Apocalypse Now • Film and Literature and Vietnam
Greenscreening Series #36
August 26, 2023
August 26, 2023
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Transplanting the story of Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novel Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, Francis Ford Coppola created a visually mesmerising fantasia on the spectacle of war. Shy of controversy, Hollywood steered clear of tackling the war in Vietnam until the conflict was over. In the late 1970s, emboldened by the critical successes of his two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola famously spent a vast amount of time and money in the jungles of Southeast Asia to bring to life the story of an American officer (Martin Sheen), sent up river to bring the wayward, megalomaniac Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) to ground. - BFI
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My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. - Francis Ford Coppola
One film that illustrates the ambition, the hubris, the artistic greatness, and the inevitable decline of the Hollywood Renaissance is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).
It is one of the most purely cinematic movies ever created, taking viewers on an unsettling journey into the heart of darkness, both within ourselves and within the chaos of war. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey with science fiction, there's nothing quite like Apocalypse Now, and it completely changed the way filmmakers thought about telling war stories.
Released in 1979, Apocalypse Now was not just a film; it was an event. It arrived at a moment in American history when the wounds of the Vietnam War were still fresh, and the nation grappled with the aftermath of a conflict that had forever altered its psyche. It was a time of introspection, questioning, and an urgent need to make sense of the senseless. Enter Coppola's magnum opus, a film that would not merely comment on the war—it would plunge audiences headfirst into the madness of it all.
The film tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a man sent on a perilous mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade officer who has become a symbol of the war's moral decay. Willard's search for Kurtz is a river voyage through a lush, verdant hell, where every mile holds a new horror. The film is essentially a collection of set pieces, hallucinatory and nightmarish, and each one forces Willard and the audience to confront our own complicity in the atrocities of war.
Cinema has had a complicated relationship with war. From cinema's earliest days, there has been a subgenre of war films. Some of the most commercially successful films Hollywood ever created, including Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind had war at the center.
Around World War II, a new kind of genre emerged - the War film - which celebrated the sacrifice and heroism of soldiers. War films typically depicted a morally upright group of soldiers fighting against a clearly defined enemy, often Axis powers during WWII or communist forces during the Cold War. These films emphasized themes of heroism, camaraderie, and victory over evil.
Films like The Longest Day (1962) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) exemplify this style. They celebrated the bravery and sacrifice of Allied soldiers during WWII while showcasing the triumph of good over evil.
During the 1960s and the early phase of the Vietnam War, the tone in Hollywood started to shift and reflect the complexities and challenges of modern warfare. There was more skepticism, paranoia, and anxieties about nuclear war and espionage. Movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) explored the psychological and political dimensions of warfare during this era. These films were more cynical about war and skewered traditional notions of right and wrong.
With the counterculture influence in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, most of the filmmakers opposed America's involvement in Vietnam. While the industry was influenced by and reactive to the Vietnam War, Hollywood was largely hesitant to put it on screen, unsure how to depict a complicated and unpopular conflict. A few exceptions included MASH (1970) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), which introduced anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment themes. They highlighted the irreverence of soldiers and questioned the motives behind military actions.
Apocalypse Now marked a significant departure from the traditional war film style. It embraced a surreal and psychological approach to warfare, emphasizing the descent into madness rather than glorifying heroism. Coppola's film explored the dehumanizing effects of war on soldiers and the blurred lines between sanity and insanity.
Unlike earlier war films, Apocalypse Now depicted soldiers as individuals grappling with their own inner demons. It questioned the morality of military actions, portraying the Vietnam War as a senseless and nightmarish conflict, and shattered the heroic archetype of soldiers, opting instead for a visceral and haunting portrayal that reflected the disillusionment and moral crisis of the Vietnam War era.
By the mid-1970s, Coppola had established himself as one of the most influential American filmmakers of his generation. Alongside The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, which solidified his status as a master storyteller, Coppola had also received critical acclaim for his film The Conversation (1974), which is an absolute masterpiece and highly recommended.
Coppola was the quintessential New Hollywood auteur, excelling as a writer, director, and producer.
After his string of hits, Coppola turned his focus to his most ambitious project yet: an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, resituated from the Congo during Belgian Colonial rule to the Vietnam War.
The project had been floating around New Hollywood for years. Screenwriter John Milius first developed the idea in the late 1960s. Coppola had advised Milius during the writing of the film, and had bought the rights to the script early on. At one point George Lucas was attached as director. When Lucas got busy with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Coppola stepped in to direct the project himself.
Coppola was a student of filmmaking - one of the original movie brats - and drew inspiration from a European art house hit, Werner Herzog's Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), which we'll visit in our series shortly. Herzog's film is bizarre, artsy, claustrophobic, and atmospheric. Coppola hoped to capture some of the same characteristics with Apocalypse Now.
Coppola's vision called for large-scale war sequences, elaborate sets, and a profound exploration of the human condition. The scale and artistic nature of the project made it a risky proposition for potential investors, and financing proved difficult to secure.
At the time (1974-1975), there were no recent precedents for a Vietnam War film of such scale and artistic ambition. The war was still a sensitive subject for many, and the financial success of war films was in doubt. The lack of a proven commercial model made potential investors wary of committing substantial funds to the project.
Coppola himself had to invest a significant amount of his own personal fortune into the film. This is how much he believed in the film.
Coppola spent several years in pre-production, as along with financing, he tried to secure partnerships with the American military for equipment, and tried to find the right location to shoot his jungle warfare epic.
He finally settled on shooting in the Philippines, due to the ongoing American military presence there.
Production on Apocalypse Now lasted over 14 months and was beset by pretty much every problem imaginable.
Remote jungle locations, adverse weather conditions, and logistical difficulties made the shoot physically and emotionally demanding for the cast and crew. There were difficulties getting equipment to the remote locations.
Additionally, Coppola's vision involved ambitious and complicated sequences. The film's iconic helicopter sequences, for example, required extensive coordination and maneuvering. They needed take after take to get everything right.
The script presented another challenge. Coppola and his team made constant revisions, as they sought to capture the essence of the story and the chaotic nature of war. The improvisational approach to the screenplay added an element of uncertainty, as the cast and crew often didn't know exactly what they'd be filming until the day of the shoot. Coupled with atmospheric challenges, the crew would often go days without capturing usable footage.
The film also encountered numerous casting challenges, before and during production. Numerous choices for the lead came and went, which further added to Coppola's financing challenges.
Harvey Keitel was initially cast as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, the film's protagonist. However, after several weeks of shooting, Coppola made the decision to replace Keitel with Martin Sheen. The exact reasons for this change vary in different accounts, but creative differences and a lack of chemistry with other cast members were cited as contributing factors.
Even after replacing Keitel, the drama around the lead wasn't over. Sheen suffered a heart attack during the production, which delayed filming for several weeks.
Marlon Brando, who played the enigmatic Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, arrived on set significantly overweight and unprepared. His condition necessitated last-minute script rewrites and creative solutions to accommodate his appearance and limitations. This caused additional delays and challenges in capturing Brando's scenes effectively.
Dennis Hopper joined the cast as a freelance photojournalist. However, Hopper's drug addiction and erratic behavior on set caused tensions and complications. While his resulting performance is a unique and unforgettable element in the film, his presence contributed to the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the production.
The intense and chaotic nature of the shoot led to clashes between Coppola and various members of the cast and crew. The immense pressure and stress took a toll on everyone involved, with conflicts arising from artistic disagreements, long working hours, and the overall magnitude of the project.
Despite these challenges, Coppola persevered and completed production on Apocalypse Now. The irony of continuing to double-down on a film that seemed doomed to fail about a war that had been doomed to fail could not have been lost on the cast and crew.
Coppola ended production with over 1,000,000 feet of film in the can. A final cut running 153 minutes would be around 15,000 feet.
He spent over two years in post-production, meticulously set about crafting a story from all of that improvising.
But beyond figuring out the final story, Coppola also went deeper into creating an immersive, original vision of war.
He worked closely with editor Walter Murch to employ groundbreaking techniques in sound design to enhance the auditory experience and immerse the audience in the film's world. Murch made significant advancements in the field, particularly with his work on creating a multi-dimensional and visceral soundscape. He pioneered the use of surround sound and Dolby Stereo technology, which enabled a more immersive and spatial audio experience.
Murch also incorporated natural sounds and realistic Foley techniques to create an authentic and visceral auditory experience. The sounds of helicopters, gunfire, explosions, and the dense jungle environment were meticulously captured and layered to enhance the film's realism and immerse the audience in the war-ravaged world. We're enveloped in the cacophony of war — bullets whizzing by, helicopters descending like apocalyptic angels, and the haunting wails of a people caught in the crossfire.
The final budget for the film ultimately grew to $30 million, or the equivalent of $125 million in today's dollars, and far outspending the combined $19 million Coppola spent to make both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
Premiering at Cannes in 1979 as a "work in progress," the film captured the coveted Palme d'Or.
Critics were divided over the film. Some praised its audacity, technical achievements, and exploration of the human psyche, while others found it overly long, self-indulgent, and excessively indulging in its own mystique.
Apocalypse Now performed well at the box office. It became a commercial success, grossing over $150 million worldwide. The film's enduring popularity and cult following have also contributed to its long-term financial success through various home video releases and reissues.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1980. Vittorio Storaro won for Best Cinematography, and Walter Murch won for Best Sound.
Apocalypse Now had a profound influence on subsequent war films and anti-war narratives. Its unconventional approach, vivid portrayal of the psychological impact of war, and exploration of moral ambiguity set new standards for the genre. The film showcased the gritty realities of combat and challenged traditional heroic narratives, leading to a more introspective and critical examination of war in cinema.
The film's thematic exploration of the dehumanizing effects of war and its critique of imperialism resonated with subsequent anti-war narratives, shaping the way war and its consequences were portrayed on screen.
A whole subgenre of films about Vietnam continued to explore the devastating effects of the war, including Platoon (1986), Casualties of War (1989), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), and even the comedy Tropic Thunder (2008). While not always as dreamlike or expressionist as Apocalypse Now, Coppola's masterpiece undoubtedly influenced how Vietnam appeared on screen and continues to this day.
In 2022’s Sight and Sound polls of the greatest films of all time, critics ranked Apocalypse Now 19th, while directors ranked it 18th.
One of the film's most fascinating legacies is that Coppola continued revisiting the film and revising it decades after its initial premiere. Coppola ultimately released three separate versions of the film after his initial Cannes preview cut, following the theatrical version by releasing Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001 and Apocalypse Now Final Cut in 2019.
Each version offers a unique perspective and subtly alters the narrative, tone, and pacing. Understanding the various cuts sheds light on Coppola's relationship with the film and his continuous exploration of its themes and complexities.
Coppola has stated that he considers the Final Cut from 2019 to be the definitive version of the film, preserving the theatrical version's impact while incorporating some of the additional material from Redux that he felt added value to the narrative.
We're used to considering films finished products; static works that we can look at just as audiences saw them. Occasionally in this series, we've looked at films like Metropolis where directors battled with studios over the final cut, and where original cuts were lost or rediscovered in later years. Apocalypse Now is something different. Coppola spent over 40 years developing what he considers the finished work, releasing several versions along the way. In doing so, he challenges us to reconsider our own relationship with cinema and to explore an alternative understanding of what we're watching. Often when we go back to watch a film, we see new things and new layers of meaning because we've changed. With Apocalypse Now, Coppola suggests that cinema can be dynamic and transformative, and masterpieces don't necessarily have to remain static.
A few key factors ended the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s:
The emergence of the summer blockbuster. With Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood began an inevitable move towards corporate franchise filmmaking. Obviously Hollywood had always loved massive hit films, but the formula seemed obvious - giant tentpole films became the hallmark of studios' annual release calendar. Special effects spectacles seemed to be what drove the biggest audiences. And they increasingly wanted familiar stories.
Corporate ownership of studios. Most of the major studio heads from Hollywood's Golden Age had retired by the 1960s and 1970s, and were replaced by private equity firms and public corporations. Business executives replaced traditional studio bosses, and the business became more heavily influenced by Wall Street and creating shareholder value.
Some of the auteurs at the center of the Hollywood Renaissance got a little too ambitious and caused some high profile box office disasters. Most famously, Michael Cimino, fresh off a Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter (1978), blew way past his budget and timeline with his ambitious 4+ hour Western Heaven's Gate (1981), which premiered to disastrous reviews, suffered recuts, and flopped so badly at the box office that it helped bankrupt the studio United Artists. William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese also ended the 1970s with box office flops and challenges in their personal lives.
In this climate, while Apocalypse Now was a box office success, the horror stories of its production troubles and years-long delays made it another example that fueled the studios' reluctance to green light such ambitious artistic projects. The New American Cinema movement was all but over by 1982, when Coppola's next film, One From the Heart, grossed just $650,000 against a budget of $26 million, and Coppola found himself and Zoetrope Studios in crippling debt.
We're concluding our look at the New American Cinema, and next we'll go back around the world and look at new voices in cinema that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the New American Cinema is a rich era with tons of classic films from terrific filmmakers - some of the finest that Hollywood ever produced. We didn't even talk about Scorsese! If you've enjoyed some of the films from this era, and would like to see more, consider starting here:
The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970) The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, 1971) The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)
If you'd like to know more about the film's production and Coppola's obsessive madness, check out the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991).
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