As he set out to plan Apocalypse Now filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola ranked as one of the most important young talents then working in Hollywood. His two Godfather films (1972, 1974) had landed on the list of the most profitable in Hollywood history, while The Conversation (1974) had been hailed as a masterful "art film." In Apocalypse Now Coppola attempted to create both a personal look at America's recent tragic war in Vietnam, and a film which could compete at the box-office with Jaws and The Towering Inferno. As Apocalypse Now moved from the story boards into actual production, however, Coppola's attempt to become a complete popular culture mogul had begun to sour. His considerable investments (in a magazine, movies, and even a legitimate theatre) simply were draining him of his then considerable wealth. Apocalypse Now would have to be a true blockbuster simply to enable Coppola to recover financially and pay off mounting debts.
But Coppola has always been a risk-taker, and his diminishing portfolio hardly lessened his enthusiasm or his ambition. When first conceived the film had been planned as purely an action-adventure war film; quickly it transformed Vietnam into a metaphor for the downfall and corruption of an entire generation of Americans. The budget and screenplay pushed this $12 million potential blockbuster into a $31 million extravaganza. Coppola fully intended Apocalypse Now to be his magnum opus. What actually took place stands as one of the great epic journeys in movie-making history.
Much has been made of how the production of the film seemed to mirror America's involvement in the war itself. Apocalypse Now required four grueling months on location; the film's star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack; vast arrays of military equipment never seemed to work just right. Coppola's movie company pumped $100,000 per week into production while on location in the Philippines. (In paying the Marcos government for the use of military equipment, however, Coppola was supporting a government as corrupt as the Vietnam regime of Diem.) To meet constant cost over-runs (Brando demanded a million dollars for his minor part) Coppola mortgaged his dwindling assets, so if the film failed at the box-office it would be ruin for him. In the end, Apocalypse Now went on to earn about $200 million worldwide, but, in a way, the making of the movie offered a more gripping narrative than the actual movie itself.
The structure of Apocalypse Now was borrowed from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness: a journey up a primitive river as a metaphor serving for an excursion into the darkest parts of the human mind. However, Coppola's formulation of this narrative never was able to grip audience interest. The greatest successes of Apocalypse Now can be found in moments of extraordinary visual texture, capturing the look and feel of a war of madness. Whether it is in a jungle where the vegetation dwarfs all human activity, or a PT boat racing up a river filled with black soldiers fighting for the rights of the oppressed when they know what they will find back home, or an armada of helicopters steaming in and destroying a village so primitive it could have been built 2,000 years earlier, we feel, at times, we are actually there.
For example, the scene in which Robert Duvall, as crazed Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, leads his troops in a helicopter assault on a defenseless village brilliantly portrays the horror and passion of war. As the rockets jump from the war ships, to Wagner's operatic overtones, for a moment we are "in the battle." Yet this particular violence serves no purpose. Duvall's men are mercilessly murdering the very people they are meant to "help."
Apocalypse Now is a film of moments, with a fuzzy monologue by Colonel Kurtz (Brando) at the close never fully wrapping things up. Coppola wanted his film to mean something, and as such raced around the world interpreting for anyone who would listen. (His boldest claim: "This isn't a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam.") In the end, as with his best films, Apocalypse Now remains structurally disjointed and thematically inconsistent, yet it will always be watched and studied for its moments of cinematic grandeur.
Release Date: 1979
Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hooper, G. D. Spradlin, and Harrison Ford
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Source Citation: Gomery, Douglas. "Apocalypse Now." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 69-71.