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Apocalypse Now: Doomsday in Vietnam



“I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable and plugged straight into Kurtz.”

– Captain Willard


Considered to be the finest film on the Vietnam War, ‘Apocalypse Now’ was originally set to be directed by filmmaker George Lucas from a screenplay by John Milius. Lucas’ initial plan was to shoot the movie as a faux documentary on location in South Vietnam while the war was still in progress. Francis Ford Coppola, who was to be the executive producer, tried to get the film made as part of a production deal with Warner Bros. The deal fell through and Coppola went on to direct ‘The Godfather’ (1972). By the time both directors were powerful enough to get the film made, Saigon had fallen and Lucas was busy making ‘Star Wars’ (1977). As Milius had no interest in directing the film, Lucas gave Coppola his blessing to direct the film.

Orson Welles had been Coppola’s first choice to play Col Walter E Kurtz, and while Marlon Brando vacillated about doing the film, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino were considered for this role. Coppola finally persuaded Brando for an enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month’s work on location in September 1976. Dennis Hopper was cast as a war correspondent and observer of Kurtz.

Harvey Keitel was cast as Captain Benjamin L Willard after Steve McQueen turned down the role. Two weeks into shooting, Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen feeling that Keitel’s “feverish intensity” was wrong for an essentially passive character.

The director wanted James Caan as Col G Lucas, a general’s aide, but Caan’s salary demands were deemed too high for a relatively minor role. Harrison Ford, although then emerging as a major star, accepted the role for a smaller fee.

Besides Ford, several actors who were, or later became, prominent stars have minor roles in the film including G D Spradlin, Scott Glenn, R Lee Ermey and Laurence Fishburne. The film also starred Coppola in a cameo as a television news director filming beach combat. Furthermore, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro plays the cameraman by Coppola’s side. Actor Charlie Sheen is also in the film as an extra.

On March 1, 1976, Coppola and his family flew to Manila and rented a large house there for the five-month shoot. Sound and photographic equipment had been coming in from California since late 1975. At one point, the film was six weeks behind schedule and $2 million over budget, due to which Coppola had to offer his car, house, and ‘The Godfather’ profits as security to finish the film. Principal photography finally ended on May 21, 1977.

The film has been noted for the problems encountered while making it, chronicled in the documentary ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (1991) made by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. They included Brando arriving on the set overweight and completely unprepared, expensive sets being destroyed by severe weather, extras from the Philippine military and half of the supplied helicopters leaving in the middle of scenes to go to fight rebels and finally, Sheen having a breakdown and suffering a near-fatal heart attack while on location.

Problems continued as the film release was postponed several times while Coppola edited thousands of feet of film, taking him nearly three years to edit the footage. While working on his final edit, it became apparent to him that Sheen would be needed to tape a number of additional narrative voice-overs. Coppola soon discovered that Sheen was busy and unable to perform these voice-overs. He then called in Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez, whose voice sounds nearly identical to Sheen’s, to perform the new narrative tracks. Estevez had been also used as a double for Sheen when Sheen suffered a heart attack during the shoot. Estevez was not credited for his work.

At the original showing of this film in San Francisco, patrons were given a several page booklet that contained the movie credits, since there were none in the film. Also, the theatre was specially modified and supervised by Coppola to accommodate the ‘Surround Sound’ audio tracks. The Surround Sound was created to enhance the effect of the helicopter flying in a circle, in the opening sequence.

‘Apocalypse Now’ performed well at the Box Office when it opened in August 1979. It however received mixed reviews, while Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography was widely acclaimed. Several critics found Coppola’s handling of the major themes of the story to be anticlimactic and intellectually disappointing. The film initially opened in one theatre in New York City, Toronto, and Hollywood, grossing $322,489 in the first five days. It ran exclusively in these three locations for four weeks before opening in an additional 12 theatres on October 3, 1979 and then several hundred the following week. Produced at a budget of $31.5 million, it grossed worldwide total of approximately $150 million.

‘Apocalypse Now’ was honoured with the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, sharing it with ‘The Tin Drum’ (1979), and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. Storaro picked up the Oscar for extraordinary camerawork as also the film won Academy Award for sound.

‘Apocalypse Now Redux’, an extended version of ‘Apocalypse Now’ was released in 2001. Coppola, along with editor/ long-time collaborator Walter Murch added 49 minutes of material that had been removed from the original film. It represents a significant 202 minutes long re-edit of the original version. The response from the critics was largely positive to this new version. It was given a limited release in the US as was also released theatrically around the world in some 30 countries, generating a worldwide total of $12.5 million in Box Office revenue.

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