“The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.”- Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen).
On May 10 1979, Francis Ford Coppola finally edited down over one-million feet of film to give us his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Hailed as a modern masterpiece, this movie resonated with a country that was still fresh from the conflict and reeling in its aftermath. Well-received and acclaimed as one of the most important cinematic classics of the twentieth century, Apocalypse Now was the dividing line between old and new forms of action movie. In its wake, audiences strayed from the heroes of the Spaghetti Western era. Their heroes had to be real, veterans: First Blood replaced High Plains Drifter, and eventually John McClane replaced John Wayne. The Vietnam war had killed off the view of what a hero should be, how they should act after witnessing the actual realities of war.
As a story, Apocalypse Now takes its inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola and co-writer John Milius (Dirty Harry) kept a degree of the novella’s elements. This can be seen mainly in the character at the centre of the narrative, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz is portrayed as a Special Forces Colonel who goes insane at a Cambodian outpost, becoming worshipped by the locals and commanding his own private army of Vietnamese Montagnard soldiers. As this poses a threat to military security, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned with with the task of transversing the Nùng river in a standard boat patrol to find and assassinate Kurtz. On the surface, it appears to a storyline which should be simple and straightforward to execute. However, the reality could not be further from the truth. The legend surrounding the making of Apocalypse Now, at times, outweighs the cinematic marvel that it is.
“My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam…and little by little we went insane.” – Coppola
The creation of Apocalypse Now is a tale which starts and ends with a submergence into madness for the sake of art. From the outset, it began as Francis Ford Coppola sank $30 million of his own money into the movies’ production, signing away everything he owned. Costs spiralled as the initial shoot was supposed to last a mere six weeks, but instead lasted 16 months due to complications, including a typhoon that destroyed the sets. Post-production took Coppola a further three years of editing the footage to create the 153 minutes which comprises the movie.
All that said, the toll the shooting took on cast and Francis Ford Coppola is something which is hard to believe. Coppola himself threatened suicide several times during the making of the movie. Martin Sheen, meanwhile, suffered a near-fatal heart attack and was hospitalized, the exhaustion from the workload as well as the onset pressures almost killing him. To add to it all, the stress of that episode caused Coppola to have an epileptic seizure. The resulting movie may be spectacular but it was hard-fought in the creative process and came at a cost. Sheen’s narration throughout the movie gives an insight into the intensity of the actual shoot alongside illustrating the mindset of war.
Throughout Apocalypse Now, the lines between reality and art blur to the point of madness. The opening scenes where, Martin Sheen is clearly intoxicated in a hotel room, were all real! They were filmed on his 36th birthday, and he supposedly never knew the filming was going to be a part of the movie. Everything including the smashing of the mirror was authentic. The intensity of The Doors’ track ‘The End’ reflected the feelings and the manic state of mind felt within the Vietnam war, used to dramatic effect capturing the hopelessness inside the fractured mind of a soldier. Fortunately, Coppola was friends with the members of The Doors, who he knew from film school, which made gaining use of the mammoth song easier.
It was not only the health of Sheen which caused stress for Coppola. The other two stars were both volatile. Marlon Brando, who played Colonel Kurtz, showed up to the set late, at times wasted, and extremely overweight. He admitted he had not read the script or Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Instead, Brando argued with the director, threatening to quit on numerous occasions until Coppola eventually agreed to let him ad-lib his own dialogue. Due to Brando’s weight gain, a lot of his character was shot in the shadows and dressed in black, and a double was used for full-body shots. He also refused point-blank to share scenes with Dennis Hopper, the other major name involved, due to his disdain for the actor.
The unnamed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now was a role that was apparently built around Dennis Hopper. No actual part existed beforehand. He injected the role into the movie, becoming both a disciple of, and narrator for, the Kurtz character. Hopper’s role became the go-between of Sheen’s character Willard and Brando’s Kurtz. He is simply there to setup the scenes with intense energy.
The incendiary Hopper portrayed the burnt-out remnant from the hippy culture. His reality at the time soaked into that of the character he played. To help him during the shoot, Hopper was supplied with drugs onset – ‘About an ounce of cocaine’ – on a daily basis.
There was also a more macabre twist to the production. On the set of Kurtz’s jungle stronghold, the hell-hole is strewn with the skulls and remains of enemies he had slaughtered in his private war against the Vietcong. To create that extra touch of realism to the atmosphere, a man who brought cadavers to medical schools was hired to supply dead bodies. As a result, the corpses of actual people were used to hang from trees and left rotting on the ground. All this continued until senior production staff realized, in their horror, what was being used as props.
Despite these set-backs, the movie made certain breakthroughs, such as the sound. Due to the interest in capturing accurate audio of gunfire, helicopters and of course explosions, the final product resulted in the delivery of 5.1 surround sound with two channels behind the audience, and three from behind the movie screen.
Apocalypse Now was also originally planned as a George Lucas movie, who backed out of the project when he got studio approval for Star Wars. After the success of Star Wars, Coppola did seek further financing from Lucas to finish the movie. A further connection exists through the brief appearance of Harrison Ford as Colonel Lucas. His character was named after the Star Wars director, although shot prior the Ford’s appearance as Han Solo.
Stories of warped ideals are at the heart of Apocalypse Now. The production’s ‘make it up as you go’ approach to filming added to the claustrophobic tension within its delivery. Numerous endings were filmed before one was picked. The final chosen scenes sent animal rights activists up in arms due to the portrayal of water buffalo being slain by machete, mirroring the assassination of Kurtz at the hands of Willard as The Doors’ classic ‘The End’ plays again. For all the tales of ad-lib, excess and insanity within Apocalypse Now, there is no denying the success it became. It contains some of cinema’s most memorable dialogue, most famously the line performed by Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore, drawing on his real life experiences from the war: ”I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”