War Movie Mondays: ‘Apocalypse Now’

This week’s pick takes us back into the heart of darkness with Francis Ford Coppola’s riveting Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now (1979). The film was written by Coppola and John Milius, along with brilliant narration written by Michael Herr. The movie was based off of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness about a man who is sent on a mission to kill a rogue ivory trader in the heart of nineteenth century Africa.

Coppola and Milius loved the story and decided to set the film during the Vietnam War. The film stars Martin Sheen (Captain Benjamin Willard), Marlon Brando (Col. Walter E. Kurtz), Dennis Hopper (Photo Journalist), Robert Duvall (Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore), Albert Hall (Chief), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Sam Bottoms (Lance Johnson), Laurence Fishburne (Mr. Clean), Harrison Ford (Col. Lucas), and G.D. Spradlin (Lt. Gen. Corman).

Apocalypse Now has always been considered the quintessential Vietnam war movie not only for the sheer scope of the film, but because the production was just as massive as the war itself. Coppola had raised over twelve million dollars (eight million of which through his own company American Zoetrope) through investors and outside sources to begin producing the film in late 1975 after the release of the highly anticipated The Godfather II.

Coppola’s two friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg contacted their friend and fellow film maker John Milius to see if he would be willing to write a story that blended most of Conrad’s themes, and the horrors of the Vietnam conflict into one solid script. Milius had written a Vietnam story in the late sixties and had shelved the idea once his directing career had taken off. Coppola told Milius to “put everything you ever wanted in a war movie before into the script.” The result was an absolute masterpiece.

Martin Sheen plays the lead character Captain Benjamin Willard who is a member of MACV-SOG, the 173rd Airborne Div., and is also tied to the C.I.A. as a government assassin. Willard has performed many tours of duty during the war and is now beginning a new one. Willard is a man who is walking a narrow margin between sanity and insanity. He is chosen by two high ranking officers Lt. Gen. Corman (Spradlin), and Col. Lucas (Ford) to proceed up a river in a U.S. Navy patrol boat deep into the heart of Cambodia to find, and kill a rogue American Colonel who commands an army of natives who are waging their own private, savage war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Much of Conrad’s premise is very much represented in the film, however there is a lot which was written in to reflect the Vietnam era and how demoralizing and difficult a war it truly was.

One of the most iconic parts and one of my favorites is the introduction of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore who commands the 1/9 Air Mobile Div. Willard and the crew of the “PBR Streetgang” make their way along the coast down towards the Mekong Delta in order to gain access into the river systems. They come to a village that was the site of a battle. They come ashore and encounter an American Air Cavalry unit which was mopping up a search and destroy mission on the village. One of my favorite lines in this scene is when Willard talks about the Cavalry unit. “1/9 was an old cavalry division which cashed in its horses for choppers and had gone tear assing around Nam looking for the shit. They had given Charlie a few surprises in their time. They were mopping up now and it hadn’t even happened yet an hour ago.” Look for a cameo of Coppola as a combat film maker asking Willard and the boat crew to not look at the camera and to go by like they’re fighting. A great scene.

(In the Redux version) A helicopter lands and Kilgore (Duvall) emerges from the helicopter, sporting an old Stetson Cavalry hat. Willard hands the Col. orders about his mission. Kilgore immediately dismisses Willard saying that he knows nothing about his mission. Kilgore has absolutely no interest in helping Willard and the crew of the patrol boat out. The crew are made up of four men Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Frederic Forrest (Jay “Chef” Hicks”), Larry Fishburne (Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Washington), and Sam Bottoms as famed Southern Californian surfer Lance Johnson.

Kilgore’s aid informs him that one of the men in the Navy patrol boat is the famed surfer. Kilgore (a fellow surfer) has a change of heart and decides to help out Willard and the crew gain access to the Nung River and a village which is referred to as “Charlie’s Point”, a heavily fortified coastal area that Kilgore plans to attack at first light in order to aid Willard on his mission. The following morning at first light, Kilgore’s Div. get going to attack the village. A Bugler sounds an old fashion charge and the helicopters begin to take off. The following part is the scene where Kilgore blasts Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries over loud speakers in order to terrify the enemy.

The scene was epic in scope and took many days for Coppola to choreograph. Much of the equipment was on loan from president Marcos and was routinely taken away in an instant to fight communist guerrillas which were operating in the nearby Filipino countryside. Many of these hardships were documented in the film Hearts of Darkness about the ordeals during filming and how the film was almost terminated several times due to cost overruns, and lack of enthusiasm from nervous investors. Other elements like typhoons and the raining season destroyed expensive set pieces, and delayed shooting for months at a time.

Coppola tells about his personal problems and hardships while making the film which include Brando taking over three million dollars for one month’s work (a sum never paid to the actor ever before) and never showing up, to Martin Sheen having a major heart attack while filming, and that most of the cast and crew went insane in the jungle while filming. The late great actor Dennis Hopper reportedly told in an interview years later that most of his salary was paid in Filipino cocaine. That was probably what led to his legendary performance.

In the summer of 2001, Coppola re-released the film at Cannes as the “Redux” version which contained over forty nine minutes of footage which he was forced to cut out by the investors in 1979 in order to get the film out in theaters ASAP. I am a fan of both versions of the film and like the Redux version very much. My only gripe is that the French plantation scene goes on for way too long. It could have been cut down by several minutes. The premise is great on how the Patriarch of these French colonialists which still life in the jungle, tells Willard and his men how they can never be pushed out and will live there for the rest of their lives.

This is a scene in which Milius shows how the torch was passed by French colonialists to American interventionists. One of the French family members turns to Willard after the demoralizing story of the French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu which ended French colonialism in Vietnam forever says to Willard “Why don’t you Americans learn from our mistakes. With your power, your army you could win.” It’s effective, but you can cut there and lose the scene of Willard smoking opium with a horny widow who beds him for the night.

As for the rest of the film, there are many other quick scenes that were cut out, or went on a little longer than normal in certain parts. The version of the film works very well and that was the version that Coppola had intended for his audience. For those of you who are as much of a fan of the film as I am, you can agree that many of the scenes which show an overweight and crazy Brando give his character more substance as not only a man consumed by the chaos of war, but of man’s ability to be cruel to one another, despite the lunacy of the Vietnam War.

Favorite quotes in the film: ” I love the smell of Napalm in the Morning”, “Any man lying here with his guts out can drink from my canteen any day”, “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500″, CHARLIE DON’T SURF,” “Never get off the boat, absolutely god damn right, unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat and he split from the whole fucking program”, “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was either dug in or moving too fast. His idea of a little R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home, death or victory.” “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas.” “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.”

Fun Facts: The names of both officers who send Willard on the mission are of course Gen. Corman as in Roger Corman, the legendary B Movie director who gave Coppola his big start in Hollywood, and Col. Lucas as in George Lucas, a long time friend and collaborator with Coppola for decades. In fact, Coppola had intended for Lucas to direct, but Lucas was busy with a small scale science fiction project of his which was Star Wars IV.

Apocalypse Now is now available on 2 or 3 disc special edition Blu-Ray or regular DVD through Lionsgate Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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