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Apocalypse Now’ given hero’s treatment in new set

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, September 7, 2006

“Apocalypse Now” isn’t really about war. It’s about a descent into madness.

Nearly 30 years after its original release, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 opus remains one of cinema’s most frustrating films. Glorious and gloriously flawed, it summed up the excess (negative and positive) that defined the 1970s epic. Alternately masterful and maddening, “Apocalypse Now” signaled the proverbial end of a decade.

The latest release, “Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier” is a lavish collector’s edition DVD that celebrates one of Coppola’s – and thus America’s – most defining films.

Nominally a war picture, “Apocalypse Now” adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” into a nightmarish, impressionistic vision of Vietnam. The film follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a soldier sent deep into the Congo in pursuit of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated soldier gone maverick. Along the way, Willard meets up with Lt. Col. Kilgore, who orders an aerial assault to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and an insane photo journalist (Dennis Hopper), among others.

Part of a larger American cinematic framework about the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, “Apocalypse Now” is less dated and more artsy than its contemporaries. Like Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998), “Apocalypse Now” eschews the typical rhythm, content and pacing of a war film in favor of a broader, less focused meditation.

Yet, like Malick’s film, “Apocalypse Now” never seems very sure of what it’s really about. The film runs very long, and its pacing is problematic at best. Additionally, Brando doesn’t quite live up to his billing as the deranged Kurtz – although the heart attack Sheen experienced while filming obviously had an effect on his performance, which is considerably more subdued than expected.

“Apocalypse Now” has received several DVD treatments over the years (an original DVD release and 2001 “Redux” cut), but none quite as lavish as “The Complete Dossier.” Both the original and the 2001 “Redux” editions are included in Dolby Digital 5.1 widescreen presentations. The film looks very clean, and the redesigned sound works quite well, though inclusion of the original stereo would have been nice. There are several other interesting and informative features, the best of which is Brando’s complete reading of TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” The packaging, which features an odd photo of Brando, is also well done and fits the tone of the film perfectly.

The DVD, unfortunately, has one major problem that prevents it from truly being a definitive edition. It’s missing Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s phenomenal 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” which chronicled the trials and tribulations of making “Apocalypse Now.” The featurettes on the existing DVD aren’t nearly as involving, which is a shame, since “Hearts of Darkness” is one of the best making-of features ever.

Had the second disc only included “Hearts of Darkness” (like the second disc of the “Citizen Kane” DVD, which contains only the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”), this edition of “Apocalypse Now” would have been definitive. But the omission makes the title of the DVD, “The Complete Dossier,” a misnomer.

However, “Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier” is a great DVD – even with the absence of “Hearts of Darkness.” It may not be the complete version it claims to be, but it’s a great edition of an even greater film.