"We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access
to too much money, and little by little, we went insane." Francis
Ford Coppola in an interview about the making of Apocalypse Now.
was almost a year to the day since I had flown over the Philippines
aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft on my way out of Vietnam, following the
collapse of Saigon in April of 1975.
The ancient Commercial Air Transport DC3 I was riding on bumped and
bucked its way down through torrential tropical rain onto a dirt strip
carved out of the jungles of Luzon. The runway lights were kerosene
lanterns. I was arriving at the most unlikely movie location imaginable.
I had been invited to spend a week documenting the making of Apocalypse
Photographing on movie sets was nothing new to me. As well as being
a Time contract photographer covering news, features, and The White
House, I would regularly work as a "special" photographer
for the movie industry. Going in, though, I had no idea how very different
a project this would be from anything I had known. I was entering a
strange world where art and reality were confused, and the professionalism
of a big budget movie unit, which I was used to, would be threatened
by delusion and madness.
In the late 1960s, America was becoming ever more bogged down in the
quagmire that was Vietnam. Writer John Millius, at the request of director
Francis Ford Coppola, wrote a screenplay based on Joseph Conrad's 19th-century
book Heart of Darkness. The story of a ship captain who journeys
up a river in the Congo searching for an ivory trader named Kurtz. In
the process he finds himself not only leaving civilization, but also
entering the dark realm of evil that resides in people's souls.
Coppola wanted to reset the story in Vietnam and draw the characters
from that war. At one point, he even considered shooting the film in
Vietnam, using 16mm cameras. He assembled a talented cast and crew who
were more than willing to risk their lives to make the film. However,
it was more than Warner Brothers could tolerate, and the project was
put on the back burner. In the years that followed, Coppola went on
to produce The Godfather and The Godfather II, and in
the process became one of the richest and most powerful filmmakers in
In early 1976, Coppola decided to try again. United Artists put up $18
million as a budget. Production was scheduled to start in February of
1976 on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
order to convince UA to put up the money, Coppola had signed a contract
with Marlon Brando to play the role of Colonel Kurtz, a former Green
Beret commander who has gone mad. Brando was to get a million dollars
a week for three weeks of work. It was a classic "Play or Pay"
deal, which meant that Brando would be paid regardless of whether he
actually worked or not. This deal pushed pre-production ahead much faster
than normal. Also, in order to get the cooperation of the Philippine
military which controlled the helicopters, tanks, and planes, a financial
agreement had to be put in place, and a firm start date had to be set.
The shooting schedule for principal photography was to run about sixteen
weeks. But it was 2 years and 238 shooting days later before Apocalypse
Now was finally in the can.
I awoke before dawn to the sound of roosters and pigs. My bedroom was
on the second floor of the house belonging to the Mayor of Luzon. Coppola
had taken it over as his production offices, and to house occasional
guests. There was no air conditioning. Even at that early hour the temperature
was in the nineties, and the humidity was 100%. There was not even a
hint of breeze.
Groggy, I stumbled out of the house as dawn started to streak the sky.
All of a sudden there was a roar overhead I hadn't heard for a year.
It was the unmistakable drone of UH-1B military helicopters coming in
to land. I blinked as I looked up and saw the familiar olive-drab colors
and insignia of the US Army 1st Cavalry Division on the sides. Helmeted
door-gunners were clearing their M60 machine guns as the choppers sat
down in the town square. A jeep came roaring around a corner, another
gunner standing behind its machine gun. Orders were being barked as
troops came spilling out of their barracks and formed into lines to
prepare for inspection. Vietnamese civilians were boiling the broth
for their morning pho in front of their hootches. There wasn't
a movie camera in sight. Somehow, overnight, I had been transported
through time and space back to Vietnam in the 1960s.
What Coppola had done was to send his scouts to every bar across the
Philippines, and signed up any expatriate who looked like he could be
a US soldier. There were Germans, Norwegians, Brits, and Americans who
signed on for months of living in cold-water barracks so they could
To whip them into shape, his military advisors, including Lt. Col. Peter
Kama (US Army, Ret.), were brought in. They achieved a remarkable transformation
in these would-be grunts during a two-week drill. At breakfast in the
mess hall, I sat across from a young man who had worked as an editor
for City Magazine in San Francisco. During the Vietnam War he
had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Yet here he was, dressed in tropical
fatigues, dog tags dangling from his neck. There was a strange gleam
in his eyes as he told me that his "platoon" was the best
in the unit. They had perfected jumping from hovering helicopters, digging
in, and setting up a defensive perimeter in minutes. They called their
group "The Donald Ducks." He proudly exclaimed, "If we
had been in Vietnam we would have won that war!"
had also done more than his part in relieving the Philippine authorities
by caring for hundreds of Vietnamese refugees that had come to their
shores. He moved them to Luzon. They set up their own villages right
on the set. Meanwhile, up the river, 600 Filipino workers were busy
constructing Kurtz's temple out of 300-pound dried adobe blocks, under
the direction of production designer Dean Tavoliarius. To play the headhunters
Kurtz had recruited in his jungle stronghold, Coppola transported a
tribe of Ifugao Indians from the south. It was rumored that until recently
the tribe had still practiced headhunting for real.
My visit coincided with the start of the biggest "set piece"
of action in the film. This was the famed Air Cavalry attack on the
Vietcong village. Production on the film had already been underway for
little more than a month, and already Francis was bedeviled by circumstances
that were spinning out of his control. Harvey Keitel was his first choice
for the actor playing the lead role of Capt. Willard who makes the long
journey up the river to find Kurtz and to "terminate with extreme
prejudice." Keitel was fired after a week of shooting, which meant
the first week of film was now useless. Coppola flew to Los Angeles
and signed Martin Sheen to replace Keitel.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Air Force was becoming increasingly difficult
as far as keeping their promises. After Coppola had paid enormous sums
to rent, and in many cases, re-equip their helicopters, they would suddenly
disappear in the middle of filming to fly off to engage real-life rebel
forces in the hills.
My first day on the set, the attack on the village was being shot. Coppola
acknowledged this was the most complicated sequence of filming in his
career. Explosive charges had been wired throughout the village. As
Coppola called "Action!" Vietnamese extras ran toward machine
gun emplacements and opened fire on the oncoming helicopters. Buildings
exploded, bullets ripped up the ground. As the helicopters, spewing
rockets, machine guns blazing, roared overhead, the Assistant Director
yelled, "Cut!" Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro complained
that the helicopters were too high. They were not in the shot.
For the next four hours, the set was prepared again. New charges were
put in place. With the light beginning to fade, Coppola yelled "Action!"
and once more the guns began to fire and Vietnamese ran across the long
bridge that had been rigged to explode. Then, suddenly, the lead Huey
veered off to the south, followed by the rest of the squadron. As the
choppers disappeared into the distance, the Philippine Air Force Liaison
Officer told Coppola that they had been called off the filming to attack
a rebel force.
film is a 20-million-dollar disaster. Why won't anybody believe me?
I'm thinking of shooting myself!" (Francis Ford Coppola, April,
Coppola was discovering that he was unwittingly replicating the American
experience in Vietnam, with all this equipment, all these people, he
was losing every day, and he was the commanding general. He had to beg
United Artists to put another $3 million in the budget, which the studio
agreed to do, but only on the condition that if the film made less than
$40 million, Coppola would be held personally responsible for repaying
the extra money.
Marlon Brando insisted he play his role according to the original schedule,
or he would simply cash the million dollars a week he had been promised.
But Coppola was a long way from that point. The original script had
been made irrelevant. Daily call sheets for cast and crew would simply
say "scene unknown." Now he was directing by the seat-of-his-pants.
He was starting to commit the worst crime a director can be accused
of, he was shooting impulsively, letting things "happen."
In the process he was throwing away narrative structure. He had moved
too far up the river in his own mind to turn back.
"My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassingly
pompous film on an important subject, and I'm doing it. I confront it.
I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from the most sincere
depths of my heart, the film will not be any good." (Francis
Ford Coppola in an interview with his wife Eleanor)
Drugs, alcohol, and delirium became the norm. Actors and crew were dropping
acid or taking speed. At times, this resulted in astonishing performances.
While preparing to shoot what would become the opening scene for the
movie, with Martin Sheen playing Willard, Coppola had been told by an
advisor that a real green beret would be a vain, narcissistic man who
would likely spend hours looking at himself in a mirror. After making
this suggestion to Sheen, who was already feeling the effects of the
long shoot in the jungle, he decided to go for his own style of "method
acting." After consuming prodigious amounts of liquor, he started
the shot, doing karate moves, naked, in front of a mirror. As the alcohol
took over, he lunged forward and shattered the mirror with his hand.
It split open his thumb. Coppola immediately called "Cut,"
and shouted for a doctor. Sheen, however, insisted the filming continue.
Over the next half hour, the bleeding actor slouched against a bed cursing
at the camera and the director. Crew members feared Sheen might become
violent. The resulting performance is one of the most gripping in acting
Then came the storm. In May, a giant typhoon smashed the Philippines.
It wrecked many of the sets. The film was forced to shut down for two
months. By now, Coppola had hocked many of his assets, including his
home in Northern California. By July, filming restarted, but where the
story was going was anybody's guess. Coppola did a major scene, which
took place on a French plantation that the crew of the River Patrol
Boat encounters on their trip up the river. The plantation and its owners
represented the colonial history of Vietnam. Meticulous attention was
paid to every detail. The white wine would be served at 50 degrees,
and the red at room temperature after breathing for an hour and a half.
It was one of the most evocative scenes of the movie, but Coppola hated
it. Because of his budget pressure, he couldn't afford the French cast
he wanted, and after a week of shooting he decided to kill the entire
In the motion picture industry, wags began to talk about "Apocalypse
Later." There were rumors that Coppola had suffered a breakdown.
Bizarre stories circulated. Had real body parts been taken from cemeteries
to be used in the Kurtz-temple scenes? And then, in July of 1977, Martin
Sheen had a major heart attack on the set. He was out of action for
six weeks. During that time the director and crew would spend days on
the boat, wandering the river, trying to conceive of shots. Each day
they would go further up the river. Coppola would lay down clouds of
smoke, which made each trip seem further and further from reality.
Then there was the tiger scene. Francis came up with the idea that the
crew of the PBR would get off the boat to find some mangos. Frederick
Forrest and Martin Sheen suddenly came face to face with a charging
tiger. The trainer, Marty Cox, who had been severely mauled by one of
his charges, told the crew that he had not given the tiger anything
to eat for a week, and he was "plenty hungry." A small pig
was dragged toward the camera to make the tiger charge, but once the
animal burst through the jungle, the cast and crew panicked. Frederick
Forrest later said "I was never so scared in my life. It was so
fast, man...guys were running everywhere...climbing trees. To me, that
was the essence of the whole film in Vietnam. The look in that tiger's
eyes...the madness...there was no reality any more...if he wanted you,
you were his." As they said in the movie, "Never get off the
Then, into all this chaos, came Brando. It was the event Coppola feared
the most. Finally, he would be forced to confront the ultimate narrative
of his story. How was all of this going to end? When he had been hired
two years earlier, Brando was already overweight, living a life of indulgence
on his Pacific island paradise. He had promised to get into shape for
the film, but when he finally arrived on the set he was heavier than
ever, and extremely sensitive about his girth.
One way out of the Brando predicament for Coppola was to use the fact
of Brando's weight as a physical example of how living outside civilization,
in the jungle, had caused this Green Beret to let himself go. But Brando
wouldn't hear of it. Somehow, they would have to shoot him in semi-darkness.
Next problem, what was he going to say? There was no script. For long
days, with the Brando million-dollar-a-week meter running, the star
and director would huddle on the set trying to come up with anything
that they could shoot. Finally, Coppola decided to let Brando improvise.
He figured that if he just kept shooting, sooner or later something
would make sense.
"This movie was not made in the tradition of Max Ophuls or David
Lean. It was made in the tradition of Irwin Allen. I made the most vulgar,
entertaining, actionful, sense-a-ramic, give them a thrill every five
minutes, sex, violence, humor, because I want people to come see it.
But the questions I kept running into and facing every 5 seconds was
the stupid script! Going up the river to kill a guy, but that was the
story! The questions that story kept putting to me, I couldn't answer,
yet I knew I had constructed the film in such a way that not to answer
would be to fail. (Francis Ford Coppola in an interview with his
Finally, Francis was forced to call it quits in Luzon. But the film
still did not make sense. More scenes were scripted and shot in Northern
California. Michael Herr, an author who had written one of the best
books about the Vietnam War, was hired to construct a narrative that
would link the scenes. It was largely Herr's words that Martin Sheen
speaks as the PBR goes up that river.
On August 19, 1979 the movie opened. I was in the audience at the Ziegfeld
Theater in New York City. Until that point, no one had ever made a movie
about Vietnam that I thought was right. Details might be correct, the
history solid, but they had all missed something crucial. Perhaps it
was the rock-n-roll we all associated with that time and place. But
sitting in the dark, looking up at that screen, I knew Coppola had got
it right. Maybe the reason was that the war had made no sense, and in
his own search to sort it all out, he came to the only real truth of
that struggle, that everyone was mad.
The movie won three Golden Globe Awards, two Academy Awards, and the
Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. It made $150 million at the box office.
Oh, but the story wasn't over. Coppola knew it.
Over the next 20 years, he would think about all the unused material
from the original 4-hour assembly. What about the plantation scene?
What ever happened to the Playboy Bunnies that entertained the troops?
There were many unanswered questions.
This month some of those questions will be answered. A new version,
nearly an hour longer than the original, opens in theaters around the
country. Will the changes make this classic film even better? I don't
know. But maybe now Francis Ford Coppola can finally "get off the
the Apocalypse Now website
Halstead is the Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist monthly
webmagazine. In 1976, he was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for
his coverage of the Fall of Saigon for Time Magazine.