When reading the extensive, semi-mythological stories that detail the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, it’s baffling that it was made at all.
By the mid-1970s, Coppola was one of the stars of New Hollywood, holding unprecedented power and critical respect, dominating the 1974 Oscars with a total of fourteen nominations shared by his second Godfather rhapsody and the arty Antonioni riff, The Conversation, including a double nomination for Best Picture, and the rare honour of being nominated for both Best Original and Adapted Screenplays. This was alongside producing George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars hit, American Graffiti, and contributing the screenplay to the lavish big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which helped place Coppola in the powerful position of being a successful director, producer and writer.
Coppola had developed a reputation of being both ambitious and reliable. Writing in 1975, the year before Apocalypse Now started shooting, David Thomson described Coppola as shrewd, composed, and almost clinical in his transformation of Mario Puzo’s sprawling mafia epic into mainstream entertainment, saying, “For a thirty-year-old without a hit to his name, with Paramount, Mario Puzo and [Marlon] Brando breathing down his neck… it was an achievement to coax that vulnerable dinosaur of a property to lower its guard and then, in delicious slow motion, let the killer punch glide in. Any film student will take heart in the knowledge that the allegedly inaccessible industry will sometimes stick out its chin and ask you to hit it. He should note, however, that with the glass jaw in his sights Coppola stayed every bit at cool as Michael Corleone.”
Of all the many things you could call Coppola’s approach to Apocalypse Now, ‘cool’ is not one. Originally drafted by John Milius (later the director of Conan The Barbarian) in the late 60s as a resetting of Joseph Conrad’s colonial novella, Heart Of Darkness, it was later developed by Lucas as a cheap and quick Vietnam flick shot with a documentary-like immediacy. But Coppola had different plans for his Apocalypse.
Reportedly inspired by German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, which saw the production team battling with the Peruvian rain forest in a similar fashion to the film’s own characters, Coppola flew to the Philippines with cast and crew in tow, hoping to recreate Vietnam with none of the antiseptic trappings of Hollywood. After all, how can you dare to represent the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), the special forces soldier sent deep into the jungle in order to assassinate renegade nutjob Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), without experiencing the extremity of the climate yourself?
Popular myth paints Coppola’s voyage to the Philippines as his own trip into the wilderness, and the troubled production is well documented, both in the superb behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, and Peter Biskind’s New Hollywood bildungsroman, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Hearts Of Darkness, compiled from candid on-location footage, reveals the troubled production as one of hubris and misfortune, with the director letting his ambitions run away with him, watching budgets skyrocket as the shoot suffered from lack of leadership, political complications with the Philippine hosts, and destructively adverse weather conditions.
Biskind goes further, painting Coppola as a man gone mad, bolstered by ego, yet nagged by artistic anxiety; niggled by financial concerns, yet steeped in hedonistic excess. Over its two hundred and thirty-eight day shoot, and seemingly endless delays before release, Apocalypse Now became a joke, and Coppola slowly dismantled the professional, capable reputation he had previously built.
If Apocalypse Now is one of the few films where the backstory is just as engrossing as the film itself, this may be because, while saying Apocalypse Now has no story is a little glib, to say it presents its narrative with any amount level-headedness, coherence or consistency would be somewhat generous.
As he progressed through the shoot, Coppola decided to rewrite Milius’ script, adding and amending and improvising along with the increasingly protracted schedule, attempting to better reflect his desire for a psychedelic study of the war. Anecdotal in nature, the film’s structure is a murky mess, forsaking the graceful sweep of The Godfather in favour of a slow drudge, as Willard and his crew creep closer to Kurtz, each step one further away from civilisation.
Along the way they encounter pockets of activity, a crazed air cavalry commander obsessed with surfing (Robert Duvall), a chaotic variety show featuring Playboy bunnies, a bridge which is rebuilt by day, to be destroyed at night, but Coppola was uncertain about the ending, when Willard would have to face the mysterious Kurtz.
To make matters worse, the director was given little help from Brando, who signed on only after a very generous deal had been struck (according to Biskind, $1 million a week for three weeks and eleven percent of the gross).
When he finally turned up, the actor hadn’t read the source material, and looked nothing like the reference photographs used elsewhere in the film, instead being overweight, bald, and self-conscious about that fact. Coppola, therefore, had to wrestle with Brando’s stubborn focus on character motivation and structure, two things that had been left on the river bank long before, dedicating precious, expensive time to guiding the actor through aimless improvisation. After eliciting an Oscar-winning performance from Brando years before in The Godfather, it seemed that the director’s control over the Method icon had slipped away.
Hearts Of Darkness shows Coppola at his lowest ebb, stuck in a crisis that he feels incapable of resolving. He returned to America vastly over budget, with two hundred and fifty hours of footage and a broken ego. Yet, somehow he managed to bring it all together, releasing the film in 1979 to box office success, Academy Award nominations and the director’s second Palme d’Or win.
That the film works at all is more a feat of atmosphere than anything else. For while delving behind the scenes explains many of the production’s faults and folly, they nevertheless all coalesce into a sticky, sweaty, surreal masterwork, one that is both iconic and ethereal.
As the protagonist, Willard is a cipher, a man sustained by war, sent on a mission which he is assured by oddly awkward commanders doesn’t officially exist. Once he’s up the river, he is off the map, both logistically and psychologically.
Sheen gives the character a taut, simmering intensity, which erupts only at specific, private moments, such as the violent episode in his hotel room, which introduces the character, drunk and traumatised. At the height of his anger, he lashes out at a nearby mirror, shattering the self and commencing his emotional journey, which will only end once he confronts his darkest depths, as represented by Kurtz.
Apocalypse Now works best as a feverish nightmare, where Walter Murch’s kaleidoscopic sound collage and Vittorio Storaro’s hazy photography (both Oscar-winning) create a landscape of endless introspection, confusion and near-madness.
In the film’s best remembered sequence, Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore runs his airborne troop, caring more for surfing than strategy, standing tall in the face of bombardment, while ordering his entourage to hit the waves, before finally calling in a napalm strike to ensure their safety. He is a vision of masculinity, powerful, not simply because of the men at his side or the weapons in his grasp, but in his steadfast dedication to his goals.
Down the river, such direction becomes harder to find. At the Do Lang Bridge, which is in deadlock between destruction and deployment, Marines fire blindly into the night. When Willard asks who’s in charge, one manic soldier replies, “Ain’t you?” before resuming his pointless post. The line spins out, resonating both internally and externally. This warzone is a place without logic, without structure, without god, just as Coppola’s neglect for the former two denied him the position of the third.
So, once we ultimately meet Kurtz, it is fitting that he is more of an apparition, a face cupped by candlelight, staring out of the shadows. He talks in riddles, mumbles extracts from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, and lives in a state of unsustainable instability, which is rendered all the more terrifying by Coppola’s reluctance to explore the workings of his violent, corpse-strewn village.
For Willard to attain a catharsis, he must purge this figure of pure darkness, in the process, not only completing his assigned mission, but also exorcising his inner demons.
While exhibiting all of the slow, careful pacing that Thomson saw in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now is a film of uneasy chaos. It sees a filmmaker lost in a blaze of self-destructive ambition, one that broke his clean streak and, eventually, would sink his dreams of industry domination. Nevertheless, it is typical of a specific artistic moment, just before the decline of New Hollywood, before the hard shift towards Reagan-era commercial cinema, a time when a determined, crackpot filmmaker could gamble studio money on a dream, and, despite everything, come back from the wilderness with something special. And if Apocalypse Now seemed impossible at the time, it is certainly impossible now.
Apocalypse Now is currently screening at selected cinemas in the UK. A 3-disc Blu-ray edition, featuring the theatrical cut, 2001 Redux cut and Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, will be released June 13th.