. Coppola captures the insanity of the war by having Willard and his crew encounter all kinds of absurdities, like soldiers surfing during battle, Playboy bunnies strutting their stuff in front of G.I.s on an army base and coming across a bridge that is blown up every night only to be rebuilt the next day.
However, the most memorable sequence has to be the famous encounter with Colonel Kilgore (Duvall) who transports Willard and his crew further along the river but not before taking them on a mission where these gung-ho Air Calvary soldiers bomb a village back to the Stone Age so that they can surf at a highly desirable spot. It is an absolutely masterfully choreographed action sequence that is a marvel of editing and cinematography. Robert Duvall is only in the film for a little while but his larger than life character makes quite an impression as he utters one of the film’s immortal lines, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…It smelled like victory.”
The voiceover narration filled with memorable passages, like Willard musing on the absurdity of the charges against Kurtz: “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” allow us to get inside the character’s head. At first it almost dominates the film but the further along we get, the less there is of it because we know all we need to about Willard, and we are getting closer and closer to Kurtz. The majority of the narration was written by novelist Michael Herr who wrote the Vietnam War book Dispatches and would later work on Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Nam film Full Metal Jacket (1987). Like in The Third Man (1949), we hear so much about Kurtz before we actually see him and this builds anticipation for his first appearance. And Marlon Brando does not disappoint as the cryptic, enigmatic colonel.
As amazing as the Kilgore interlude is, nothing beats the surrealism of the Kurtz compound with its strung up dead bodies and severed heads. This portion in the film only reinforces Apocalypse Now as a metaphysical study of madness and war. As crazy as Kurtz’s methods are, he does have a point. The government trained and then dispatched him as an efficient killer. However, once they question his methods he becomes a liability to him, a tool that has outlived its usefulness.
In 2001, Coppola revisited his movie and added approximately 40 minutes of footage that he cut after its original Cannes Film Festival screening. This included more footage of the Playboy bunnies interacting with the PBR crew and, most significantly, Willard and his crew encountering a small group of French people living on their own plantation – hold-outs from the French occupation of Vietnam before the U.S.’ involvement. Both cuts are available on this set with a re-mastered transfer of this important and very influential film. But does it live up to its Complete Dossier moniker?
The movies are spread out over two discs with its extras. The biggest omission and the most common criticism leveled at this new set is Hearts of Darkness. The producer of this set has responded that its exclusion was due to legal reasons (whatever that means) and in the process the film’s legendary troubled shoot is largely glossed over in the extras. This bit of revisionism on what assumes was Coppola’s decision is a bit troubling but the checkered past of the production has been documented extensively elsewhere, most notably in The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie.
That being said, Coppola’s commentary for the movies is actually quite good. He kicks things off by telling the story of how the opening sequence came together by accident: it was actually filler footage from one of the cameras during the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. The director speaks eloquently about the film’s themes and how he conveyed Willard’s motivation. To this end, he doesn’t shy away from the stories behind infamous moments like how he allowed the scene where Martin Sheen smashed the mirror and cut his hand to go on even though the actor was really drunk and bleeding. Coppola tells all kinds of fascinating anecdotes, like the origin of Colonel Kilgore, and provides many factoids, like the creation of the “Valkryies” sequence, associated with making the movie. The Redux commentary is essentially the same but with new comments over the added footage.
In the film, Kurtz reads excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” and this extra features Brando’s reading of the entire poem with all kinds of unused footage.
“Monkey Sampan” is a cut scene of the natives in Kurtz’s compound singing their own unique rendition of The Doors song, “Light My Fire” that is kinda creepy – the desired effect I’m sure.
Also included are “Additional Scenes” taken from the work print and feature more of Willard’s intelligence briefing and the actual meeting between him and the PBR crew. There is also an unsettling scene where the PBR comes across a booby trapped dead baby in the water. Most significantly is additional footage of Scott Glenn’s mysterious character and we also find out what happens to Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist.
For those interested in the technological aspects of the movie, the “A/V Club” is a collection of featurettes that explore how the origins of the 5.1 surround because, at the time, Coppola wanted to create an epic, Hollywood war film. A second featurette takes a look at the sound design work on the haunting heli