I first saw Apocalypse Now at Toronto’s exquisite University cinema on 17th August, 1979. The film opened on Wednesday 15th August as part of an inaugural three city run in New York, LA, and Toronto, with tickets sold in advance as they had been in the past for ‘road show’ presentations. The University was a 1500 seat deco/nouveau single screen cinema with a beautiful facade and lobby which was equipped for 70mm projection; the 70mm presentation of Apocalypse Now was the first to utilise Dolby Stereo 70mm Six Track, and the cinema probably had to upgrade its sound system to accommodate the demands of Coppola and his sound editor Walter Murch.
I remember being very nervous as I presented my ticket as I was not 18 and the film had received an R (18 and over only) rating from the Ontario censor. Happily, my very youthful countenance didn’t register with the ticket taker in the melee, and he barely looked at me as he handed me a programme with an introductory note from Coppola listing all the credits and biographies of the key players. We took our seats in the balcony with a sense of heightened anticipation; we were about to see the most talked about film of the decade, and when the film began without any credits, I realised why we were given the booklet on the way in.
These were the halcyon days prior to our culture’s obsession with the excruciating minutiae of celebrity and pop culture; North American television was some years away from being saturated with programmes hosted by fawning mannequins doing little more than breathlessly regurgitating press releases. Before the days of multi-platform promotional carpet-bombing beginning a year or more before release, the only sources of information about movies was traditional print media and segments devoted to entertainment on news or current affairs programs. After the triumphant Godfather Part II, the world was expecting more greatness from Coppola, but as soon as shooting began on his Vietnam epic, stories emerged from the Philippines indicating that all was not well.
The press dutifully reported on one mishap after another: lead actor Harvey Keitel was fired days into shooting; Coppola didn’t really have a finished script and was making it up as he stumbled along; weather destroyed sets and shut down the film; Martin Sheen had to stop shooting for more than a month due to ‘heat exhaustion’ (later revealed to be a heart attack); the film was wildly over budget with no end in sight. When the prolonged shoot finally ended in May 1977, Coppola and his film seemed to disappear into a post-production black hole, and for film obsessives and average viewers alike, the calamity and misfortune that had befallen one of the greatest filmmaking talents of his generation was as dramatic as anything one could see on screen.
Perception of the film improved after it finally emerged and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 1979 (shared with The Tin Drum), where it screened as a 3 hour work in progress, but Cannes didn’t mean that much to the average person in North America at the time. When it was announced a few months later that it would be premiering in August as a special presentation in just 3 cities, and that Toronto was one of those cities, I was ecstatic. As soon as tickets went on sale a friend who was a couple of years older than me (thus over 18) bought us tickets for the Friday evening screening.
The spell the film cast over me at that first screening is still quite vivid. It was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, a 2 1/2 hour journey into hell that was not so much a war movie as it was a phantasmagorical meditation on man’s inhumanity to man in the context of American imperialism. It’s wonderful to recall experiencing the film’s most memorable moments and dialogue before they had burrowed into our collective cultural consciousness: Duvall’s flamboyant surfer/cowboy lunatic Colonel Kilgore (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning…”) and the Air Cavalry’s chopper attack, the mysterious civilian/intelligence op present when Willard is briefed on his mission (“Terminate….with extreme prejudice”), Brando’s death rattle (“the horror, the horror”).
I doubt I was aware the film was a loose, uncredited adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness before I saw it, but I had just read the book in school and recognised the plot by film’s end; I tried to convince my English teacher the following week that the school should arrange for our class to see it (which was never going to happen as we were all under 18). The film opened wide in 35mm in the autumn, and I convinced my father that we should see it on Boxing Day. I was possibly even more mesmerised the second time (although my father was fairly unimpressed), anticipating the chopper attack, the Playboy bunny sequence, the slaughter of the water buffalo, and more. I was taken aback by the destruction of the Kurtz compound at the end as the credits rolled, as that was not how it had ended when I saw it in August. Had Coppola changed the ending? Had the destruction been left off the 70mm print because it had no onscreen credits? My confusion was compounded further when I saw it again in 70mm at Toronto’s IMAX cinema (the world’s first) sometime later (it screened there regularly for many years as a highlight of their 70mm seasons), and the film once again ended on Willard and Lance leaving in the boat as the screen went to black; I wouldn’t solve the mystery of the different endings for a number of years.
I attended a morning screening of the digitally cleansed Apocalypse Now at the Leicester Square Empire a couple of months ago in advance of the theatrical reissue to promote the Blu-ray debut. While the experience of seeing it in a cinema again could never match the experience of my first viewing in August ’79, or watching it subsequently with my late father in an empty cinema, I relished the opportunity to sit in a darkened room with others and watch it, and as often happens when I watch films that are my touchstones, I was both absorbed and contemplative as I thought about the 17 year old watching the film all those years ago and my own journey up river these past 32 years. The film looks superb and sounds tremendous, and I look forward to watching the BD at home at some point, where I can enjoy listening to the clarity of the DTS-HD 5.1 audio track and watching it in the original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the first time on any home format.
Confession time: I have yet to watch Apocalypse Now Redux, although I have owned the DVD for years (I did however see a fair bit of the footage that was added to create AN Redux on a VHS bootleg at a friend’s place in LA one evening in the late ‘90s, which until now has satisfied the completist in me). I don’t really know why I haven’t, as I intended on seeing it when it had a theatrical release, and didn’t, and when I reach for the film every year or two to renew our acquaintance, I default to the original version. Perhaps my reticence is partly attributable to my dislike of revisionism; once a work is put out there, apart from restoration when the image has deteriorated, I think it should be left as it is, warts, flaws and all (although I understand the urge to correct or improve after the fact as I suffer from it myself). I read an interview this past week with Steven Spielberg in which he talks about the in-progress Blu-ray version of Jaws (at last!) and stated that nothing would be done to digitally enhance or modify anything that looks ropey or unconvincing to the contemporary eye (meaning Bruce the shark): I applaud his stance and hope other directors who control their work follow suit.
And so we come to the contents of today’s (13th June) eagerly awaited UK Blu-ray release of Apocalypse Now. The 3 disc ‘Full Disclosure’ Edition is about as close to definitive as we are likely to get, unless Coppola decides to create a longer version of the film, or release additional outtakes or behind the scenes footage, or create a hilarious bloopers feature (rather unlikely).
Here’s what you get:
Disc 1: Apocalypse Now feature / Apocalypse Now Redux feature / Audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola
Features running time: 153 mins / 202 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 2.35 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 5.1 DTS Master Audio
Disc 2: Interview with John Milius (49 mins) / Interview with Fred Roos (casting Apocalypse) (12 mins) / A Conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola (60 mins) / The Mercury Theatre on Air: Hearts of Darkness Nov 6 1938 (37 mins) / The Hollow Men (17 mins) / Monkey Sampan “Lost Scene” (3 mins) / Additional Scenes (27 mins) / Kurtz Compound Destruction with credits (6 mins) / The Birth of 5.1 sound (6 mins) / Ghost Helicopter Flyover (4 mins) / Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack by Bob Moog (still images) / A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now (18 mins) / The Music of Apocalypse Now (15 mins) / The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now (15 mins) / The Final Mix (3 mins) / Apocalypse Then & Now (4 mins) / 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola (39 mins) / PBR Streetgang (4 mins) / The Colour Palette of Apocalypse Now (4 mins) / Disc credits
Total running time: 323 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 or 4:3 / Video: BD50 / AVC / Feature Audio: 2.0 Stereo DTS / English Language
Disc 3: Hearts of Darkness feature / Audio commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola / John Milius script excerpt with Francis Ford Coppola notes / Storyboard Collection / Photo Archive: unit photography, Mary Ellen Mark photography / Marketing Archive: original trailer, radio spots, theatrical program, lobby card and press kit, photos /
Feature running time: 96 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 16/9 1.77 / Video: BD25 / AVC / Feature Audio: Stereo 2.0 DTS Master Audio / English Language
The nine hours plus of bonus features (which thankfully includes the brilliant Hearts of Darkness documentary that has been unavailable for years) touch on almost every aspect of the film’s genesis, torturous production and lengthy post-production, but one thing I’ve never seen is even so much as a still of Harvey Keitel in character as Willard. This is likely to do with contractual stipulations or union regulations regarding his removal from the film, or just plain courtesy and discretion on the part of Coppola, but I imagine there are cans sitting somewhere in the Zoetrope vault marked ‘AN – HK footage’ which may yet see the light of day.
Most of the excellent featurettes were included on the 2006 North American DVD release ‘The Complete Dossier’, and the two new interviews filmed in 2010 for the North American Blu-ray release, featuring Coppola talking with John Milius and Martin Sheen, are both entertaining.
The most satisfying outtake is a scene in which Dennis Hopper’s photographer is shot and killed by renegade Green Beret Colby (Scott Glenn), who is then killed by Willard. If Coppola had included this scene in some form, it would have answered the mildly nagging question of what happened to Hopper’s character.
After immersing myself in the film, my memories and the Blu-ray special features, I’ve decided that when I next watch the film it will be the Redux version, at long last. Jim Morrison’s musical assertion notwithstanding, my journey up river with the PBR Street Gang is far from at an end.