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When the entire team behind ‘Apocalypse Now’ were arrested for grave robbing


If there was ever such a thing as the polar opposite of a guardian angel, Apocalypse Now was surely being watched over by the most daemonic hell-beast ever to besiege a film set with the steadfast aim of not only crafting a failure but killing everybody involved in the process. The internet is showered with reels of outtake footage and accompanying comments sections, chocked full with remarks along the lines of “how do these blessed bastards get paid for this?”. 

On the flip side of that lucky lark-about coin are beleaguered movie productions so nightmarish in the making that it would seem if Dante was to rework his Inferno for modern times, then filmmaking would surely be reserved as a circle of hell — and it would be the Heavens to Betsy hellfire of Apocalypse Now from whence he drew his literary inspiration.

Aside from a wildly overweight Marlon Brando showing up and trying to derail the whole thing simply to stretch out his per-day pay packet, to Martin Sheen nearly dying on multiple occasions, cyclones and the real war peppering the production with palavas aplenty, the crew were even arrested by the Philippines police force for grave robbing.

Perhaps this whole folly in the pit of despair was befitting considering that the movie attempts to transpose Joseph Conrad’s troubled novella The Heart of Darkness. In fact, in order to ensure that Colonel Kurtz layered had a genuinely apocalyptic feel, it would seem that production designer Dean Tavoularis did his best to recreate hell on earth itself. Central to this was, of course, the presence of the undead. 

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When Sheen’s wife arrived on set just prior to the shooting of the Kurtz lair grand finale, she was naturally worried about the health of her husband given that he had already suffered a heart attack, almost severed a finger and then almost got blown to bits in an explosion. Thus, when she smelt the foul cacophony of scent emanating from the set, she stormed towards co-producer Gary Frederickson and exclaimed: “You’ve got to clean this up,” she demanded, according to writer Robert Sellers. “It’s a health risk. I won’t allow Marty to work here.” 

Frederickson, distracted by a million other travesties, didn’t know it was that bad—his nostrils soon let him know otherwise. He told Tavourlis: “They’re complaining about you, there are dead rats in there.” This was literally true, and the unmoved designer simply replied: “That’s intentional, it gives it real atmosphere.” His prop assistant then fatefully muttered, “Wait till he hears about the dead bodies.” Frederickson’s eyebrows rocketed skywards and threatened to knock Sputnik out of orbit, “What!” he naturally cried.

Frederickson set about investigating this claim immediately. He had heard the rumours, everyone had, but he didn’t believe them—why the hell would he? He discovered the stack of bodies laid out behind the canteen. “You guys are nuts, where did these come from. We’ve got to get rid of this immediately.” But Tavourlis protested: “No, no, they’ll be very authentic, we’ll have them upside down in the tress.” People everywhere seemed to have lost sight of the fact that they were making a movie. As Francis Ford Coppola said himself: The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”

When it came to Tavourlis, this madness manifested itself when he decided to purchase bodies apparently used for medical school autopsies. However, as the old Filipino saying goes, “A man selling dead bodies in the back streets has usually acquired them by unscrupulous means.” As it turns out, somewhat predictably from the outside looking in, this phantom medical school supplier was actually an old school certified grave robber.

When the police arrived, they seized every single member of cast and crews passports because of the fact that the bodies were unidentified and there was no way of knowing whether they had a rampant serial killer in their midst hiding in plain sight among the madness of a cinematic drug-fest in the jungle. The police promptly surmised what had happened and concluded that all the killing on the set had been fictional. 

Then, as Sellers writes, a huge truck showed up and soldiers started loading the bodies inside. “Where do we take these,” one of them asked Frederickson. “I don’t know? The cemetery?” But nobody was willing to pay for a body to be buried twice, so the soldier simply replied: “Don’t worry, we’ll dump them somewhere.” And they drove away. Frederickson concludes: “I don’t know what they did with them. So for the scenes in the movie, we had extras hanging from trees, not dead bodies.”