In 1983 Dennis Hopper went to Rice University in Houston, Texas ostensibly to screen his latest film Out Of The Blue. But little known to anyone, other than Hopper and a handful of his buddies, he had another agenda entirely. While he did indeed screen his movie, Hopper had actually come to Houston to blow himself up. After screening Out Of The Blue, Hopper arranged to have the audience driven by a fleet of school buses to a racetrack on the outskirts of Houston, the Big H Speedway. Hopper and the buses arrived at the speedway just as the races were ending and a voice was announcing over the public address system “stick around folks and watch a famous Hollywood film personality perform the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act. That’s right, folks, he’ll sit in a chair with six sticks of dynamite and light the fuse.”
Was famous Hollywood personality Dennis Hopper about to go out with a bang? Hopper apparently learned this stunt when he was a kid after seeing it performed in a traveling roadshow. If you place the dynamite pointing outwards the explosion creates a vacuum in the middle and the person performing the stunt is, if all goes according to plan, unharmed. After bullshitting for awhile with the crowd and his friends, a drunk and stoned Hopper climbed into the “death chair’ and lit the dynamite.
Rice News correspondent describes the scene:
Dennis Hopper, at one with the shock wave, was thrown headlong in a halo of fire. For a single, timeless instant he looked like Wile E. Coyote, frazzled and splayed by his own petard. Then billowing smoke hid the scene. We all rushed forward, past the police, into the expanding cloud of smoke, excited, apprehensive, and no less expectant than we had been before the explosion. Were we looking for Hopper or pieces we could take home as souvenirs? Later Hopper would say blowing himself up was one of the craziest things he has ever done, and that it was weeks before he could hear again. At the moment, though, none of that mattered. He had been through the thunder, the light, and the heat, and he was still in one piece. And when Dennis Hopper staggered out of that cloud of smoke his eyes were glazed with the thrill of victory and spinout.
In this video footage shot by filmmaker Brian Huberman, we see Hopper in all his intoxicated glory before and after his death defying stunt. Huberman on the film clip:
The large guy making the sign of the cross is the writer Terry Southern and the jerk threatening to blow up my camera is the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders.
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The work print is the holy grail of film collecting. These are the vastly long, rough versions of a picture, containing much of the movie-making fat that is trimmed out by the editing process. For years, film collectors tap their keyboards until their fingers bleed in attempts to track down the bum-numbing versions of movies such as Dune and This Is Spinal Tap for the unseen gems they may or may not hold. Of all the legendary work prints out there, the most persistently tantalising prospect is seeing the rumoured 289-minute version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The theatrical release print runs a mere 153 minutes, and the Redux reissue 202 minutes, so the work print offers almost an hour and a half of unseen footage. To a serious film geek, the prospect is unthinkably exciting - surely it couldn’t be true?
Despite a lack of tangible proof that it even existed - including denials from the film’s producers - the most dedicated collectors spent years searching for it, until something supposed to be this grail-like object found its way into the public domain. After exhaustive negotiations with an American film collector who had tracked down a copy, I found myself signing for an airmail package, booking the day off work and settling down for some serious viewing.
The first thing to point out is that to call this five-hour work print a “rough cut” is a mistake. It’s an “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” cut, which takes almost all the material from the 238-day shoot and tapes it together in a linear form. The work print moves at a snail’s pace, with unfeasibly long scenes. The Ride of the Valkyries helicopter episode alone accounts for well over 30 minutes of footage. Scenes that, with expert editing, would become tense and compelling simply drift along aimlessly, interesting only to anoraks for the extra line of dialogue here and there.
There are, however, gems amid the mass of footage, which leave the viewer wondering how Coppola could have taken the scissors to them. Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz has three extra scenes, which more than quadruple the size of his part. In one, Brando reads from Time magazine to an imprisoned Martin Sheen. In another he delivers a monologue to Sheen about the “master liars” in Washington who “want to win, but can’t stand to be thought of as cruel”. In a third, he reads TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, while Dennis Hopper gets excited and says “man” a lot. One of the things removed from the film for the cinematic release, along with the extra footage, is its political conscience. Scenes in which the characters question and criticise the US involvement in Vietnam and the conduct of American government are cut. Themes of politics give way to an exploration of the human nature and psychology.
Of all the cuts, the unkindest are dealt to Scott Glenn’s character, Colby, Willard’s predecessor, who was charged with killing Kurtz, but instead falls under his spell. In the work print, Colby is revealed to be a significant character who taunts an imprisoned Willard and, more importantly, shoots Hopper’s character before being killed himself. Likewise, the character of Lance (played by Sam Bottoms) gets extra scenes designed to show his instability. In one, he inexplicably machine-guns a water buffalo, while screaming: “I control the destiny of every living thing which passes before my sights.”
It took Coppola and his editors more than 700 days to turn a million feet of celluloid into a watchable film. What the work print makes clear are the choices editors are forced to make when faced with almost unlimited footage. Scenes that drove the crew to the brink of madness and Coppola to the edge of financial ruin were dropped without sentiment - simply because they didn’t improve the story. —Gordon Coates, The Guardian, Friday 17 October 2008
My copy of the Apocalypse Now Workprint runs some 5 hours and came as a 2-DVD set. The Workprint is a distillation of the masses of footage Coppola shot for Apocalypse Now, and should be considered a rough draft of the Original Cut of the film. The Workprint features no narration, no dialogue looping, no sound FX and none of the original score. As well as extra footage the Workprint contains alternative takes, alternative dialogue, a temp soundtrack, and in some cases absent scenes that would appear only in the Original Cut. The quality of the Workprint is very poor but watchable. —Apocalypse Now The 5-hour Workprint