Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now follows a river journey from South Vietnam into Cambodia, undertaken by Captain Willard, who is on a secret mission to assassinate the mysterious renegade Colonel Kurtz. Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it features a glittering ensemble cast headed by Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. It is regarded as a masterpiece of the New Hollywood era, and one of the greatest war films ever made.
Heart of Darkness
Apocalypse Now is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, with the setting changed from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War. The title for the movie was changed entirely, and was inspired by a button badge popular with hippies during the 1960s that said “Nirvana Now”. Heart of Darkness is also the title of the 1991 documentary that looks at the making of Apocalypse Now, featuring raw footage captured by Coppola’s wife Eleanor. An excellent companion piece to the film, it shows how some of the cast and crew went through as much self-discovery as the characters featured in the film. To say the shooting of the movie encountered a few problems would be a massive understatement.
First of all, no studio was willing to take the movie on due to the controversy around the Vietnam War. Coppola ended up putting his own property up as collateral to help finance it. It was shot in the Philippines due to the scenic similarity with Vietnam. Unfortunately, this was during a civil war in the country. One day during shooting five of the helicopters Coppola had borrowed from the government had to be taken away to fight rebels only 10 miles from the set, much to Coppola’s chagrin.
One of the major talking points of the documentary was the health of the cast and crew. One of the main aims of Apocalypse Now was to reveal the drug culture during the war, and see the war for the insanity that it was. Sadly, much of the crew fell into the same pitfalls while making the movie, with drug use rife and many suffering mental breakdowns.
Martin Sheen also endured extreme chest pains during the shoot, resulting in what was diagnosed by doctors as a serious heart attack. Coppola was in denial of this fact, wanting him to come back after just a few weeks’ rest. This wasn’t possible and resulted in him using a body double for a period of five weeks until Sheen was fit enough to return.
Heart of Darkness does an excellent job of portraying the absolute chaos that was the making of Apocalypse Now. There is no doubt the film is a masterpiece, but to create that masterpiece a lot of sacrifices had to be made.
Early Casting Changes
There were a number of fascinating casting changes before and even during the making of Apocalypse Now. Steve McQueen was Coppola’s first choice to play the lead character of Willard. However, he refused to leave America for the three months that would be required to complete filming. Clint Eastwood also turned down the role for the same reason. Martin Sheen was the second choice after Redford, but he had prior commitments which meant he wasn’t available at the start of the shoot. Eventually, Harvey Keitel was cast in the role, after impressing with his work on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. After only one week of principal photography, Coppola realized that Keitel was not the man for the job. In 1990 when discussing Keitel’s portrayal of the main character, he was quoted as saying that the actor “found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker”.
With Keitel axed, Coppola eventually reverted to Sheen for the role, who was now in a place where he could take the commitment on. When we observe Sheen’s performance, in particular the hotel room scene where he is actually intoxicated with alcohol and wounds his hand by accidentally punching a mirror, it’s hard to know if anyone else would have been able to replicate that haunting realism and go to the dark places needed for the role. Sheen himself said he used scenes like this to exorcize his own real-life demons.
The role of Colonel Kurtz was offered to a who’s who of legendary performers, with Orson Welles, Lee Marvin, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson all proposed at various stages. As with Martin Sheen’s casting, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fulfilling the role to the levels of intensity that Brando would eventually deliver.
Other notable cast changes were Gene Hackman, who was set to play the role of Kilgore and later replaced by Robert Duvall, and James Caan to play the minor role of Colonel Lucas. Due to monetary demands, he was replaced by Harrison Ford. An alternate version of Apocalypse Now with the substitute cast would be a fascinating watch.
The Brando Problem
As mentioned above, one of the biggest casting headaches was choosing who to play the role of the infamous Colonel Walter Kurtz. Coppola had previously worked with Brando on the Godfather films, to massive acclaim, and he eventually identified him as the perfect person to play the role. Brando did not come cheaply, however. He was to receive three million dollars for three weeks’ work, with one million paid in advance. A vast sum of money considering the short amount of screen time he was going to occupy.
The situation turned into something of a nightmare for Coppola. First of all, while he was struggling to write the ending to the film, he informed Brando and his agent that they would not be needed until a later date than agreed, due to the delays. Brando didn’t want to play ball and threatened to pull out entirely and keep the million-dollar advance, as he didn’t want to wait for the ending to be re-written. Coppola eventually decided to shoot some scenes out of order and filmed Brandon’s parts earlier than planned.
The next issue was that Brando arrived on set vastly overweight. Coppola had not expected him to be in his previous best shape as a Hollywood heartthrob, but was shocked when Brandon turned up larger than he had ever been before. Coppola tried to use this to his advantage, suggesting Kurtz’s character be portrayed as someone who was indulging in the pleasures of Godhood too much. Surround him with women, slaves, and food platters. But Brando would have none of it. He was incredibly shy and anxious about his weight and didn’t want to be depicted that way.
It also turned out he had never read the source material, Heart of Darkness, which led to yet another fallout.
What Apocalypse Now Means to Us
Coppola took William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous quote and Joseph Conrad’s novella and combined them to make the ultimate cinematic trip through Hades. A mesmerizing exploration of the human psyche amidst the brutality and insanity of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is not an accurate description of war but a perfect adaptation of how war feels. This is far closer to a horror movie than your grandfather’s war epic. There’s no idolizing the past or the brave heroes who fought for their country. This is Dante done on the biggest scale imaginable. Instead of demons with pitch forks and cauldrons of lava, its rainforests concealing unseen horrors and hallucinatory spectacles under the influence of drugs. Coppola’s visual storytelling creates an atmosphere both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
At the center of this war-torn narrative is Captain Benjamin Willard, portrayed with incredible depth and intensity by Martin Sheen. Sheen’s performance is a tour de force, capturing the conflicted nature of his character as he embarks on a dangerous mission to assassinate the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz (a mesmerizing Marlon Brando) deep in the Cambodian jungle. With each step closer to his destination, Willard’s humanity and sanity are tested, reflecting the moral dilemmas faced by all who find themselves caught up in the chaos of war.
The supporting cast delivers outstanding performances all around. Robert Duvall steals scenes as the charismatic and slightly unhinged Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, forever associated with the now-famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Dennis Hopper adds an additional layer of madness as the photojournalist strung out on drugs who becomes entangled in Kurtz’s cult-like following.
What elevates Apocalypse Now above mere war movies is its exploration of the darkness that lies within human nature. As the characters encounter the horrors of war and the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, the film forces us to question the sanity of a world turned upside down. It is a chilling reminder of the potential for depravity within us all, obscured by the veneer of civilization.
I’ve been slowly rewatching Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Hadn’t seen it since the 90s. But one major theme of the show is man’s war like nature. Why do we fight? Why do we seem to like to fight? Why can’t we have peace?
I think Apocalypse Now is an attempt to answer that question.
Throughout the film, we are introduced to characters like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard and Robert Duvall’s cavalry officer Bill Kilgore. When we meet Willard at the beginning of the film, he’s staying in a hotel in Saigon in relative safety. In civilization. And he’s climbing the walls. Unhinged. Anxious to get back into the bush. Once there, he’s calm. Like the eye in a hurricane. Duvall’s Kilgore almost seems oblivious that there’s even a war on as he encourages his men to strip down to shorts and surf waves in the middle of an intense beach battle.
Indeed, both of these men are at home in the middle of war. To them, war is joy. War is the natural state of man.
There’s a scene around 50 minutes in that shows Willard and Frederic Forrest’s Chef are hacking their way into the jungle to find some mangos. The camera pulls back to a wide shot. The scale of the men against the jungle says it all: these men aren’t outside of nature, they are part of it, if only a very tiny part. It’s a breathtaking moment in the film and shortly after a tiger hurls itself out of the thick undergrowth at the men, and they are forced to flee in terror.
And then we have Brando. The enigmatic Kurtz, I think, is the film’s attempt to answer the question that so many of the characters in Gundam Wing are wrestling with. Kurtz has done unimaginable things. Inhuman things. But he is honest about them. He understands his nature. He understands that the same capacity is within all men and that the pretense of civilization is simply a disguise meant to hide that fact.
Kurtz isn’t crazy. He is the tiger. He has confronted the darkness within and made his peace with it.
This is one of those films you just HAVE to see multiple to get a grasp of brilliant it is. Plus you really need to see the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse that details the struggles Coppola had in making the film. It brings a whole new depth to it all. I can’t really say much more than Sailor and Dhalgren have above me to explain why I love this film. I just do. It’s not a regular rewatchable or anything… BUT once every decade or so it needs to be seen again.
– K. Alvarez
Apocalypse Now is a prime example of adversity being the fuel for greatness. Many times throughout the shoot Coppola expressed his concerns that the film was a bust. Problems with rewriting the ending, the animal rights controversies, issues with shooting in a war-torn country, and the subject matter of the Vietnam War itself, all meant it was a near-impossible task. But perseverance prevailed, and we as an audience should feel privileged with the product that we eventually received. It was a daring and bold project that scared off many of the Hollywood elite. It changed the lives of much of the cast and crew, as they descended into madness just like the characters they were playing. It went on to win two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and the Best Picture award at the Cannes Film Festival. Whether or not it was worth the sacrifices is up to each individual to decide. I for one am extremely grateful.
Have you seen Apocalypse Now? What did you think of the film? Got a fun fact or piece of trivia on the making of the film? Share it in the comments below!