Francis Ford Coppola’s long in the making adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness scripted as a modern Vietnam war film is a product that has often been declared a classic of war cinema. But does it still hold the engagement of a modern audience who have been exposed to the grizzly realities of war by popularist films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 or Steven Spielberg’s Boys Own splat-a-thon Saving Private Ryan?
Captain Willard, trying to rest and recuperate in his room in Saigon with the help of a large bottle of spirits, finds himself being given a new and important mission: to find the revered Colonel Kurtz of the Green Berets who has apparently gone crazy and has set up his own society in Cambodia – one where he is the God and people commit atrocities in his name. Willard, with the support and transportation of a military crew, must travel upriver to find Kurtz and sort the situation out, indeed ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ should that be required. But his journey is one that involves conflicts and associations that are far from simplistic. Can Willard reach his destination intact and, most of all, succeed in his mission?
Apocalypse Now is considered by many to be a masterpiece of cinema that explores the deterioration of a man’s psyche amidst the madness and horrors of war but is – to others – a long, dull, over-rated mess. Advocates point to the film’s purpose of depicting the insanity of war in a way that hasn’t been shown before or since, a war film for those who don’t dig heroic machismo even as the characters (in a very Millius way) engage in testosterone fuelled displays of masculinity throughout the narrative. Art-house exploitation war film – great on so many levels. But then detractors will point to a lack of engagement with the characters beyond their profession, a cold take on an emotional subject. Great cinematography and a terrific soundtrack cannot mask variable dialogue, pointless plot derivation and an overly glorified Marlon Brando being thoroughly pretentious.
Love it or hate it, you can’t argue that it looks and sounds stunning – it is a truly cinematic movie. Its reissue in the cinema, and also on Blu-Ray, mark an important re-appraisal of the film. The picture shows off the quality of the cinematography to great effect that even the DVD struggled to realise fully – this is a return to the original full 1:1.235 ratio and the detail of the camerawork is glorious – turning it into a fully artistic cinema experience. In an age where CGI dominates and the spectacular has become really quite ordinary, the scale of the action and special effects are awesome in the true sense of the word.
The Blu-Ray offers the ideal purchase for anyone curious to engage with the film – firstly it offers both the original and the redux versions with the same purchase which makes your viewing decision a bit easier. Also included is the documentary Hearts of Darkness. ‘Making of’ documentaries are all too common these days – often added in to spice up the DVD extras – but this full length feature film is essential viewing. It covers the long and torturous route towards creating the film and interviews many of those involved including people who were originally associated with the project but ultimately never came to work on the film. Although there are inevitably omissions (a film four years in the filming and decades in its reconstruction could hardly fail to be) the open nature of those involved makes for fascinating viewing. Coppola’s buddy George Lucas, at one stage a potential director, discusses his concern over the way Coppola approaches identification and incident within the narrative and writer Milius talks about the deviations from his script. Most interesting is the footage of Coppola himself, shot during the filming of the movie, who is deeply concerned about the way the project is progressing, revealing genuine doubts about what he is making and the way he is committing it to film.
If you are an Apocalypse Now aficionado then this is essential viewing, if you haven’t seen yet it (in any of its incarnations), it is a film that all cineastes need to experience.