Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t the only movie about Vietnam released during the ‘70s. But as Roger Ebert put it, Apocalypse Now is a “grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking” that makes it one of the most iconic movies about war.
The lines of fiction and reality were blurred throughout the making of the movie, detailed in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — a must-see for any fan of the film or ‘70s filmmaking. Apocalypse Now was released on this day back in 1979, and 36 years later audiences are still fascinated by Coppola’s production.
Here are 20 things you might not know about Apocalypse Now — a movie that almost didn’t get made and one in which its cast and crew almost lost themselves forever in the process.
Marlon Brando showed up to the set late, wasted, and extremely overweight. (Tennessee Williams once joked that Brando was clearly being paid by the pound.) He admitted he had not read the script or Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, which inspired the story. He threatened to quit several times and argued with director Francis Coppola about the script, which he refused to perform (and had to be rewritten due to the actor’s weight). Coppola eventually agreed to let Brando ad-lib the dialogue and shoot the actor in shadow. He had Brando wear black and focused on his face. A double was used for full-body shots.
Coppola read Heart of Darkness out loud to Brando on set over several days, leaving the 900-man cast and crew totally stalled.
Marlon Brando improvised a lot of Kurtz’s dialogue. From the Daily Mail:
There was still no proper script, and so, for the crucial scenes where Willard confronts and kills Kurtz, Brando invented his own lines and mumbled and slurred them in that incoherent but unmistakable Brando way. Eventually, having put his heart and soul into the interpretation, Brando dried. ‘Francis, I’ve gone as far as I can go,’ he told the director. ‘If you need more, get another actor.’ It wasn’t necessary. Brilliant editing did the job as 18 minutes of rambling were cut to two. The result was electrifying. ‘The horror, the horror,’ were Kurtz/Brando’s apt final words (and also those of Conrad’s Kurtz). They encapsulated both the film’s mighty themes about the Vietnam War but also the nightmare of the way it had been made.
The role of Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, was offered to Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, and Al Pacino. They all turned Coppola down.
Coppola hired Harvey Keitel for the role of Willard, but the actor was fired.
Frustrated about the lack of financial support for the film before shooting, Coppola threw five of his Oscars out the window.
Coppola put up $30 million of his own money to make the movie, signing away everything he owned.
The title of the film is never mentioned in the movie, but does appear in the background as graffiti: “Our Motto Apocalypse Now.”
The film shoot was supposed to take six weeks, but it lasted 16 months due to complications — including a typhoon that destroyed the sets. It took Coppola three years to edit the footage.
Martin Sheen had a heart attack during filming. To avoid bad press and potential financial backlash, “heat exhaustion” was given as the reason for Sheen’s hospitalization. Coppola blamed himself for Sheen’s heart attack and wound up having an epileptic seizure. When Sheen eventually returned to work, he said: “I don’t know if I’m going to live through this.” Coppola threatened suicide several times during the making of the movie.
Famed film producer Roger Corman gave Coppola his start in cinema. When the filmmaker asked Corman for his advice and told him he’d be shooting in the Philippines, Corman said: “Don’t go.”
On the dead bodies featured in the film (which were almost real corpses):
The dead bodies littering the set were another indication of the blurring edges between art and reality. Kurtz’s jungle stronghold is a hell-hole of medieval barbarity, strewn with the skulls and remains of the enemies he has slaughtered in his private war against the Vietcong. But an over- enthusiastic props manager decided that dummies were no good for this purpose. He wanted actual corpses to lie on the ground and hang in the trees ‘to give real atmosphere’. A man who supplied cadavers to medical schools was hired to supply dead bodies – until horrified senior production staff realised what was happening. The sinister supplier, it turned out, had been creeping out at night and robbing graves. The local police showed up on set to investigate. The passports of the production team were temporarily confiscated and an army truck arrived to cart the bodies away. After that, authenticity had to rely on the evil- smelling garbage that was strewn everywhere and the very real rats.
Everyone started to feel out of control during the shoot due to stress and the conditions. Drugs and partying were a common occurrence:
Actor Sam Bottoms confesses that he was high on either LSD, pot or speed during much of the shooting. (“We were bad boys.”) And Martin Sheen talks about his “chaotic” inner state during the shooting of the film’s opening hotel room scenes, and how he was so drunk that he didn’t even realize he had punched a mirror, slicing open his hand.
Coppola later admitted: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. The way we made it is the way Americans were in Vietnam. We had too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
On Dennis Hopper’s way of getting through the film shoot:
Hopper was in a bad way according to George Hickenlooper, who directed the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now. “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’ So he was being supplied by the film production drugs that he could use while he was shooting.”
Writer John Milius was convinced his now famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” was too over-the-top to stay in the script. It became one of the movie’s most iconic pieces of dialogue.
President Marcos of the Philippines had to take back the helicopter gunships loaned to Coppola during the shoot in order to attack real-life rebels on another island.
Coppola had his chartered airliner deliver fresh pasta from Italy for cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and his Italian cameramen. The rest of the crew ate things like boiled rice.
Brando’s role, Colonel Kurtz, almost went to Orson Welles, who was Coppola’s first choice.
The water buffalo slaughter scene was (unfortunately) real.
The story of how Apocalypse Now began:
The project began with George Lucas’s plans to direct a script written by John Milius in 1969 entitled The Psychedelic Soldier, with Coppola as executive producer. Lucas had planned to shoot his film as a faux documentary on location in South Vietnam while the war was still underway. But a production deal with Warner Bros. fell through, and Coppola moved on to co-write and direct The Godfather (1972). The huge success of this Oscar®-winning film gave him the clout to reintroduce the idea of Apocalypse Now, which would be filmed by Coppola’s own American Zoetrope Studios for United Artists, on location in the Philippines. By this time Saigon had fallen, making the idea of a “documentary” approach obsolete and redefining the story as a reflection on what many saw as the futility and horror of the Vietnam War, as well as Coppola’s own conflicted emotions. Screenwriter Milius had no desire to direct the film himself, and Lucas, busy now with Star Wars (1977), gave Coppola his blessing to direct Apocalypse Now.