Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now (1979) Director: Francis Ford Coppola

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”


Originally conceived as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is a haunting, terrifying, powerful portrayal of the Vietnam War by Francis Ford Coppola who takes us deep into the dark recesses of our primitive subconscious. In truth, it was a miracle that the film was even made at all; nearly everything went wrong during during production. The original title was “Apocalypse Three” but was changed by scriptwriter John Milius to poke fun at the pop culture idiom “Nirvana Now.” The initial intent was for George Lucas to direct the film as a black comedy, but after several years and a denied request to shoot the film on location in Vietnam, Lucas moved on to other projects (American Graffiti and Star Wars) and Francis Ford Coppola took over the project. There were casting problems from the get-go as Coppola bounced between actors Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, James Caan, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, and many others. Eventually he settled on Martin Sheen to play the lead of Capt. Benjamin Willard, a troubled soldier who is hoping to somehow escape the horror. However, he is tasked with leading a band of soldiers on a riverboat expedition through Vietnam deep into Cambodia. Their covert mission is to locate and kill Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has apparently gone rogue. The further they go upriver, the more dark and twisted things become. In a mirror image of the film’s themes, while filming Martin Sheen gradually descended into a maddening fit of alcoholism and he suffered a nervous breakdown followed by a heart attack while working under harsh conditions. The crew lied about the severity of his health crisis in order to keep the production on schedule, as it was already burdened by delays and budgetary problems that lingered for years.

At any rate, Willard is given his orders by Col. G. Lucas (Harrison Ford pre-Han Solo, who chose his character’s name as a nod to George Lucas). Amusingly in these early scenes of the film, you can spot Francis Ford Coppola’s cameo along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. They play television newsmen and Coppola shouts “Don’t look at the camera, go by like you’re fighting!” En route to the Nung river Willard is joined by “Chef” (Frederic Forrest), “Chief” Phillips the ship’s driver (Albert Hall), “Lance” (Sam Bottoms), and “Mr. Clean” (played by a 14 year-old Laurence Fishburne who lied about his age to get the part). They are escorted to the mouth of the Nung river by Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a gruff and crass soldier who only helps them when he learns that Lance is a fellow surfer (Duvall utters the famous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). Their wild and chaotic romp through the jungle is initially filled with cigarettes and classic rock (the film begins with The Doors’ “The End” and of course later features Wagner’s famous “Flight of the Valkyries” against the backdrop of the helicopter drop scene). The question of existing leadership and authority runs throughout the film. Who is really in charge? What is the right thing to do in a world of complete moral ambiguity?

As the crew proceeds upriver they are always under fear of an unseen enemy. Out of paranoia they brutally slaughter a family of peasant farmers on a boat and following several skirmishes along the river there are only two men left alive aboard the boat. After encountering increasingly detached and deranged bands of soldiers with minimal connection to reality, Willard and his only remaining companion finally arrive at the end of the river where a giant Angkor temple is surrounded by tribal warriors who respond only to the rule of Col. Kurtz. A lone photojournalist who is questionably sane and a spiritual devotee of Kurtz informs them of the situation (Dennis Hooper, who played his character high on cocaine at Coppola’s direction). Captain Willard decides to wait around to meet Col. Kurtz, now a mysterious cult-leader. However, Kurtz promptly executes Willard’s only remaining comrade, Chef, and keeps Willard alive under full-time guard until Willard suddenly attacks Kurtz — a scene which is inter-spliced with images of a brutal, ritualistic animal execution. As Kurtz lays dying on the floor he whispers, “the horror… the horror…” Willard escapes with a collection of Col. Kurtz’s writings and the film ends with Willard having completed his mission.

The story of Apocalypse Now is legendary for being mired in production hell. The film was shot in the Philippines and was beset by delays due to hurricanes and typhoons (which destroyed many of the original sets), so the cast and crew were flown back home and some decided not to return because there were also regional battles of feuding warlords happening at the same time (the Philippines was about to descend into civil war). The set was robbed by unknown assailants preventing payment to the crew and the budget had ballooned far past studio expectations. Loans and insurance policies were extended, with Coppola personally on the hook if the film did not gross more than $40M at the box office, and he also sunk $7M of his own money into the project using his winery in Napa as collateral. He became consumed by anxiety and depression, ultimately losing nearly 100 pounds. Many of the actors got high on various drugs during filming: LSD, marijuana, speed, and also many contracted rare diseases. Actor Sam Bottoms was infected by a parasitic hookworm that caused severe liver damage. At one point real human corpses were accidentally delivered to the set by an illegal grave robber and the police showed up to implicate the production in the crimes. Meanwhile, after filming was completed, Coppola realized he needed to return to the Philippines for re-shoots and to craft a new ending. The film continued to be created without a rigid plan. At the same time, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack so his brother was brought in as a body double during shooting. When they returned back home again almost all the audio had to be dubbed because the initial sound quality was so poor –the editing for the helicopter scenes took a year alone to edit (since the Philippines was in the midst of a civil war Coppola was able to get away with destroying vast stretches of forestry for the napalm scenes). The American military declined to partner with Coppola on the film when they learned of the plot, and instead the Philippines gave their American-made helicopters on loan to the production, however some were later recalled due to the brewing civil war.

Both Orson Welles and Lee Marvin passed on the role of Col. Kurtz. Marlon Brando only accepted the role because he was paid $2M for working 1 month on location, as well as 10% of the box office gross as well as television sales rights. However, when Brando arrived on the set in July 1976, he was drunk and 90 pounds overweight without having read either the novel or the script (he hadn’t even prepped his lines). This forced Coppola to shoot Brando’s character in inventive and shadowy ways, even as Brando constantly battled Coppola over the script. They struck several deals, such as for Brando to shave his head and for the character to appear in draped robes. But Brando grew increasingly erratic and difficult to work with. He refused to appear alongside Dennis Hopper who was high on cocaine for his performance. After refusing to stick to the script, Brando often improvised his own lines (some of which are the most famous in the film) and continued to increase his personal fee for his mere 15 minutes of screen time (Tennessee Williams later mused that Brando must have been paid by the pounds he gained). In the end, Coppola refused to either direct or review Brando’s footage and he gave the job to his assistants.

The original theatrical release was cut down and condensed with the hope of drawing a larger audiences and thankfully for all parties involved it was a box office success. Since then there have been re-releases with additional hours of footage including Apocalypse Now Redux. This was the version I watched and it was fantastic.

“The horror… the horror…”

1 thought on “Apocalypse Now

  1. The things that we can learn in later years about classic films and TV shows, certainly the problems faced by the cast and crew, can be quite astonishing sometimes. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s