I saw Apocalypse Now today at the Seattle Cinema, part of their 70mm festival. A sign at the door informed the moviegoers that the print of the film had a “color fade” due to its age and less than ideal storage, though the sound, for which the film is famous for, was in excellent condition. Did this detract from my enjoyment of the film? Well, yes and no. Yes, only slightly, but largely no, because it accentuated an aspect of the film with which I am deeply fascinated. Let me explain.
To begin, I absolutely love the film and have seen both the original and Redux cut numerous times since I first encountered it in high school, so I was very excited to see this on the big screen (in 70mm no less). The lights went down, the curtain parted, and Coppola’s masterpiece, slightly over-exposed and red-tinged, flickered to life. The first thing I thought: “All is definitely not lost here, but Vittorio Storaro’s orchestration of colors and the principles behind their use (his color philosophy) will be undermined.” Just how crucial are Storaro’s vibrant colors in the film? In an interview with The Guardian, Storaro cites the illustrations from Burn Hogarth’s Tarzan as an inspiration for the choice of colors in Apocalypse Now: “[Francis and I] didn’t want to do anything naturalistic….I didn’t want it to look like reportage. I put artificial colour [and] artificial light next to real colour [and] real light—to have the explosion of napalm next to a green palm tree; to have the fire of an explosion next to a sunset in order to represent the conflict between the cultural and the irrational.” Additionally, in his book Writing with Light: Volume 1, Storaro additionally characterizes the film’s cinematography as representing “a discourse on the senses of civilizations”; the notion that light represents the civilized world and darkness represents the uncivilized (primeval) world is presented through “technological color’s abuse of natural colour forms…in cinematic terms, this is the conflict central to the film…it is the way artificial colour violates natural colour” (Storaro, 2001, 280). So in this sense, the color fade in the print used by the Cinerama was problematic.
The color fade, however, did enhance the experience in a way that I did not expect. As I have written elsewhere, Apocalypse Now disrupts the traditional war film conventions through its use of haunting, phantasmagorical imagery, a departure from the traditional panoramic vision of earlier war films (and later ones like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan). In conjunction with Storaro’s use of color, this is achieved through Walter Murch’s juxtaposition of images (see photo above). With the color fade, this technique became even more pronounced, allowing this technique, and its haunting effects, to be more visible on a screen originally designed to accompany films like Ben-Hur. Through this effect, war trauma is elevated to the status of ghostly manifestations, haunting American mythology and national narratives.
Despite a slight disappointment with the quality of the print, this was still a rewarding experience that I would recommend to any fan of Apocalypse Now. One suggestion for future revival screenings of the film: acquire a copy of the old printed program that was distributed by ushers at the film’s original screenings, create a revised version of it for contemporary audiences, and pass them out at screenings as a collectable. In any case, today’s screening was a reminder of why this film has stuck with me all these years, in the operatic scope and scale that it was originally intended.