Apocalypse Now is a 1979 American epic war film about the Vietnam War, directed, produced and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. It stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. Harrison Ford also makes an appearance in a small role. The screenplay, co-written by Coppola and John Milius and narration written by Michael Herr, was loosely based on the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The setting was changed from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War (1969–70). The film follows a river journey from South Vietnam into Cambodia undertaken by Captain Benjamin L. Willard (a character based on Conrad’s Marlow and played by Sheen), who is on a secret mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Brando, with the character being based on Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz), a renegade Army Special Forces officer accused of murder and who is presumed insane.
Milius became interested in developing Heart of Darkness into a Vietnam War film. Coppola expressed interest and eventually decided to take on the project, with the filmmaker taking influence from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Initially set to be a five-month shoot, the film became noted for the problems encountered while making it for over a year, as chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). These problems included Brando arriving on the set overweight and completely unprepared, expensive sets being destroyed by severe weather and Sheen having a breakdown and suffering a near-fatal heart attack while on location. Problems continued after production as the release was postponed several times while Coppola edited over a million feet of film.
Apocalypse Now was honored with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered unfinished before it was finally released on 15 August 1979, by United Artists. The film performed well at the box office, grossing $78 million domestically and going on to gross over $150 million worldwide. Initial reviews were mixed; while Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography was widely acclaimed, several critics found Coppola’s handling of the story’s major themes to be anticlimactic and intellectually disappointing. Apocalypse Now is today considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Coppola), and Best Supporting Actor for Duvall, and went on to win for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. It ranked No. 14 in Sight & Sound’s greatest films poll in 2012, and No. 6 in the Director’s Poll of greatest films of all time. Roger Ebert also included it in his top 10 list of greatest films ever in 2012. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
In 1969, during the Vietnam War, United States Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has apparently gone insane; at an outpost in Cambodia, he commands Montagnard troops who see him as a demigod. Colonel Lucas and General Corman, increasingly concerned with Kurtz’s vigilante operations, assign MACV-SOG Captain Benjamin L. Willard to “terminate” Kurtz with “extreme prejudice”.
Willard, initially ambivalent, joins a United States Navy river patrol boat (PBR) commanded by Chief, with crewmen Lance, “Chef”, and “Mr. Clean” to head upriver. They rendezvous with surfing enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment commander, to discuss going up the Nùng River. Kilgore scoffs but befriends Lance after discovering he is a famous surfer and agrees to escort them through the Nùng’s Viet Cong-held coastal mouth. The helicopter squadron raids at dawn, with Kilgore ordering a napalm strike on the Viet Cong. Willard gathers his men to the PBR and journeys upriver.
Tension arises as Willard believes himself in command of the PBR while Chief prioritises other objectives over Willard’s. Slowly making their way upriver, Willard reveals his mission partially to the Chief to assuage his concerns about why his mission should proceed. As night falls, the PBR reaches the American Do Lung Bridge outpost on the Nùng River. Willard and Lance enter seeking information for what is upriver. Unable to find the commander, Willard orders the Chief to continue as an unseen enemy launches an assault on the bridge.
The next day, Willard learns from dispatch that another MACV-SOG operative, Captain Colby, was sent on an earlier mission identical to Willard’s and has since joined Kurtz.[a] As the crew read letters from home, Lance activates a smoke grenade, attracting the attention of a camouflaged enemy and Mr. Clean is killed. Further upriver, Chief is impaled by a spear thrown by the natives and attempts to kill Willard by impaling him. Willard suffocates him and Lance buries Chief in the river. Willard reveals his mission to Chef, but despite Chef’s anger towards the mission, he rejects Willard’s offer for him to continue alone and insists that they complete the mission together.
The PBR arrives at Kurtz’s outpost, and the surviving crew are met by an American freelance photojournalist, who manically praises Kurtz’s genius. As they wander through, they come across a near-catatonic Colby, along with other US servicemen now in Kurtz’s renegade army. Returning to the PBR, Willard later takes Lance with him, leaving Chef behind with orders to call in an airstrike on Kurtz’s compound if they do not return.
In the camp, Willard is subdued, bound and brought before Kurtz in a darkened temple. Tortured and imprisoned for several days, Kurtz kills Chef and throws his head into Willard’s lap. Willard is then released and allowed to freely roam the compound. Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, the human condition and civilisation, while praising the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong. Kurtz discusses his family and asks that Willard tell his son about him after his death.
That night, as the Montagnards ceremonially slaughter a water buffalo, Willard stealthily enters Kurtz’s chamber as he is making a recording and attacks him with a machete. Mortally wounded, Kurtz utters “… The horror … the horror …” and dies. All in the compound see Willard departing, carrying a collection of Kurtz’s writings, and bow down to him. Willard then leads Lance to the boat and they sail away. Kurtz’s final words echo eerily as everything fades to black.
Alternative and Varied Endings
At the time of its release, discussion and rumours circulated about the supposed various endings for Apocalypse Now. Coppola said the original ending was written in haste, where Kurtz convinced Willard to join forces and together they repelled the air strike on the compound. Coppola said he never fully agreed with the Kurtz and Willard dying in fatalistic explosive intensity, preferring to end the film in a more encouraging manner.
When Coppola originally organised the ending, he considered two significantly different ends to the movie. One involved Willard leading Lance by the hand as everyone in Kurtz’s base throws down their weapons, and ends with images of Willard piloting the PBR slowly away from Kurtz’s compound, this final scene superimposed over the face of a stone idol, which then fades into black. The other option showed an air strike being called and the base being blown to bits in a spectacular display, consequently killing everyone left within it.
The original 1979 70mm exclusive theatrical release ended with Willard’s boat, the stone statue, then fade to black with no credits, save for ‘”Copyright 1979 Omni Zoetrope”‘ right after the film ends. This mirrors the lack of any opening titles and supposedly stems from Coppola’s original intention to “tour” the film as one would a play: the credits would have appeared on printed programs provided before the screening began.
There have been, to date, many variations of the end credit sequence, beginning with the 35 mm general release version, where Coppola elected to show the credits superimposed over shots of the jungle exploding into flames. Rental prints circulated with this ending, and can be found in the hands of a few collectors. Some versions of this had the subtitle “A United Artists release”, while others had “An Omni Zoetrope release”. The network television version of the credits ended with “… from MGM/UA Entertainment Company” (the film made its network debut shortly after the merger of MGM and UA). One variation of the end credits can be seen on both YouTube and as a supplement on the current Lionsgate Blu-ray.
Later when Coppola heard that audiences interpreted this as an air strike called by Willard, Coppola pulled the film from its 35 mm run and put credits on a black screen. However, the “air strike” footage continued to circulate in repertory theatres well into the 1980’s, and it was included in the 1980’s LaserDisc release. In the DVD commentary, Coppola explains that the images of explosions had not been intended to be part of the story; they were intended to be seen as completely separate from the film. He had added the explosions to the credits as a graphic background to the credits.
Coppola explained he had captured the now-iconic footage during demolition of the sets (set destruction and removal was required by the Philippine government). Coppola filmed the demolition with multiple cameras fitted with different film stocks and lenses to capture the explosions at different speeds. He wanted to do something with the dramatic footage and decided to add them to the credits.
Apocalypse Now Redux
In 2001, Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux in cinemas and subsequently on DVD. This is an extended version that restores 49 minutes of scenes cut from the original film. Coppola has continued to circulate the original version as well: the two versions are packaged together in the Complete Dossier DVD, released on August 15, 2006 and in the Blu-ray edition released on October 19, 2010.
The longest section of added footage in the Redux version is the “French Plantation” sequence, a chapter involving the de Marais family’s rubber plantation, a holdover from the colonisation of French Indochina, featuring Coppola’s two sons Gian-Carlo and Roman as children of the family. Around the dinner table, a young French child recites a poem by Charles Baudelaire entitled L’albatros. The French family patriarch is not satisfied with the child’s recitation. The child is sent away. These scenes were removed from the 1979 cut, which premiered at Cannes. In behind-the-scenes footage in Hearts of Darkness, Coppola expresses his anger, on the set, at the technical limitations of the shot scenes, the result of tight allocation of resources. At the time of the Redux version, it was possible to digitally enhance the footage to accomplish Coppola’s vision. In the scenes, the French family patriarchs argue about the positive side of colonialism in Indochina and denounce the betrayal of the military men in the First Indochina War. Hubert de Marais argues that French politicians sacrificed entire battalions at Điện Biên Phủ, and tells Willard that the US created the Viet Cong (as the Viet Minh) to fend off Japanese invaders.
Other added material includes extra combat footage before Willard meets Kilgore, a humorous scene in which Willard’s team steals Kilgore’s surfboard (which sheds some light on the hunt for the mangoes), a follow-up scene to the dance of the Playboy Playmates, in which Willard’s team finds the Playmates stranded after their helicopter has run out of fuel (trading two barrels of fuel for two hours with the Bunnies), and a scene of Kurtz reading from a Time magazine article about the war, surrounded by Cambodian children.
A deleted scene titled “Monkey Sampan” shows Willard and the PBR crew suspiciously eyeing an approaching sampan juxtaposed to Montagnard villagers joyfully singing “Light My Fire” by The Doors. As the sampan gets closer, Willard realises there are monkeys on it and no helmsman. Finally, just as the two boats pass, the wind turns the sail and exposes a naked dead civilian tied to the sail boom. His body is mutilated and looks as though the man had been whipped. The singing stops. As they pass on by, Chief notes out loud, “That’s comin’ from where we’re going, Captain.” The boat then slowly passes the giant tail of a shot down B-52 bomber as the noise of engines high in the sky is heard. Coppola said that he made up for cutting this scene by having the PBR pass under an airplane tail in the final cut.
A 289-minute First Assembly circulates as a video bootleg, containing extra material not included in either the original theatrical release or the “redux” version.
Apocalypse Now Final Cut
In April 2019, Coppola showed Apocalypse Now Final Cut for the 40th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. This new version has a run time of three hours and two minutes, with Coppola having cut 20 minutes of the added material from “Redux”. It is also the first time the film has been restored from the original camera negative at 4K; previous transfers were made from an IP. It will be released in autumn 2019, along with an extended cut of The Cotton Club. It also had a release in select IMAX theatres on 15 and 18 August 2019.
Trivia and Goofs
- There are no opening credits in the film. The title can be seen as graffiti in the Kurtz compound late in the film.
- Marlon Brando so angered Francis Ford Coppola that Coppola turned over the filming of Brando’s scenes to assistant director Jerry Ziesmer.
- When the helicopter drops the PBR onto the water, the superstructure with the radar mast collapses, but in the next shot the boat is fine.
Production & Filming Details
- Directer: Francis Ford Coppola
- Producer: Francis Ford Coppola.
- Writers: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola.
- Narration: Michael Herr.
- Music: Carmine Coppola and Francis Coppola.
- Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro.
- Editors: Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, & Lisa Fruchtman.
- Production: Omni Zoetrope.
- Distribution: United Artists.
- Release Date: 10 May 1979 (Cannes) and 15 August 1979 (US).
- Running time: 147-153 minutes.
- Country: United States.
- Language: English.