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The unexplainable atrocity of 'Apocalypse Now'

If there ever was a 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 lucky 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 — it would be the Heavens to Betsy hellfire of Apocalypse Now from whence Dante drew his literary inspiration.

Never has any work in progress been beset by such diabolical unfurling circumstance since Jack and Jill set about climbing a hill for a simple pail of water. All ye who enter be forewarned that the headline does not read “unexplainable atrocity” for no good reason. 

When Apocalypse Now entered its ill-fated production, director Francis Ford Coppola was hot off the heels of his Godfather saga success, which many cinephiles equate to Einstein being hot off the heels of E=MC2. He could have churned out a rom-com for a pretty payday, and it would have probably garnered critical acclaim by simple association. Otherwise, he could have swanned off with his millions to a desert island and lived in luxury until his Fredo met with Michael, so to speak. Instead, he chose to venture into the unforgiving depths of the Philippine jungle armed with a copy of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel The Heart of Darkness with the glim hope of transposing Conrad’s prose onto the Vietnam war. The godspeed of the studio was with Coppola, but fate was working against him like a manager who has lost the dressing room. And the nefarious weaving fingers of fickle fate were empowered by the torturous elements and the hopes and prayers of all his cinematic rivals.

With the dust still settling on the horrific particulars of the Vietnam War itself, Coppola hoped that by superseding the actual details and focussing on the cultural subtext of the war, he would be able to encapsulate it with amber-preserved fidelity. To Coppola, this meant massively diluting John Milius’ script to draw more heavily upon the novel, a seminal work on psychological depravity as it traverses a journey to figurative hell and near-literal madness. Like a man who burns his house down while trying to demonstrate how a chip pan fire starts, the cast and crew’s fictional journey into the depths of hell would become too literal to bear. 

In many ways, this waywardness is a more fitting encapsulation of the conflict itself, whereby the end goal was to a large extent intangible, in a war that had become, as stated in a leaked dossier by then-president Lydon B. Johnson, “80 % about saving face”. This indeterminate end and suspension of progress only added to the mindless harrowing of those soldiers who served. Apocalypse Now mirrors this like an allegory, but inadvertently so did its production.

There may have been a moment when Coppola stood amidst the stinging vines feeling like they had the staunch aim of dragging him into down to perdition, clutching his paperback copy in the sweltering undergrowth, sweating, shirtless, and stressed to the eyeballs and saw in the line “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice” the presentiment of his own situation. “The Horror! The Horror!”.

From the very inception of Apocalypse Now, Coppola was taking a risk. He staked the value of his Napa Valley wine ranch to raise funds for what would go on to be one of the most horrific movie productions imaginable—offering up $30 million of his own wealth as collateral to bolster the film’s budget, risking financial ruin if it tanked. However, as he puts it himself, “If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?”.

Although beautiful is probably not the first superlative brought to mind, Apocalypse Now is certainly a sui generis masterpiece that had never been seen before, or since, for that matter. Nonetheless, there clearly must have been times during the chaotic 238-day shoot when the whole thing seemed one risk too many (not to mention the two years of post-production).

The first port of call on the film’s odyssey to hell was the crisis of casting. Coppola had wanted Steve McQueen for the main role of Willard, but after months of expressing interest, McQueen dropped out over concerns about the (initially scheduled) 14-week shoot in the jungle. Harvey Keitel was cast but didn’t last more than ten days of shooting after the decision was made that he wasn’t right for the role. 

By this time, stress and the tropical conditions had already begun to take their toll on Coppola. The director didn’t want to draw press attention to the early impediments that the film had suffered, so he set about sneaking himself back into the US to cast a lead unnoticed. However, he had already lost so much weight that no disguise was needed by this point, and he entered home soil to bestow a struggling Martin Sheen with the most challenging role imaginable unnoticed. 

When Martin Sheen eventually stepped in, he didn’t last long before he had to step out again owing to a near-fatal heart attack—and the heart attack wasn’t the only medical emergency to befall the frontman. He was also injured by standing too near to an explosion, and the cut sustained to his thumb in the opening sequence was very much real.

It was his 36th Birthday; Sheen, at the time, was an alcoholic. He was allowed to drink all day, so by the time it got to the evening and the entirely improvised PTSD riddled hotel room scene, he was so refreshed he could barely stand. Under Coppola’s direction of, “Now frighten yourself, Martin,” he punched the mirror resulting in a massive gash on his thumb, and the ensuing seven years of bad luck would condense itself over the duration of the film’s production and mercifully spare him the ultimate curse of a flop.

(Credit: Alamy)

Coppola wanted to stop filming to allow a nurse to see him, but Sheen pleaded that the cameras must be kept rolling as he wanted to exorcise some of his own alcoholic daemons through the conduit of his character. Enough of Coppola’s artistic thirst presided over his better judgement, and the disturbing and bloody sequence remained uncut (no pun intended).

Following the scene, Sheen, now bandaged and naked, but still bathed in his own blood, lay on the hotel bed in a state of intoxication and post-self-purgation bliss, clutching the hands of Francis and Eleanor Coppola, trying to invoke a sing-along of ‘Amazing Grace’. This demented tableau is the perfect vignette of the mayhem of the movie distilled down to the confines of one bloodied, beaten and sultry hotel room. 

However, Sheen was far from the only one engaging in excesses on set. Prodigious drug use was as rife among the film crew as it was amongst the American soldiers serving across the South China Sea. Dennis Hopper famously demanded “an ounce of coke” before signing up for the movie. When he arrived, he was deemed unsuitable for the role initially intended and was immediately recast as a character concocted on the spur of the moment. The drugged-out poetry-spouting hippy we see on screen was almost entirely improvised.

Similarly, when Marlon Brando finally agreed to sign on for his $3 million in a month payday, he arrived to play the role of an ultra-fit Green Beret weighing well over 300lbs. He spent his first four days on set doing absolutely no filming, and any time Coppola entered his trailer to try and broach the subject of acting Brando would cajole him into talking about something completely unrelated like Baseball.

His lack of preparedness was not solely limited to his weight either. Despite demanding that his character be called Col. Leighley rather than Kurtz, because it sounded “more like the wind through corn”, it was soon revealed that he had neither read the script nor Conrad’s source material. On his fourth night of lavishly well-paid trailer gorging, he finally read the book and emerged the next morning energised and not only agreeing but imploring that his character must indeed now be called Kurtz, meaning in all previously filmed scenes, the name had to be overdubbed in post-production. In the end, his scenes, which feature some of the most spectacular lighting in film history, were only shot in that way to hide his bloated physique. And what’s more, much of his famous monologue was improvised on the spot.

(Credit: Alamy)

Even the elements seemed to be transpiring against the film. Following the hiccup with Keitel, the schedule was back on track, and things were going well when Typhoon Olga hit, destroying the set and resulting in an 8-week layoff.

It might not have been Vietnam, but The Philippines had its own issues too. President Fernando Marcos had promised all the helicopters and warships necessary for the film, but he hadn’t counted on an escalation in the countries conflict with militia rebels; thus, much of Coppola’s military booty had to be recalled in order to serve in actual battles. As did the pilots flying them – so often the pilot filming the scene was not the one present in rehearsals.

By this stage, Coppola was just about a broken man. He was openly suicidal and surrounded by military-grade weaponry. He suffered an epileptic seizure, where he told his wife he was “drifting into the darkness”. He threatened to commit suicide three times. And, unsurprisingly, at one point, had to check himself into a hospital. Yet somehow, despite the horrors that howled around him and the fire of hell scorching his feet, he kept his head – a frankly baffling feat considering that his descend into the depths of the underworlds darkened abyss had only just about broken ground at this stage. 

Much like the war effort itself, there was also no end in sight. This infinite loop of unending disaster was spookily foretold by The Doors apocalyptic epic ‘The End’ that opens the movie in a prognostic maelstrom of musical dread. During production, Coppola said, “I call this whole movie the Idiodyssey. None of my ways of doing things work for this ending. I have tried so many times that I know I can’t do it. It might be a big victory just to know that I can’t do it. I can’t write the ending to this movie.”

This constant mindless chaos and start-stop nature of production perfectly paralleled the central message of the novel and movie —death, life and rebirth — to an almost mystical degree. And what was happening on-set in the Philippines mirrored the actual war, as Coppola puts it: “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.” In so many ways the whole thing resembled a doomed line of collapsing dominos: the book mirrored the movie, the movie mirrored the war, and the war mirrored the production.

As Werner Herzog once said, “I would travel down to hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary,” and he once nearly took an extra up on his offer to kill his uber-difficult leading man Klaus Kinski, so he knows a thing or two about tricky productions. It would seem Coppola got as close to delving into hell to make a movie as it’s possible to get and in doing so perfectly encapsulated Vietnam. The epitaph of the Vietnam War was ‘war is hell’, and in the fateful words of Coppola: “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam!”.

What remains to this day is a cinematic achievement like no other. You could drop an atomic bomb into Apocalypse Now and you would never live to see it detonate. The film is a kaleidoscopic splurge that not only encapsulates the Vietnam War but is testimony to the miracles that the juggernaut of an unyielding artistic vision can achieve when it is pursued relentlessly and with sincerity in the absolute. Coppola had a ten-tonne catastrophe on the end of fifty-pound chain and he dragged it from the mire to the rarified realm of fully realised artistic perfection.