After a trouble-plagued production described as a "nightmare" by its participants, and despite charges of overreaching self-indulgence on the part of its creator, Coppola's film is considered by many to be one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- of all anti-war movies. Inspired by Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, it depicts war as a descent into madness, as the anguished Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned to find and execute Lt. Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an AWOL Special Forces officer who has set himself up as an all-powerful avenging angel among head-hunting villagers in a Cambodian jungle. As he heads upriver in his search, Willard encounters various horrors of combat, not the least of which is the supermacho, semi-psychotic Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall).
One of several movies about Vietnam released in the late 1970s, Apocalypse Now has a sense of extravagance and daring unusual even for that decade of dynamic filmmaking. In retrospect, its dark vision and polarizing effect among viewers make it one of the most emblematic works of its era.
The project began with George Lucas's plans to direct a script written by John Milius in 1969 entitled The Psychedelic Soldier, with Coppola as executive producer. Lucas had planned to shoot his film as a faux documentary on location in South Vietnam while the war was still underway. But a production deal with Warner Bros. fell through, and Coppola moved on to co-write and direct The Godfather (1972). The huge success of this Oscar®-winning film gave him the clout to reintroduce the idea of Apocalypse Now, which would be filmed by Coppola's own American Zoetrope Studios for United Artists, on location in the Philippines.
By this time Saigon had fallen, making the idea of a "documentary" approach obsolete and redefining the story as a reflection on what many saw as the futility and horror of the Vietnam War, as well as Coppola's own conflicted emotions. Screenwriter Milius had no desire to direct the film himself, and Lucas, busy now with Star Wars (1977), gave Coppola his blessing to direct Apocalypse Now.
Orson Welles had been Coppola's first choice to play Col. Kurtz, and while Brando vacillated about doing the film, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino were considered for his role. The latter two were also on Coppola's list of possibilities to play Capt. Willard, a role that already had been turned down by Steve McQueen. In declining the captain's role, Pacino was said to have told Coppola, "You're going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I'm gonna be down there in the swamp for five months."
Eventually, Harvey Keitel was cast as Willard, but two weeks into filming Coppola replaced him with Sheen, feeling that Keitel's "feverish" intensity was wrong for an essentially passive character. The director had wanted James Caan as Col. Lucas, a general's aide, but Caan's salary demands were deemed too high for a relatively minor role. Harrison Ford, although then emerging as a major star thanks to the first Star Wars movie, accepted the role for a smaller fee.
After planning a six-week shoot on a $12 million budget, Coppola would end up with a 238-day shooting schedule, spread over 16 months, expenses in excess of $31 million (requiring him to dip into his own private funds) and more than 200 hours of raw footage. The human cost of the production also was high; along with the discomfort, stress and diseases suffered by the company during what seemed like endless filming in the jungle, Coppola came close to nervous collapse, made threats of suicide and reportedly lost 100 pounds. Sheen suffered a life-altering heart attack. Drug use was rampant on the set.
Other causes for the frequent delays in the Philippines were such natural disasters as an earthquake and a typhoon that destroyed several elaborate sets; plus the ever-evolving script and Coppola's overwhelming sense of perfectionism.
The actors created considerable crises of their own. Coppola had been led to believe that Brando, who had been paid $1 million in advance on his $3 million salary, had studied Heart of Darkness and prepared his role in advance of filming. The director was appalled when his star arrived to reveal that he had never read the novel, did not know his lines and had become hugely fat, weighing in at 285 pounds -- even though Kurtz had been written as emaciated because he is infected with malaria.
After his initial dismay, Coppola proceeded by reading the novel aloud to Brando on the set and making plans to photograph him in close-ups and deep shadows to hide his bulk. After many arguments, Brando refused to deliver his lines as written and rewrote or ad-libbed them. Coppola reportedly became so angry with the actor that he turned over the filming of Brando's scenes to assistant director Jerry Ziesmer.
Sheen, at Coppola's urging, stayed drunk for two days as he improvised the scene early in the film when Willard becomes distraught and crashes his hand into a mirror. (The first of these days was his 36th birthday.) The emotional state, shattered mirror and bloody hand were all real, leading Ziesmer to ponder, "Should we have pushed and prodded Marty to the extent we did for a performance in a motion picture? Did the ends justify the means?" Sheen, who failed to win an Oscar® nomination for his performance, has since enjoyed a very successful career but never again threw himself into a project with this kind of reckless commitment.
Also in the cast are Dennis Hopper as a spaced-out journalist, Frederic Forrest as an ill-fated grunt, G.D. Spradlin as the general who sends Willard on his mission, and Albert Hall as a soldier whose disciplined behavior seems unique in the surroundings. Laurence Fishburne, then billed as "Larry" and cast as a member of Willard's crew, was only 14 when filming began!
Coppola had sought the Pentagon's support in making the movie, but Army officials, after reading a draft of the script, promptly refused to cooperate in any way. This led to arrangements with Ferdinand Marcos, then president of the Philippines, to rent American-made helicopters and military equipment. Real-life mountain tribesmen appeared as the natives at Kurtz's compound who have turned him into a god. For Coppola's climactic scene, they performed the actual ritual slaying of a water buffalo.
No mention of Heart of Darkness as the literary source of Apocalypse Now is included in the film's credits, even though the script follows the outline of the novella (which was set in the Belgian Congo of the 1890s), and the name "Kurtz" is retained for the Brando character. Significantly, the Oscar® nomination for the script was in the category of best screenplay based on another medium. The real-life model for the updated Kurtz was Col. Robert Rheault, a commanding officer of U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam who was court-martialed in 1969 for the murder of a Vietnamese guide he suspected of being a double agent. The charges against Rheault eventually were dropped, but his career had been ruined by what the press called "the Green Beret murder case." Official documents had described the killing of the suspected agent as "termination with extreme prejudice" -- a phrase repeated in the film.
After an additional nine months of editing, Coppola released Apocalypse Now to mixed reviews. Even those who found Brando's section to be pretentious and/or incomprehensible, however, were impressed by the extraordinary combat footage and Storaro's consistently brilliant cinematography. The film, shown as a work in progress at the Cannes Film Festival, won that group's prestigious Grand Prize.
The film won eight nominations, including those for Best Picture and Director, and captured two Oscar®s, for Vittorio Storaro's magnificent cinematography and Best Sound. (Apocalypse Now was the first major motion picture to utilize Dolby Stereo Surround technology.) Despite several brilliant performances, the only acting nomination went to Duvall for his role as the ruthless, dandified, surf-and-Wagner-loving Col. Kilgore, who delivers one of the most-quoted lines in film history: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning... It smells like victory."
The movie's reputation has grown over the years; it was voted as "Best Picture of the Last 25 Years" by the Dutch magazine Skrien and placed as No. 30 on the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Movies of All Time. British TV's Film4 puts Apocalypse Now at No. 1 on its list of "50 Films To See Before You Die."
Eleanor Coppola, the director's wife, kept a diary during filming and published it with her husband's permission in 1979 as Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now. At his suggestion, she also worked on a promotional film for the United Artists Publicity Department. This idea eventually was abandoned, but Eleanor turned over her footage to Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper for their feature-length, Emmy-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991).
In 2001, Coppola introduced Apocalypse Now Redux, his revised and extended version of the film created with editor Walter Murch. This re-edit includes 49 minutes of new material, clarifies some story points and emphasizes the movie's surreal atmosphere.
Producers: Francis Coppola; John Ashley, Eddie Romero, Mona Skager (associate producers); Gray Frederickson, Freed Roos, Tom Sternberg (co-producers)
Director: Francis Coppola
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration), from novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (uncredited)
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editing: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Walter Murch
Original Music: Carmine Coppola, Francis Coppola
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction: Angelo Graham
Cast: Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Martin Sheen (Captain Benjamin L. Willard), Robert Duvall (Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Jay "Chef" Hicks), Sam Bottoms (Lance B. Johnson), Larry Fishburne (Tyrone "Clean" Miller), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), G.D. Spradlin (General Corman), Jerry Ziesmer (Jerry, civilian), Scott Glenn (Lieutenant Richard M. Colby) .
by Roger Fristoe