By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
I mean, the war is essentially a Los Angeles export, like acid rock.
—Francis Ford Coppola
The priciest cult movie to take Cannes by storm, Apocalypse Now has always been as famous for the excesses of the men who made it as for anything about the film itself. Could any story be as great and absurd as that behind the making of this epic? Among the production's manifold dramas and staggering follies were its star's near-fatal heart attack, the cornucopia of drugs (who wasn't stoned?) and the extramarital affairs that nearly shipwrecked the director's marriage, including a tryst with the future Mrs. Harrison Ford and writer of E.T., no less. There was the photo op with Ferdinand Marcos and the 15 Huey helicopters on loan from the Philippine Air Force that were transformed into U.S. war machines in the morning, only to be repainted for active military service at night. There was the 14-year-old Larry Fishburne, who lied about his age to land the part of a grunt called Clean. There was civil unrest. There was nature unleashed—a typhoon named Olga, a tempest named Marlon. There was John Milius. Throughout, there was also Francis Ford Coppola, self-abridged to Francis Coppola in the last days of filming, as if somehow by changing his name, by shaving it down by a third, he could bring the never-ending madness to a finish.
It didn't happen. It had taken four years to kick-start Apocalypse Now and two years to shoot it; it would take another two to see it locked. Coppola ended up taking an unfinished copy to Cannes (calling it "a work in progress"), and the press swooned. Back home, though, critics sharpened their knives. On its release in 1979, much of the press (Time, The New York Times, The Nation) savaged the film as a cautionary tale of unchecked ambition, ego and budget. More than a year after it opened, Pauline Kael wrote, "Coppola got tied up in a big knot of American self-hatred and guilt, and what the picture boiled down to was: white man—he devil." That's not Apocalypse Now or then; it's just Kael poking at leftovers. Still, with her next line, she did admit what was really bothering her: "Since then, I think, people have expected less of movies and have been willing to settle for less." The thing is, though, it wasn't Coppola who made people settle. After all, it was Kramer vs. Kramer, not Apocalypse Now, that won Best Picture that year, and that cleaned up at the box office, followed by Rocky 2 and Star Trek.
Critics like to say that the audience expects less and settles for less, and maybe it's true. But who could tell what was true about Apocalypse Now in 1979? The press had churned out disastrous reports for years—the typhoon that destroyed the set, Martin Sheen's brush with death, the money, the money, the money. Kael mentioned the bad press on three separate occasions, in February 1977, October 1977 and September 1978. When she finally saw the finished film, how could she, like so many others, not be disappointed? (Off working for Warren Beatty in Hollywood, she had missed the chance for a full-length assault.) "His film," she would write in passing of Coppola, "was posited on great thoughts arriving at the end—a confrontation and a revelation. And when they weren't there, people slunk out of the theaters, or tried to comfort themselves with chatter about the psychedelic imagery." But Apocalypse Now wasn't about great thoughts arriving at the end. It wasn't about great thoughts period, or Kurtz squatting in his temple of death, bald head rising like the moon. As with American film, as with America, Coppola's film wasn't about the end of the road, it was about what it takes to get there. The point was the journey; the point was the moviemaking—it still is.
It was Milius who transposed Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, with the idea that his and Coppola's friend George Lucas would direct. At first, Lucas was going to shoot the film in 16mm around some rice paddies near Sacramento; later, his producer scouted locations in the Philippines. Lucas has said Coppola took the script from him, though Milius counters that without Coppola, the movie would never have been made. Instead, Lucas went on to make Star Wars, dubbed by Coppola's editor, Walter Murch, as "George's version of Apocalypse Now, rewritten in an otherworldly context." Coppola eventually took over Milius' script and re-wrote enough of it to share guild credit with him, with Michael Herr earning a separate credit for Sheen's narration. The story itself is straightforward. It begins, without opening credits, in 1968 with palm trees erupting into flames as Jim Morrison sings "The End." The image and the thudding sound of helicopter rotors melt into a ceiling fan blowing down on the sweat-bathed Captain Willard, who, blasted on booze (as was Sheen), naked, bleeding, weeping, ranting, is praying for a way back to the jungle. He gets his wish. In a meeting with military intelligence, he is ordered to locate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who, backed by AWOL Americans and indigenous tribes, has formed his own army in Cambodia. Willard is to travel upriver aboard a patrol boat and terminate Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice."
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