GARDENS OF STONE R, 1987, 112 minutes, CBS/Fox Video, $89.98.
Francis Coppola has always been good at weddings and funerals, and in "Gardens of Stone," it's the graveyard scenes, laying the dead to rest, that command most of his attention. In "Gardens," the rituals of burial -- the rolling drums, the folding of the flag, the playing of taps -- are stately and somber, but with a theatrical crispness. They're choreographed, in grim, metronomically slow motion. It's a death dance in dirge time. The movie begins and ends with a funeral -- the same funeral, in fact. It tells the story of a green recruit named Jackie (D.B. Sweeney) who joins the Army in 1968 at the peak of the American involvement in Southeast Asia, only to be assigned to Fort Myer with the Old Guard, a unit whose duty it is to plant the honored dead at Arlington. Jackie isn't happy about the assignment; he wants to be where the action is, at the "sharp end," and so does his sergeant (James Caan). "Gardens" can't in any way be counted as a success, but it's not a disaster either. Based on the novel by Nicholas Proffitt, it's been written for the screen (by Ronald Bass, who also wrote "Black Widow") in a flat-footed comic book style, and about halfway through the whole thing collapses. But throughout there are remnants of a once-great director. At least in some parts of the film, Coppola seems to wake from his post-"Apocalypse" coma. (It's a bit like watching a gifted athlete learn to walk again after a serious injury.) He gets some terrific performances out of his supporting cast, particularly James Earl Jones and Dean Stockwell. And Anjelica Huston's sparse few moments in the film may be the best scenes he's ever gotten from a woman.