Apocalypse Now is horror and moral terror personified. After experiencing almost every facet of the Vietnam War, I feel like everything was leading up to this. Apocalypse Now is the war movie to end all war movies. The ultimate statement of the many horrors of war. Some have even called it the greatest movie ever made. Something famed director Francis Ford Coppola is no stranger to. Apocalypse Now would go on to become a definitive work from the New Hollywood Era of the 70’s. Inspiring countless imitators, parodies, and even an entire comedy paying homage to it. But the road to get there may be one of the most infamously trying in movie history.
You can’t blame me for being a little fascinated by that. The film was based on the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The Congo was just changed to Vietnam, among other differences. The Vietnam War is still one of the most controversial wars ever fought. Always an endurance test no matter the presentation. With a little help from his friend George Lucas, Coppola’s shoot took years to finish, went over budget, and drove the crew as insane as Vietnam itself. All of which can be seen in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Only the most passionate filmmaker could be dedicated enough to pull off something like Apocalypse Now…
Apocalypse Now was already a challenge since no other screenwriter successfully adapted Heart of Darkness. George Lucas and writer John Milius were both too busy to director, so Francis Ford Coppola became involved. His familiarity with character driven epics makes him an ideal choice. Casting was the next headache since it became a who’s who of 1970’s Hollywood. Harvey Keitel was initially cast as the lead, Captain Willard, before being replaced by Martin Sheen. Sheen was so drunk and facing a mental breakdown during his infamous hotel scene that he cut his hand punching a mirror. Then he suffered a heart attack that halted production and had to be temporarily filled by his brother. I’d never guess his brother was the one performing all of the narration. Sheen’s subtle performance is just as great as all the other major stars.
Robert Duvall’s war obsessed Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore earned him an Oscar nod. His most iconic line being “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Young Harrison Ford even appears as one of the officers who wants Willard to terminate rogue Army Colonel Kurtz with extreme prejudice. Everything in Apocalypse Now leads to his reveal. Although plenty of uncomfortable war atrocities are seen including the “Ride of the Valkyries” beach scene, a river boat is the real setting. Willard is accompanied by a variety of Vietnam soldiers with the same secret mission. Albert Hall steers the boat and questions Willard’s leadership as Phillips. Frederic Forrest cooks up a notable performance as Chef. Sam Bottoms tries to bring levity to Lance, but ultimately loses it. A 14 year old Laurence (or Larry) Fishburne had to lie about his age just to play 17 year old Mr. Clean. Ironically turning 17 by the time shooting wrapped. He’s easily the most tragic figure in this unforgiving war.
Not even a Playboy Playmate performance can distract from their mission. As they’re forced to kill innocents and question their own morality. Until only two remain. Kurtz is said to have lost his mind and present himself as some sort of god to a Cambodian tribe. Dennis Hopper doesn’t help the assumption as a war photographer who calls him a poet. The reveal of Kurtz is practically mythical. Shrouding him in darkness with philosophical lines off the top of Marlon Brando’s head. Only an actor as brilliant as Brando could make that work. His weight was just an issue since more scenes with him would be difficult to pull off. Although Willard makes it to Kurtz, he’s unsure what to do next. Kurtz makes him question the war, his role in it, and the horrors he’s witnessed. Endings vary, but Willard finally decides to finish his mission. Rising from the river camouflaged in another iconic shot. Before becoming the very thing he sought to destroy.
Other filming difficulties included entire sets being destroyed, a payroll being stolen, strained actor relationships, and the killing of a real water buffalo. The movie wasn’t even finished when it first premiered. Even then the theatrical release wasn’t the only version. As a 3 hour Redux was made with more nudity and character moments. Then again with a Final Cut that Coppola prefers. The lack of opening and closing credits still confuses me though. No matter the version, Apocalypse Now captures the look and sound of Vietnam flawlessly. Whether it’s helicopters against an orange sun or use of “The End” by The Doors. Although the Academy Awards went with the safe choice, Apocalypse Now still earned 8 nominations. Best Picture, Director Francis Coppola, Supporting Actor Robert Duvall, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Film Editing. Winning for Best Cinematography and Sound. Apocalypse Now is a lesson in perseverance that shows war for what it truly is. “The horror… the horror.”