“Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat, pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Bha, follow it, learn what you can along the way. When you find the colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available, and terminate the colonel’s command.” This mission, which officially “does not exist,” is given to U.S. Army Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) at the outset of Apocalypse Now, and takes him and his small crew deep into the most dangerous areas of Vietnam, and then into Cambodia, at the peak of the Vietnam War. Military intelligence believes Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has suffered a severe mental breakdown and is holed up with an army of indigenous supporters just across the border.
Using America’s most divisive war as its lurid, sensual backdrop, Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious and uniquely impressive motion picture is a vividly mounted, often hypnotic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. A surreal, stylized and occasionally psychedelic depiction of the struggle between good and evil, the picture is a milestone in contemporary American cinema.
Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now generated fervor because of its lengthy, tumultuous and highly publicized production, but it eventually earned equal acclaim for its dazzling sensory impact on audiences. The picture’s undeniable power lies in its meticulously designed, experiential atmosphere. Walter Murch’s groundbreaking sound work and Dean Tavoularis’ production design are high on the list of the picture’s achievements, but the true signature of this epic motion picture is the luminous visual style crafted by Vittorio Storaro ASC, AIC, who was collaborating with Coppola for the first time. Storaro boldly photographed the picture in the Technovision anamorphic process, composing widescreen panoramas with a highly saturated color palette and a full range of black levels that consistently met the needs of the film’s dark, brooding narrative. The cinematographer won a richly deserved Academy Award for his efforts, and his working relationship with Coppola was so successful that the two artists have since reteamed three times (on One from the Heart, Tucker and New York Stories).
Most recently, Coppola and Storaro joined forces to revisit Apocalypse Now, remastering a new, longer cut of the film in Technicolor’s briefly revived dye-transfer printing process. This version of the picture, Apocalypse Now Redux, was theatrically released in 2001.
Paramount Home Entertainment has previously released handsomely mounted DVDs of both Apocalypse Now (153 minutes) and Redux (202 minutes), but the studio recently packaged them together for the first time in the two-disc set Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier. Both versions of the film are spread across the two discs (titled “Act I” and “Act II”), giving the transfer a better rate of compression compared to the earlier, single-platter releases.
When run side by side, these newer transfers have a slightly richer tone, with excellent color balance and a faithful rendering of Storaro’s black levels. The filmmakers have chosen to present both versions of the picture in a 2.0:1 aspect ratio that mimics the framing of the 70mm theatrical release, rather than the slightly wider 2.40:1 standard anamorphic ratio. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks on both versions of the film are extraordinary, offering several surround flourishes without ever forgetting the importance of the center track — reminding us, as one commentator notes, that “the show is on the screen.”
Unfortunately, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s excellent 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which chronicles the production’s legendary shoot, is not included in this package. However, this set does feature a remarkable number of never-before-seen supplements that are spread across both DVDs. Standouts among these supplements are Coppola’s excellent audio commentary track; nearly 60 minutes of interviews dedicated to the film’s complicated postproduction; a 2001 interview with Storaro; and an impressive gallery of excised scenes and montages, including a 17-minute sequence of Brando reading T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men. Other extras include a video introduction, “Watch With Francis Ford Coppola”; a segment about the creation of the Redux version; an excellent collection of video and text entries called “The A/V Club,” which debunks several myths about the show; and a few easy-to-find “Easter egg“ features with amusing anecdotal bits.
Although the omission of Hearts of Darkness might prompt some to argue that this package shouldn’t be called The Complete Dossier, this new presentation will be irresistible to the film’s fans, and will certainly impress first-time viewers. Apocalypse Now remains a sensationally rich masterwork about the nature of evil and the horrors of war, and the package’s exciting supplements are certainly worth its modest retail price.