"Apocalypse Now"

This may not be the ultimate package, but at least Coppola sheds some light on the picture's spectacular and eerie nighttime blaze.


Michael Sragow
July 24, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"Apocalypse Now"
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest and Dennis Hopper
Paramount/American Zoetrope; widescreen
Extras: Theatrical trailer, sections of the original theatrical program and a report on the enigmatic destruction of Kurtz's compound, complete with Coppola's explanation for it

It's difficult to convey how pivotal Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" was to the sputtering 1970s renaissance of American movies. But this quote from Pauline Kael might do the trick. Nearly a year after the movie's opening on Aug. 15, 1979, Kael wrote, "Part of the wide-spread anticipation of 'Apocalypse Now' was, I think, our readiness for a visionary, climactic, summing-up movie. We felt that the terrible rehash of pop culture couldn't go on, mustn't go on -- that something new was needed. Coppola must have felt that, too, but he couldn't supply it. His film was posited on great thoughts arriving at the end -- a confrontation and a revelation. And when they weren't there, people slunk out of the theaters, or tried to comfort themselves with chatter about the psychedelic imagery."

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The biggest extra on the "Apocalypse Now" DVD -- the first to bear the credit "Designed and mastered at the American Zoetrope DVD Lab" -- captures the mysterious excitement that surrounded this film's release. Of course, the extra I'm referring to is the spectacularly eerie sequence of madman-genius Kurtz's jungle compound going up in a nocturnal blaze -- a pyrotechnic display that's like a blend of fireworks and nuclear blast footage. As Coppola explains on the audio track, the Filipino government required him to raze the elaborate compound anyway. So he thought he'd make a show of it and see if the surreal images would prove useful for the finished film.

Unfortunately, they didn't. In the end, Coppola wanted to suggest that Kurtz's assassin, Lt. Willard (Martin Sheen), would turn his back on the ways of war and lead the story's survivors into a new age -- the exact opposite of calling in an airstrike. When it premiered, the movie contained no hint of the Kurtz-compound conflagration. And the 70 mm prints carried no credits. Instead each theatergoer got a program, excerpted on the DVD.

But when the film rolled out nationwide in 35 mm, Coppola dropped ending credits over the sight of Kurtz's tropic-baroque headquarters succumbing to licks and bursts of flame. What was intended to be a fillip for the audience instead fueled wild stories that Coppola couldn't decide on an ending even after the movie was released. The DVD includes the destruction extravaganza strictly as an additional feature. What follows the close of the action is the simple roll of white credits against a black background that Coppola eventually substituted for his kinetic tapestry of explosions.

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What we have here is not the ultimate "Apocalypse Now" DVD package; that would have to unite this movie with "Hearts of Darkness," the splendid documentary about the making of it. (Coppola's film expands when played back to back with "Hearts of Darkness.") Walter Murch, Coppola's ace sound designer and editor, has been conducting a reconnaissance mission for an expanded DVD that would at least include never-before-seen bits and pieces.

But the young and curious shouldn't put off watching "Apocalypse Now" right now. Those who've heard only of the bizarreness of Marlon Brando's Kurtz and the dynamism of Robert Duvall's cowboylike Col. Kilgore may be surprised to find valuable fragments to shore against the movie's ruins. Frederic Forrest embodies distressed humanity as a member of Willard's patrol-boat crew. With his snaking mustache and his turned-up oilskin cap, he looks like a true salt; when he panics, he jumps out of his skin, but never out of his innate sympathies. And Dennis Hopper connects as much with us in his insanity as Forrest does in his sanity. As a freelance photographer too long away from home, he's a decade-older, strung-out Easy Rider, with melancholy in his eyes and gray in his beard. He knows his brain has exploded even though he claims it has been enlarged. He catches himself up with a single word -- "wrong" -- that sounds out like his conscious mind's foghorn. Hopper may express more about the fallout of the '60s than anything else in the movie.

To the next review in the DVD Room

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Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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