When Francis Coppola Uncovered Vietnam’s Heart of Darkness in ‘Apocalypse Now’
UCR: Movies and Culture
When Francis Ford Coppola started filming Apocalypse Now in early 1976, the official end of the Vietnam War was less than a year old. By the time the movie made its debut at Cannes on May 10, 1979, the director, his cast and his crew had been through its own form of brutal conflict, one that nearly claimed the lives and sanity of many involved in the production.
Following the huge box-office and Oscar wins of 1972's The Godfather and 1974's The Godfather: Part II, as well as the critical success of The Conversation (also from 1974), Coppola was the star of Hollywood, a director who could seemingly do no wrong. Whatever he planned to do as his next project would enthusiastically be embraced by everyone around him.
So, he dusted off a screenplay written by former assistant John Milius based on Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, a complicated and not-very-film-friendly story about a voyage up an African river to find a fabled ivory trader. Only Coppola, a co-writer of the script, and Milius changed the setting to 1969 Vietnam, where a U.S. colonel has gone insane and set up a renegade militia, and whom the Army wants "terminate[d with] extreme prejudice."
Watch the Original Trailer for 'Apocalypse Now'
In March 1976, Coppola went to Manila with his family, rented a house and settled in for what was supposed to be a five-month shoot. But things didn't work out that way, as one problem after another plagued the production.
From natural disasters (a typhoon demolished the sets, so cast and crew were sent home for a couple months) to hurdles involving some of the actors (including an overweight Marlon Brando, who showed up unprepared), Apocalypse Now was delayed again and again as Coppola tried to get his movie back in order.
At one point, he was so behind schedule and over-budget that he put up his house and profits from The Godfather as security with the studio to complete the film. The entire ordeal was documented by Coppola's wife Eleanor, whose home movies from behind the scenes were released as Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse in 1991 and remain recommended viewing for anyone interested in the stories behind the classic movie.
Watch the Trailer for 'Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse'
Martin Sheen played Captain Willard, the soldier ordered by the Army to assassinate the rogue Colonel Kurtz. The 36-year-old actor, building from the buzz that greeted his performance as a serial killer in 1973's Badlands and fresh in Coppola's mind from his Godfather audition, landed the role over other candidates – including first-choice Harvey Keitel, who was replaced just a few days into filming by the director.
Then he had something close to a breakdown onscreen, which can be seen in Hearts in Darkness as Coppola attempts to film Apocalypse Now's famous opening scene, where a drunken, scarred and barely clothed Willard deals with the fallout of the war and learns of his new assignment. In March 1977, with filming still going on, Sheen had a heart attack that further delayed completion.
Later that year, Coppola finally wrapped shooting and started work on post-production – another hurdle which involved a million and a half feet of film that needed to be edited into shape. Several more months were added to the movie's completion, and Apocalypse Now's release was delayed once again.
By the time the film finally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1979, with a wider release arriving in August, Coppola had spent a huge chunk of his biggest decade trying to make sense of a difficult novella, a troubled production and an experience that ended up like a personal version of Vietnam.
It proved to be worth it. An incomplete version of the movie won the the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and it was a hit with both audiences and critics, scoring eight Academy Award nominations, eventually winning two. But its legacy is far greater. Apocalypse Now capped a golden era of filmmaking for both Coppola and the maverick directors of the '70s.
Watch the Trailer for 'Apocalypse Now Redux'
The 152-minute original cut of the film was expanded by 49 minutes in 2001 for Apocalypse Now Redux, which included a lengthy scene set at a rubber plantation that Coppola can be seen struggling with in Hearts of Darkness. The additional scenes fill in some gaps and tighten the narrative at times; it's recommended as a supplement to the original cut. And for the movie's 40th-anniversary in 2019, Coppola premiered another version of the movie, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, with a running time that falls between the original and Redux versions.
Either way, the movie remains a milestone work for everyone involved, including Sheen, Coppola (who already had two classic Godfather films behind him) and even Brando – whose bald, sweaty presence, bathed in amber light, sets a menacing tone during his, and the movie's, climatic scenes as Kurtz. His slaughter, as the Doors' apocalyptic "The End" plays out, is one of many iconic moments that have become pop culture touchstones over the years.
Revisiting the movie decades later, it's easy to get caught up in those moments – "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," "The horror ... the horror ... ." But it's the vision and resolve of Coppola and his team to pull it all together into one of cinema's greatest achievements that stands today above the infinitely quotable lines and music-guided showpieces.
Give yourself an afternoon, or a long night, and settle into Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse and maybe even Redux for a masterclass on obsession, determination and turning complicated history and personal struggle into art. You won't be disappointed.