Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Plot: During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.
In the DVD commentary, Coppola downplays his involvement in the controversial slaughter of the water buffalo, saying he “happened to film a ritual” being performed by Ifugao natives. However in the article “Ifugao extras and the making of Apocalypse Now”, cast and crew detail how Coppola staged the entire scene, directing the natives to chant and sing while they killed the animal which Coppola provided.
Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the filming and some shots of Willard’s back are of doubles, including Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez who was flown out specially. Coppola was so worried that backing would be withdrawn by the studio and distributor if news of Sheen’s heart attack leaked out, that he kept it quiet, even to the extent of explaining Sheen’s hospitalization as being due to “heat exhaustion” in the official Shoot Schedule.
Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz is thought to be modeled after Anthony Poshepny. Poe, a CIA operative, was dispatched to train a secret CIA-funded army of hill tribes in Laos during the Vietnam War. Much like Kurtz, Poe dropped severed heads in enemy locations as a form of psychological operations.
One props manager attempted to take the film’s sense of authenticity to the extreme, going so far as to source actual human cadavers for scenes requiring dead bodies.
The title comes from the hippie pin bearing the words “Nirvana Now.”
Famed film producer Roger Corman gave Coppola his start in cinema. When the filmmaker asked Corman for his advice and told him he’d be shooting in the Philippines, Corman said: “Don’t go.”
Coppola later admitted: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. The way we made it is the way Americans were in Vietnam. We had too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
Writer John Milius was convinced his now famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” was too over-the-top to stay in the script. It became one of the movie’s most iconic pieces of dialogue.
Coppola planned an initial 14-week shoot for the movie in the Philippines in the spring of 1976, which was on schedule until Typhoon Olga ruined nearly all of the sets and equipment, forcing the production to shut down for eight weeks. Coppola continued to shoot with reckless abandon thereafter, and principal photography didn’t conclude until May of 1977. Post-production on the movie lasted for a further two years, and the movie was finally released in August of 1979.
Coppola hired a young actor named Harrison Ford to appear as Colonel Lucas (a nod to George), one of the military officers who gives Willard his orders to assassinate Kurtz. Ford had previously appeared in Lucas’ American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Conversation, but was still relatively unknown when the filming of Apocalypse Now began in 1976. He would later become a megastar after appearing as Han Solo in Star Wars when it was released in 1977. Apocalypse Now, which was shot before Star Wars, was released afterwards.
The movie was shot on location in the Philippines because President Ferdinand Marcos has agreed to lend the production as many helicopters and gunships as they needed.
Brando, who previously won an Oscar as Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, showed up on location in the Philippines weighing in at over 300 pounds. All of his costumes had to be scrapped because Coppola expected the actor to show up as an astute and fit Green Beret soldier. This forced Coppola to have to come up with a way to shoot around Brando’s weight, so he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro thought of shooting him in shadows and silhouettes to make his character seem more mysterious.
Brando’s contract stipulated that he would be paid $3 million for four weeks of work on weekdays only, and that he would not be required to work past 5:30 p.m. For his first four scheduled days of shooting, Brando didn’t show up to set, but instead wrangled Coppola in his trailer to talk about random topics to ostensibly stall the movie and simply collect his acting fee. When Coppola finally got him on the subject of how to play Kurtz, Brando rejected all of his ideas, including the suggestion to play him as a bald man like in the book. When Brando said he’d sleep on it, he finally showed up to set the next day with a shaved head and told Coppola he’d finally red Heart of Darkness the night before and decided to play him like the character in the book.
The original ending in Milius’ script had North Vietnamese forces attacking Kurtz and his followers in a giant climactic battle, but Coppola scrapped it because he felt it didn’t fit with the movie he was making. Instead, he took the advice of his UCLA friend Dennis Jakob and actor Dennis Hopper to create a more mythical ending of the concepts of death and rebirth. Using the story of the “Fisher King” found in books like The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance and the poetry of T.S. Eliot (all of which can be seen in Kurtz’s possession in the film), Coppola devised a new ending wherein Willard would kill Kurtz and ostensibly become his followers’ new king.
Laurence Fishburne began his acting career here, by lying about his age in order to get the part. He was actually 14 at the time.
The scene at the beginning with Captain Willard alone in his hotel room was completely unscripted. Martin Sheen told the shooting crew to just let the cameras roll. Sheen was actually drunk in the scene and punched the mirror which was real glass, cutting his thumb. Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Francis Ford Coppola. The crew was so disturbed by his actions that they wanted to stop shooting, but Coppola wanted to keep the cameras going.
The shoot was originally scheduled for six weeks. It ended up taking sixteen months!
The shoot was so agonizing on Coppola, he threatened suicide several times and wound up losing 100 pounds.
Francis Ford Coppola invested several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his home and winery in Napa Valley in order to finish the film.