Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Palme d’Or, FIPRESCI Prize)

Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Sound

Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2000

Some films are to be cursed from their very inception. They taunt their makers with Herculean obstacles, only to break their spirits when they fall far short of their goals.  Some of these filmmakers would never recover (like Michael Cimino and 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE), their careers never again retaining the same heady heights as their previous successes.  A select few manage to overcome these soul-crushing challenges, and fewer still actually manage to make a truly transcendent piece of work.  No film’s making more embodies the term “fiasco” than director Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  Shot as the follow-up to the unfathomably successful THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), Coppola suddenly found himself in those most treacherous of directorial waters: complete financial freedom.  The production of APOCALYPSE NOW, which dragged on for close to three years, most certainly took many years off of Coppola’s life (as well as hundreds of pounds).  However, this sacrificial (and literal) pound of flesh netted him something much more valuable: immortality, in the form of one of the greatest and culturally significant films of all time.

APOCALYPSE NOW is nothing less than a cinematic descent into madness.  Based off Joseph Conrad’s lurid novella HEART OF DARKNESS, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius have kept the basic plot conceits while updating the setting from a turn-of-the-century Congo River to the Vietnam War.  Initially developed to be a directing vehicle for Coppola’s American Zoetrope colleague George Lucas, Coppola took the helm after Lucas departed to make 1977’s STAR WARS (a move which insulted Coppola so much they didn’t speak for years).  Coppola’s vision was to paint the Vietnam War as it truly was– a psychedelic, deeply disturbing voyage into the darkest corners of men’s souls.  Coppola aimed to make the greatest film ever created; an allegory for the entire American experience in Vietnam.  It’s safe to say that he more or less succeeded, despite the infamously-troubled production nearly killing him.

APOCALYPSE NOW tells the story of Willard (Martin Sheen), a burnt-out Army captain who’s sent out on a confidential mission: find and execute a rogue Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who’s gone insane and established his own kingdom of brutality in the upriver jungles of Cambodia.  To transport him up the river, Willard is assigned a patrol boat operated by a small team of Naval officers.  As they inch ever closer to Kurtz’s savage compound, the men endure the hells and existential crises of the Vietnam War that rages around them.  When they finally arrive, Willard experiences a strange emotional connection to Kurtz’s deranged dogma that threatens to foil his mission and consume his sanity.

The film is a staggering achievement on all fronts.  As to be expected from Coppola, the cast is exemplary, with many turning in career-defining work despite the brutal filming conditions.  Martin Sheen, who replaced original actor Harvey Keitel two weeks into production, gives one of the best performances of his career as Captain Willard.  We first meet Willard as a strung-out husk of a man, rotting away in his hotel room in wait for an assignment that may never come.  Sheen’s haunting voiceover provides a dark, interior perspective to the events of the film, helping us to understand his psychological connection to Kurtz.  Sheen gives all of himself over to his character, even to the point where he infamously suffered a heart attack at the age of 36 as a result of the stress he endured during production.  With his haunting performance, Sheen seared himself into our collective consciousness and became an avatar for the American experience in Vietnam.

Marlon Brando, despite only having a few minutes of actual screen time, easily earns his top billing by ominously towering over the story as the near-mythical Col. Kurtz.  Coppola managed to lure the reclusive star into the jungle for one more collaboration, but Brando certainly didn’t make it easy for his exhausted director.  Famously, Brando not only showed up (late) to set overweight and bald, but having not read the screenplay or Conrad’s original novel.  Brando battled Coppola on every single element of his character, but given the unfathomable genius of Brando’s performance, it’s easy to see there was a method to his madness.  Coppola shot Brando in shadows and close-ups mainly as a way to hide his enormous girth, but in doing so, he created a staggering personification of unknowable evil.  Of his late career roles, Brando’s performance as Col. Kurtz eclipses even that of Vito Corleone in Coppola’s THE GODFATHER.  While he would go on to do a handful of roles in smaller films until his death, APOCALYPSE NOW marks Brando’s last great appearance in cinema, closing the book on one of the medium’s most talented personas with a pitch black conclusion.

Robert Duvall, who by this point had appeared in every Coppola film since 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE, channels a very different kind of unhinged psychopath in the form of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore.  Duvall’s Kilgore heads the 9th Air Cavalry Regiment, a cocksure squad of gung-ho helicopter jockeys who tear ass across the jungle while blasting Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries”.  Representing the testosterone-laden braggadocio that led us into the Vietnam War in the first place, Kilgore barks each line with a forceful authority.  His eyes obscured behind pitch-black sunglasses, Kilgore’s specialized brand of cowboy diplomacy leaves nothing but fire and death in its wake.  His lust for war is matched only by his love of surfing, which he manages to pack in even under heavy artillery fire.  Duvall clearly enjoys the chance to chew scenery, which he doesn’t usually get to do under Coppola’s direction.  Despite a comparable screen time to Brando, Duvall’s performance is highly memorable due to his pathological delivery of enduring lines as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the only one on the entire production who actually had any fun.

Accompanying Sheen on his journey upriver are the colorful characters of the PBR boat, manned by the gruff quartermaster George Philips (Albert Hall).  The late Sam Bottoms appears as Lance, a boyish California surfer whose clean-cut persona descends into a druggy haze as he tries to cope with the horrors of the war.  A young Laurence Fishburne (only 14 at the time) plays Mr. Clean, a cocky kid whose self-deceit over his own mortality will be his ruin.  Finally there’s Frederic Forrest, who previously appeared in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974).  Forrest plays Chef, a mustachioed saucier from New Orleans and an unpredictable, manic presence.  These characters help to establish levity and companionship as the circumstances grow more dire.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and G.D. Spradlin.  Hopper plays The Photojournalist, the strung-out jester of Kurtz’s court.  Hopper adds a great deal of energy late into the film, drawing on his hippie persona that he established ten years earlier in EASY RIDER while taking it to a dark extreme.  A pre-STAR WARS Ford, having previously appeared in THE CONVERSATION for Coppola, plays Col. Lucas, a bookish officer who briefs Willard on the mission.  Spradlin, who played Senator Geary in THE GODFATHER PART II, plays the general that gives Willard his assignment.

To create APOCALYPSE NOW’s acid-baked look, Coppola turned to Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro.  Filmed on 35mm film, Coppola and Storaro take advantage of the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to capture Vietnam’s nightmarish vistas.  A palette of saturated earth tones and yellow highlights gives a sweaty, slightly sick look to the visuals.  This burnt-out look is further complemented by the use of lens flares and relentlessly plodding camerawork.  Coppola utilizes a great deal of aerial photography to give an uneasy majesty to the proceedings, capturing Dean Tavoularis’ exhaustive production design in all its sprawling glory.  The editors (Walter Murch, Lisa Fruchtman, and Gerald B. Greenberg) make recurring use of crossfade transitions and double-exposed/layered shots that give the film the surreal aura of a bad acid trip.  APOCALYPSE NOW is easily Coppola’s most visually stylized film apart from 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, accentuating the psychedelic, nightmarish nature of Vietnam.

Sound plays an enormous part in Coppola’s grand vision, beginning with its pioneering use of the Dolby 5.1 Surround sound system– which has since become the exhibition standard for all major films.  APOCALYPSE NOW paints a sonic portrait of Vietnam even more hellish than its imagery, punctuated by concussive bomb blasts and the menacing drone of helicopter rotors.  Coppola’s vision for a psychedelic experience extends to the sound design, where he synthesized many sound effects so as to be indistinguishable from the score (the helicopter droning being the most famous example).  Continuing his penchant for collaborating with family members, Coppola enlists the help of his father Carmine to craft the score.  Coppola the elder creates a foreboding electronic score that uses discordant tones to create a fundamental unease and an encroaching sense of malice.  Francis Coppola also utilizes the druggy sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones to further establish the psychedelic aspects of his vision.

It’s a big feat when a filmmaker is able to indelibly link a pre-existing song to a film so strongly that they become inseparable.  The auteurs rising up amongst the Film Brat generation realized the power of well-placed music, not the least of whom was Coppola himself.  With APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola creates several such such moments as easily as you would tie your shoe.  There’s the brooding vocals of Jim Morrison’s “This Is The End” playing over silent footage of napalm reducing an entire jungle to cinders, or the unforgettable “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence (which was referenced later in Sam Mendes’ JARHEAD (2005) as a way to pump up young Marines on the eve of their deployment to Kuwait).  There’s even Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q”, which accompanies the appearance of three dancing Playmates during a rowdy USO show.  I can’t think of another film that so brilliantly and creatively mixes sound and music to such striking effect.

Coppola’s habit for experimentation with the language of cinema is on full display with APOCALYPSE NOW.  He paints Willard’s journey upriver as an allegory for a journey backwards in time, beginning with the machine-based warfare of the present and reaching back to the primitive, sacrificial nature of tribe-based social systems.  He also released the film without titles or credits, originally intending to tour the film around the country with printed programs.  While this didn’t exactly come to pass, most home video releases of the film omit credits, making for a fully immersive descent into madness free from conventional cinematic constructs.

In a rare move, Coppola appears in a cameo as a newsreel director who yells “pretend you’re fighting!” to soldiers as they run by his camera.  This is, of course, an allusion to the manufactured image that the television/entertainment complex depicted the war with, but it also goes a long way towards establishing the story’s startlingly self-aware viewpoint.  The Vietnam War was the first major war to be beamed directly into our households via television, and Coppola gracefully touches on the point while making a concise point about the media’s perversion of combat.

The story of APOCALYPSE NOW’s production has been extensively documented in print and film (most notably in wife Eleanor Coppola’s brilliant HEARTS OF DARKNESS documentary), so I won’t go into too much detail.  It was (and still is) the biggest production Coppola has ever mounted, with a scale and scope so staggeringly massive that one film could barely contain it all.  THE ODYSSEY-like nature of the story required an equally operatic point of view, which Coppola was well-equipped to handle due to his previous experiences.  What he wasn’t equipped for, however, were the almost-biblical challenges he had to face with shooting the film in the primordial jungles of the Phillippines.  Before he even could get a firm handle on his operation, the production ballooned millions of dollars over-budget and months behind schedule.  A six-week shoot turned into almost thirty, and the tempestuous tropical climate wreaked havoc on expensive sets as well as morale.  Coppola found himself shouldering nearly all of the burden alone, losing nearly 100 pounds during the process.  Simply put, the shoot was hell.  The fact that such a great film, let alone a coherent film, emerged from the wreckage is nothing short of a miracle.

APOCALYPSE NOW was made during the tail end of the auteur era, perhaps even contributing to its demise.     While it was met with widespread acclaim and box office success, its particular brand of scorched-earth filmmaking influenced directors like Michael Cimino to launch elaborate productions of their own– resulting in the atomic bomb that was HEAVEN’S GATE.  These two extravagantly-made films caused studio executives to assert more control over their runaway productions, and subsequently ushered in the epoch of the blockbuster.

Fortunately for Coppola, APOCALYPSE NOW was received as a qualified masterpiece on par with his two GODFATHER entries.  It managed to win the coveted Palm D’Or at Cannes, which is more impressive when you consider that Coppola only screened an unfinished cut.  It went on to win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, and was even inducted into the National Film Registry in 2000.

In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch went back to the source elements and created a new edit of the film, dubbed APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX.  This longer cut (running almost three and a half hours) included several deleted scenes that shed further light on Coppola’s darkly complex characters.  There’s significant debate within the film community as to which version is better.  For the purposes of this essay, I watched both versions to arrive at my own personal conclusion.  While both versions are excellent, I’d have to give the edge to REDUX, mainly for its more-expansive exploration into man’s primordial darkness.

APOCALYPSE NOW is an unforgettable film, made even more so by the utter misery the filmmakers experienced in shooting it.  Its cinematic legacy is assured, judging by the deep respect and reverence bestowed upon the film in the thirty years since its release.  Furthermore, it is the capstone to a truly remarkable decade for Coppola– each of his four films in this period went on to become cultural institutions in their own right.  All of this success came at a heavy price, however; to this day Coppola has been unable to attain such raw, visceral power in his subsequent projects (not even 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III).

Did APOCALYPSE NOW use up all Coppola’s talent?  Did the overwhelming stress ultimately break him? Did he lose his soul to insanity like Kurtz or Willard?  We may never know exactly what happened in that jungle, but what came out of it was northing less than a bloodsoaked rebirth for cinema.

APOCALYPSE NOW and APOCALYPSE NOW: REDUX are currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate.


Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Gary Frederickson, Fred Roos, Mona Skager

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius

Director of Photography: Vittorio Storaro

Edited by: Walter Murch, Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Composer: Carmine Coppola