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Koch Vision presents
Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles 1945-1975 (2006)

"I'm not going to be the first American President to lose a war."
- Richard Nixon

Review By: Ross Johnson   
Published: September 14, 2006

Director: Edward Feuerhard

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for violence
Run Time: 05h:21m:00s
Release Date: September 05, 2006
UPC: 741952638797
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ B+B+C+ B

DVD Review

Heart of Darkness, which is based on neither the Joseph Conrad novel nor the similarly titled documentary about the filming of Apocalypse Now, is, in fact, a 2005 documentary in seven parts, touching on many aspects of the Vietnam War.

There's a lot here, covering the French occupation, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, and the aftermath for those who served. The problem is, it's just not very artfully presented. Info-tainment is big business these days—I can count at least a dozen channels on my cable system dedicated to well-produced history documentaries and specials. I'm completely and totally addicted to these channels, with a passion bordering on the obsessive. As a result, I'll admit it: I'm completely spoiled. It's gotten to the point where if I don't hear Morgan Freeman or Richard Dreyfuss and see a multi-million dollar digital recreation of the evacuation of Saigon within the first 15 minutes, my inclination is to tune out. I exaggerate, but I suspect I'm not alone in having grown comfortable with charismatic experts and fancy production values.

My unfair biases in mind, the first episode of Heart of Darkness, Dominoes is absolutely deadly. It starts the series off on a bad note: it's just plain dull—fleeting newsreel clips overlaid with lackluster narratives covering the period from 1945 to 1964. Even given this format, I would have appreciated some lingering on the archival footage, much of which seems rare, as a means of setting the stage for what is to come. There's some quite interesting footage, but it all moves much too quickly to make an impression. Despite having been produced in 2005, Part One plays a bit like the history specials that you were forced to watch in school, dry and colorless. Having some unpleasant flashbacks to junior high, I almost gave up. It took the documentary's moving forward in time to bring some life to the proceedings.

Once it enters the era of American involvement, things pick up considerably. As the episodes move into the '70s, American vets are called upon to narrate. And if it sounds like I've beaten up on the folks at Creation documentaries thusfar, here's where I'll give them credit. Things work quite well when the veterans are allowed to take over and tell their own stories, which is more and more frequent as the series rolls along. In particular, episode 6, Last Man to Die features interviews with medics and nurses, probably some of the true unsung heroes of the conflict. In Love and War discusses the torture of American POWs, and includes the recollections of the late Admiral James Bond Stockdale, perhaps unfortunately best known as the vice presidential candidate on the H. Ross Perot presidential ticket. His life story, as told by himself and his wife Sybil, is compelling, and he makes a much finer impression here than in his "Who am I? Why am I here?" days. Sybil gets a great deal of screentime, which was a good choice on the part of the producers, as she details her life as both the wife of a POW and an advocate for other wives. The set is almost worthwhile just as a means of rehabilitating the image of Adm. Stockdale, which had become a bit of a joke. He's just the most famous example, but the archiving of the experiences of the vets almost makes this set worthwhile in and of itself.

Though Heart of Darkness is rough going at times, there's much that's of value here. It does get much better as the series goes along, and comes to life when vets and their families take over with their opinions, recollections, and conclusions.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio4:3 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The series consists almost entirely of grainy stock footage, newsreel clips, and aged military film, so the overall picture quality is expectedly inconsistent. All things considered, though, it all looks pretty good, with no obvious haloing or transfer artifacts. On the modern interview footage, entirely consisting of talking head shots, colors are clear, and contrast is decent. There's just a bit of grain in these shots, but they still look pretty good.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio mix is pretty atrocious in places. Often there will be music, background noise, and narration all fighting it out for attention, with the narration often on the losing end. Some extremely mind-numbing repetitive musical cues get cranked up way too loud. The audio is almost entiely center focused, which I could deal with...but the sometimes-inaudible narration is an irritation.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 0 cues
Packaging: Cardboard Tri-Fold
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The extras consist entirely of vintage propaganda documentaries, totalling about 99 minutes. I enjoyed them thoroughly, actually. Less informative than the main documentary series, but a bit more briskly paced as well. They're mostly curiosities, and you'd be unlikely to sit through them more than once, though all three have a nice period feel. It's the kind of stuff you'll be unlikely to find anywhere else.

On Disc 1, we get Huey in a Helicopter War about the use of helicopters in Vietnam. It's actually kind of cool, with a lot of nice archival footage of hueys in action. It appears to have been produced by a helicopter manufacturer, so I suppose there was a pretty good reason to make them look exciting.

Then, there's River Patrol, about small watercraft, and this time produced by the navy. It's a little slower than Huey, but again there's some very nice footage.

The final extra, on Disc 3, is the 22-minute That Was 'Nam from a U.S. Marine Corps film about a day in Vietnam for an American soldier. I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the others, but it's still worth checking out.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Heart of Darkness, as a production, really isn't much more than workman-like. What you do get is some great archival footage, and some essential perspectives from combat vets who survived to tell their stories. Anyone who does pick it up would certainly be advised to give it a couple of episodes to warm up. The overall quality is a pretty uneven, which makes it impossible to recommend unreservedly. There is, however, a lot of information and some very good interviews here for a relatively low price. While others should think twice, Vietnam War buffs will likely be pleased.


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