Color, 1987, 111 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring James Caan, Anjelica Huston, James Earl Jones, D.B. Sweeney, Dean Stockwell, Mary Stuart Masterson, Lonette McKee, Sam Bottoms, Elias Koteas, Laurence Fishburne, Casey Siemaszko
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RA HD), Sony, Mill Creek (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

After Gardens of Stoneblowing the bank at the turn of the 1980s Gardens of Stonewith a pair of extremely costly productions, Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart (with only the former turning out to be a success), writer-director Francis Ford Coppola spent the rest of the decade making one unexpected choice after another including a pair of S.E. Hinton teen dramas, the ambitious The Cotton Club, and even a Michael Jackson theme park short. In 1987, he returned to the theme of the Vietnam War a mere eight years after Apocalypse Now for the considerably more intimate Gardens of Stone, based on a recently published novel by Nicholas Proffitt and a comeback vehicle of sorts of James Caan after a five-year absence.

Divorced, estranged from his son, and jaded by the war in Vietnam circa 1968, Sgt. Clell Hazard (Caan) is assigned to Arlington Cemetery where he finds a surrogate son figure in Jackie Willow (Sweeney), the son of an old military buddy. As the dead continue to ship back home to Hazard's dismay, he sees an opportunity to take a soldier under his wing and make him aware of how to save other young men out serving tours of duty. Meanwhile Hazard also contends with his superior officer, Sgt. Goody Nelson (Jones), and fosters a romantic relationship with reporter Samantha (Huston) while Willow finds marriage with Rachel (Masterson), the anti-war daughter of a colonel. When the time comes for Willow to ship out, Hazard finds his own views challenged and, ultimately, forever changed. Gardens of Stone

Gardens of StoneDespite its pedigree, Gardens of Stone was met with indifference when it opened during a glut of 1987 prestige projects about Vietnam following the surprise Oscar-winning success of Oliver Stone's Platoon (including Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, and Good Morning, Vietnam). It's easily the most contemplative and sedate of the bunch as well which didn't exactly suit audience tastes at the time, but today it's easier to appreciate as a straightforward drama with a craftsmanship and directness that's more akin to classic TV dramas of the '50s and '60s. The perspective on the war's impact back home is also a change of pace for the time, as most other projects were focused on the harrowing nature of combat itself. Here it's more about the minutiae of military procedure and how it informs the personal lives of those it touches, with an admirable eye for detail and a respect for the men serving who hold a wide range of views about the war itself.

Though never a major home video dynamo, Gardens of Stone has remained steadily available on home video through VHS and DVD including editions from Sony and a budget release from Mill Creek. The film would eventually make its worldwide Blu-ray debut as a region-free U.K. release from Indicator in 2019, limited to 3,000 units, featuring a Sony-provided HD scan that's up to the studio's usual immaculate standards. It really looks beautiful and actually boasts more vitality than it did during its initial release in rather dingy-looking prints. Gardens of StoneThe LPCM English 2.0 stereo audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also excellent and true to the original, fairly subdued Dolby Stereo mix. The film can also be played with an informative audio commentary by critic Jim Hemphill, who lays out the basics of this film's status after the collapse of Gardens of StoneAmerican Zoetrope (a fascinating thread running through the whole track) and makes a case for it as an underrated and rewarding personal effort from its creator while sharing info about many of the participants including screenwriter Ronald Bass, who would go on to fame with Rain Man right after this. Another audio option is 2006's "The Guardian Interview with Anjelica Huston" conducted by Adrian Wootton at London's National Film Theatre, which covers her entire career from growing up in the industry with father John Huston (including her earliest memories of being on the set of Moby Dick) to auditioning for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet through the award-winning acting career she would go on to forge for decades, including a particularly poignant bit about The Dead. The new "Francis Coppola: War at Home" (16m15s) features the filmmaker discussing his definition of an anti-war film (epitomized by The Burmese Harp), his financial situation that obligated him to make a movie every year, his ongoing collaborations with Caan, the impact of his son's death during production, and the initial responses to the film by the producer. He also touches on some trims made to the film following preview screenings and manages to reference everything from The Cutting Edge to Secret Admirer along the way. The theatrical trailer is also included in HD but open matte, so you can see a sample of the extraneous extra info visible when this hit VHS, along with a gallery of production and promotional photos. The enclosed liner notes booklet is also a trove of info including a new Neil Sinyard essay, notes on Coppola and the cast, and sample reviews from its theatrical release.

Reviewed on February 5, 2019.