When novice filmmakers John Milius and George Lucas hatched a plan to adapt Joseph Conrad's psychological adventure novel Heart Of Darkness as a Vietnam War movie, shot in Vietnam, they found a backer in Francis Ford Coppola, a committed idealist and godfather of the "film-school brats." Then the project stalled, and by the mid-'70s, Lucas was making Star Wars, Milius had become a studio hand, and Coppola's rule-breaking production company American Zoetrope was foundering. So Coppola claimed Apocalypse Now for himself and headed to the Philippines to shoot it with a big cast and big effects, looking to make a semi-improvised art film on a blockbuster budget, and maybe re-spark the imagination of his whole co-opted generation.
Some moments in Apocalypse Now succeed thrillingly at marrying abstraction and money, like the mesmerizing, unblinking opening shot of a jungle going up in flames. But Coppola ultimately bows to the rigid demands of the narrative, which has Special Forces agent Martin Sheen heading upriver to confront unhinged colonel Marlon Brando. The movie is partly about how the U.S. war machine comes equipped with American excess, and as Coppola famously pointed out in his 1979 Cannes press conference, Apocalypse Now's production mirrored its theme. Too many disposable resources and too much fear of failure corrupted a simple idea, making it simultaneously pretentious and plain. Only occasionally did Coppola let the story's episodic structure and the crutch of Sheen's narration (written by war correspondent Michael Herr) give himself license to explore pure cinematic texture, in sequences where the action curdles into absurdity.
In 2001, Coppola tinkered with the original and released the disappointing Apocalypse Now Redux, which makes a long movie almost interminable by adding low comedy and thematic overkill. Both versions are now available on the Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD, which lets viewers revel in Coppola's sublime folly, now re-mastered in astonishingly rich color. Cineastes will continue to discuss and debate the film that might've been, if not for commercial demands and Coppola's uncertainty, but what exists is still remarkable, and it still sends the message the director intended, however mixed: "Here's what can be done. Now you try it."
Key features: Tech-oriented featurettes and a rich Coppola commentary in which he discusses how the movie's style evolved during shooting.