What George Lucas’ Apocalypse Now Would Have Been Like

Before creating an empire with the Star Wars universe, George Lucas wanted to make a more earthbound picture with the Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now.

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
Photo: Zoetrope Studios/United Artist/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The making of Apocalypse Now is the story of madness and disaster. As captured in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, the year plus filming saw every manner of bad luck, from conflicts with the Philippine government to massive storms to a constantly changing crew, to star Martin Sheen’s heart attack on set.

But the strangest behind the scenes tale of Apocalypse Now may actually be about the man who initially planned to direct it. The version of Apocalypse Now that hit theaters in 1979 matched the ambitions (and ego) of its director Francis Ford Coppola. But before Coppola took over, Apocalypse Now was actually the baby of the reserved and mild-mannered George Lucas.

Nirvana Now

Screenwriter John Milius wanted to go to war. One of the few conservatives within a group of lefty young filmmakers that included Martin Scorsese, Margot Kidder, and Paul Schrader, Milius had no interest in protesting the Vietnam War. He wanted to enlist, a dream frustrated by the writer’s asthma. 

Instead, Milus put his frustrations into writing a script (kind of) about the war. By loosely adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a colonial adventure (and racist nightmare) set in the 19th century Congo, Milius wrote a story about a military man sent to execute a wayward soldier who had set himself up as a god deep in the Vietnamese jungle. He chose the title Apocalypse Now as an inversion of the phrase “Nirvana Now,” popular among the hippies that the writer hated. He received the best encouragement any writer can get when Francis Ford Coppola’s company American Zoetrope sent Milius $15,000 to finish his script, with the promise of a $10,000 bonus if he got a greenlight. 

Ad – content continues below

Milius went through many drafts of the script and eventually sold it to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1969. But instead of shooting the project, Warner Bros. left it in preproduction, with no clear intent to go further. Fearing that the delay was due to the studio’s lack of faith in the young filmmaker, Milius picked a friend to direct, someone who might have a little more weight with Warner: George Lucas. 

Building an Empire

In 1969, George Lucas was not yet George Lucas. Rather, he was the University of Southern California film school grad who wanted to make challenging, experimental pictures such as his debut THX 1138. Together, he and Coppola formed American Zoetrope, an independent studio outside of the main Hollywood system. Milius’ script seemed like just the thing for Lucas, and he spent years helping the writer workshop the project.

Milius and Lucas even considered filming Apocalypse Now during the early 1970s in Vietnam while the war was still going on (although Coppola has since said Milius was much more into this idea than Lucas). Milius later mused he and Lucas almost did it too until the studio found out and said, “Why are we sending those hippies over there? They’re a bunch of nuts. Some of them will be killed. There’s a real war over there!”

But then a funny thing happened to the man who never wanted to play nice with Hollywood. He got a huge hit. No, not Star Wars, not yet. It was instead American Graffiti, a nostalgia piece about teens driving around town on the last night of their summer vacation in the 1950s. The film proved to be a smash at the box office, grossing over $115 million domestically and turning Lucas into a force to be reckoned with.

Also as unlikely as this sounds, American Grafitti was designed to be a hit. In the same way that Lucas encouraged Coppola to direct The Godfather because it would help American Zoetrope stay in business, Coppola urged Lucas to make something that audiences would enjoy.

After American Grafitti exploded, Lucas intended to make Apocalypse Now. He even sent producer Gary Kurtz to the Philippines to look for locations and laid out plans to shoot the film as a dark comedy with a small budget. But despite the money he earned, Lucas struggled to get funding for even the modest film he had in mind. Instead of continuing to fight for money, Lucas began thinking about recreating the kinds of sci-fi serials he’d grown up watching as a kid in the 1950s. He went to work on a fairy tale story that combined his love of Westerns, Akira Kurosawa Samurai movies, fighter pilots, and Flash Gordon.

Ad – content continues below

At least, that’s what Lucas says. To hear Milius and Coppola tell it, Lucas had a much simpler reason for abandoning Apocolypse Now for Star Wars. In a 2010 interview included on the Apocalypse Now Blu-ray, Coppola claimed that Lucas lost interest in the war film “once he had a taste of success and he got rich.” Milius expounded on that point, adding that Lucas “didn’t want to go where they had many different varieties of poisonous insects. He didn’t want to go to a place where it’s miserable and there are tigers.”

Whether it was a matter of chasing childhood dreams or running away from a war zone, Lucas left the project and allowed Coppola to take over. The resulting picture horrified Milius, who charged Coppola with ruining his script, but it thrilled critics and audiences, earning multiple Academy Award nominations.

What Could Have Been?

Apocalypse Now stands out because of Coppola’s crazed and larger-than-life approach. The insanity of making the film matches the insanity of the war portrayed, in which good sense and good taste are put aside for shocking and bizarre scenes. Coppola famously went well over budget while shooting, losing control of his project at several junctures only to wrestle his vision back again.

In short, the movie we got seems nothing like anything Lucas could make, even at his most excessive. THX 1138, Lucas’ most personal picture, has a cold, off-putting style, and not just because it takes place in a sterile dystopian future. Ever the planner, Lucas likely wouldn’t have had room for the happy(?) accidents that made Apocalypse Now the movie we have today.

All of that said, the film Lucas planned to make does differ from anything he had made before or has made since. As suggested by his potential location scouting in Vietnam and the Philipines, Lucas wanted to take a cinema verite approach, shooting the film in black and white and mirroring a documentary. Later, Lucas wanted to stay in California, keeping the movie cheap and gritty, with a budget of around $1.5 million. Inspired by films such as The Battle of Algiers and Medium Cool, both of which combine fiction with real-world documentary footage, Lucas wanted to make something immediate and vivacious, the exact opposite of the cold, distant approach he took in other films.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Lucas finally got to explore ideas about rebels resisting a more powerful empire not by filming the Viet Cong battling the U.S., but by visiting a galaxy far, far away. In fact, Lucas compared the strategies of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi to the guerrilla warfare of the Viet Cong.

Ad – content continues below

Lucas’ film would have likely taken a similar approach to those scenes from the Original Trilogy. It would have probably included less manic, but no less thrilling, battle sequences combined with slapstick comic bits, like when the Ewoks tripped up Imperial stormtroopers on speeders. It’s hard to say that the tone would have held together, but that’s also true of the finished Apocalypse Now.

Whether or not Lucas’ Apocalypse Now would have done better or worse than the one we actually got, there’s no question that the shift from Lucas to Coppola captures the film’s chaotic spirit.