WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Apocalypse Now’.
There are a select group of films whose’ production history is as notable as the film itself, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) rightfully included.
Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey through the jungle to terminate the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) required a grandiose production with unimaginable roadblocks. The film’s production was captured by documentarian Eleanor Coppola, who accompanied her husband on set. The revealing footage was compiled in the 1991 documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse. With interviews of the cast and crew recounting the production, it’s hard to believe it ever got made.
The First Roadblock
The documentary reveals Coppola’s decade-long effort to adapt Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. George Lucas was first attached to direct the film in the late 1960s, but no major studio would finance a film about the highly political and still raging Vietnam War. After his success with The Godfather, Coppola decided to direct Apocalypse Now himself, raising finances for an independent production and risking his personal assets as collateral.
Into the Jungle
One article alone cannot even explain the number of issues that arose on set. Filmed in the Philippines throughout 1976-1977, production was rocky from the start. With a few weeks of principal photography completed, Coppola fired the original Captain Willard, Harvey Keitel. Over budget and behind schedule, problems kept coming. To film one of the most iconic scenes, the destruction of a Vietnamese village with Ride of the Valkyries blaring atop of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) screams, helicopters and pilots were provided by the Philippine military.
However, with rebels in the area, pilots would fly off without notice as their military needed backup. A notable instance in the documentary shows Coppola running around set, directing the helicopters by screaming through a radio, frustrated that five helicopters flew away amid filming.
Director Francis Ford Coppola (L) and actor Robert Duvall go over a script during rehearsals, on April 28, 1976 in Baler, Philippines.
An Intimate Process
The documentary provides exclusive footage of Coppola and the cast at work. Eleanor’s secretly recorded conversations she had with her husband were included, giving a glimpse into the struggles of a filmmaker risking everything. The dynamic acting of Martin Sheen is also on display. As he was filming the opening sequence of Willard drunk in a hotel room, Sheen was also intoxicated. Confrontational, Sheen cut his hand after punching a mirror and had to be dragged offset. The film took a toll on his physical health, suffering a major heart attack in the middle of production. Outtakes of Marlon Brando’s performance are fascinating to watch, with Coppola having immense difficulty directing Brando.
Director Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Duvall on set.
With all its setbacks and negative press, Apocalypse Now went on to become a success. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, losing to Kramer vs. Kramer. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse opens with Coppola at the films press conference at Cannes. He expresses that the making of the film was like the Vietnam War, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. […] We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
The history of this film highlighted so powerfully in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, gives a glimpse into the filmmaking process of a Genius – and the lengths that one will go to in order to fully realise their creative vision.
An excerpt from the full documentary can be viewed here.