Apocalypse Now is a 1979 film adapted from the book ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. The book is set in 1890 and depicts a voyage going up river into the Congo Free State, a large state in Central Africa from 1885 to 1908. Francis Ford Coppola, who both directed, produced and co-wrote ‘Apocalypse Now’, updated the time-period by setting it during the Vietnam War.
The film is not only critically acclaimed as a classic with both iconic scenes and music, but is also notorious for the many stories that emerged from production which have become almost as famous as the film. ‘Apocalypse Now’ was initially designed to be a 14-week shoot, however, owning to hazardous weather conditions shooting was continually postponed. This led to the film being both horribly over schedule and over budget, with Coppola himself investing a large quantity of his own money into the film.
The film set was festooned with drugs and alcohol which gives the film a very authentic feel as the crew slip deeper into the Jungle and into their own dark subconscious, both as characters and as actors. In addition to the problematic weather, Coppola also fired the original lead actor, Harvey Keitel, it is speculative how soon into production this occurred. Martin Sheen then replaced Keitel, with Sheen facing his own inner demons of substance abuse. Indeed, the opening shot of the film depicts Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, staggering around his hotel room drunk and punching the hotel room mirror, causing him to bleed on the bed sheets. Sheen was actually totally intoxicated in this scene, displaying his own version of method acting, a theme that runs throughout this film. Further into filming Sheen suffered a heart attack, with Coppola allegedly finding him on the street with in turn caused Coppola to suffer an epileptic seizure owing to the stress of production.
Sheen and Coppola were not the only sources of drama on set. When Marlon Brando arrived to play Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, he was a great mountain of a man, something that no one had expected. Kurtz was supposed to be a thin athletic man, much like the physique of the rest of the cast. Brando’s costume was totally redesigned to fit his larger proportions, and to make matters worse Brando had not read the script, nor had he read the book. The final touch was Brando shaving his head bald one day on set and asking to be only filmed in the shadows. Brando only appears in the last 45 minutes of this nearly 2 and half hour long film, and whilst his appearance may have been starling to the crew, the style in which he is filmed actually works to great effect, providing an almost mythical God like appearance for the character.
There are many more stories from the making of this film, all of which are a worthy read even if you haven’t seen the film, including stories about the props and the treatment of the animals. Not only does these provide an authenticity to the film but also cements it in the time period it was made, as a film such as this would never be made now.
Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard.
Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore.
Laurence Fishburne as Tyron ‘Clean’ Miller.
Harrison Ford as Colonel Lucas.
Dennis Hopper as Photojournalist.
Plot: Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard needs a mission, he has completed several tours and is now feeling lost and without purpose. He is contacted by Colonel Lucas and General Corman, who fear that a Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has gone mad and is creating an army deep in the jungle, they therefore require Willard to travel up river and assassinate Kurtz.
Willard is provided with a crew and a boat in order to travel into the darkest depths of the jungle. Willard’s crew has no idea where their destination is or why they are going, their orders are simply to escort Willard up river. His crew is comprised of characters nicknamed ‘Clean’, ‘Lance’ ‘Chief’ and ‘Chef’.
Their first step is to travel to the mouth of the river where they will be provided a boat. It is here that we meet the appropriately named, Kilgore, a Colonel who clearly loves war and is obsessed with surfing. Upon learning that Lance, a pro surfer, is on Willard’s team, he keenly tries to demonstrate his problem that there aren’t any good waves in the area. He demonstrates this by sending two of his men into the sea to surf in the middle of a raid on a village. Kilgore is unfazed by the explosions, constantly standing up straight with the desire to find the best waves to surf. The army napalms the village at the mouth of the river and the Colonel delivers the iconic line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.
Willard and his crew continue upriver, Willard having stolen one of the Colonel’s surf boards which was attached to his helicopter, a helicopter which is branded with the words“Death from Above” on the nose of the vehicle. As the crew venture forth, the mental stability of the crew begins to openly fray, with Clean Lance and Chief becoming increasingly paranoid about the position they are in. You must remember how effective the Vietnamese soldiers were, the crew is travelling on a small exposed boat which is flanked by the jungle on both sides.
Tension is rising between Willard and Chief as both are assuming command of the boat. The crew finds an American outpost, there are several of these outposts placed along the river. The first supply outpost is still functioning, and is used as entertainment for the soldiers when a group of Playboy women are flown in to dance for the troops. The deeper into the jungle the crew ventures the darker the madness becomes. They find another outpost called Do Lung Bridge, Willard cannot find the CEO in charge and is instead met with confused, scared and mentally lost soldiers. The rest of the outposts along the river are in similar disastrous conditions, with the CEO of each either absent or equally as lost as his soldiers.
Willard and his crew discover a French outpost in the middle of the Jungle, here they are civilised, well dressed and with substantial living conditions. Over dinner they explain why they will not leave, France has lost too many wars to abandon another. They argue that the American’s are foolish, they are fighting a war that serves no purpose other than repairing the American ego. They argue that the French are fighting to protect their home in the same way the Vietnamese are.
One day on the river the crew receives the mail from a neighbouring boat, it is at this point that Willard discovers that another solider had been sent on the same mission prior to Willard’s, only he joined Kurtz’s regime. As Willard is reading this information, Lance, who has become a drug addled hippy character, lights a purple flair. This attracts the attention of the Vietnamese soldiers hiding in the jungle on either side. Clean is subsequently killed followed by Chief who is impaled by a spear, and suffocated by Willard. Willard now reveals the full extent of the plan to Chef and Lance, the remaining members of the crew. Chef insists that having come this far they must complete the mission together.
Willard and his crew now arrive at Kurtz’s outpost, where they meet a journalist who is in awe of Kurtz, believing him to be a profound and powerful leader. Kurtz’s army is a mixture of Vietnamese and of American soldiers who have joined his cause. At the entrance where Willard’s boat arrives, the words ‘Apocalypse Now’ are written in white on the stone wall.
Willard tells lance that if he does not return by 22 hundred hours, he has permission to call in an airstrike, but takes Lance with him into Kurtz’s territory. Willard is subsequently taken as a prisoner and brought to Kurtz in his temple. Chef is killed by Kurtz with his head deposited onto Willard’s lap.
In these scenes, Kurtz explains to Willard his own philosophy on the world, his view on the human condition and is in praise of the Viet-Cong. One night the outpost hosts a celebration of sorts where they slaughter a Buffalo. Willard takes this opportunity to sneak into the temple, where the ionic shot of Willard emerging from the muddy swamp water occurs. He finds Kurtz recording his audio notes. The words “Drop the Bomb Exterminate them all” are later seen in Kurtz’s book. Willard kills Kurtz with a machete before remerging in front of the crowd. Willard drops his weapon and walk directly through them to his boat, finding and taking Lance with him.
Willard and Lance drive away in the boat, Kurtz’s last words are played twice, once at his death and once as Willard and Lance drive away. “The horror, the horror”.
Awards: 2 Oscars, 18 wins & 32 nominations.
Oscars: 1980 for Best Cinematography, Best Picture, Best Actor in a supporting role, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Best on a novel, Best Art Direction- Set Decoration, Best Film editing.