United Artists/ Courtesy: Everett Collection
Francis Ford Coppola infamously said, “My film isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” The production trouble is almost as legendary as the film itself.
In this age of enormous follies the grandiose absurdities surrounding the three-year approach to the screen of Apocalypse Now are symptomatic. More has probably been printed during the past few weeks about Francis Coppola’ s gargantuan venture than was written in this century about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that short, haunting story of a good man’s deterioration into divinity on which the film is somewhat based. And Coppola himself seems to be achieving a bizarre public relations divinity, with attention shifting from the work itself to the traumas attendant upon his accomplishing it. Nor has he discouraged this displacement of emphasis; rather, he appears to encourage it, what with announcements that the film, as it developed, began to coincide with realities in his own life, that he too was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, “hoping for some kind of catharsis”; what with interviews defying the critics to do their worst and declaring that, whether the picture succeeds or fails, he is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. During a moment in the movie when a commando group is coming ashore under heavy fire the camera swings to Coppola himself, in full directorial state, urging his troops into action. This drew applause from the preview audience; I assume they enjoyed the arrogance of the gesture. However, the subject of “Heart of Darkness” is the madness induced in a Western man who finds himself wielding power in a setting remote from customary restraints, and I wondered if Coppola, heading up that river, was approaching some haven of megalomania. Or perhaps it is just that he knows this sort of thing generates talk (as does showing the picture in its initial run entirely without screen credits), and that talk produces box-office fever. He says that he has put $17 million of his own money into the $30 million production; understandably, he wants to recover that vast sum and will dance jigs to get it.
A good deal of the money went into the delays, text revisions, casting problems and typhoon wreckage on location that have beset the film, but still more of it can be seen up there on the screen. After some early routine footage to establish the central character’s alcoholic reaction both to the war in Vietnam and to the state of affairs back home, Apocalypse Now begins to move when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) gets his orders to go upriver and assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a gallant soldier, superb leader and humane killer who has gone berserk and is commanding a body of defectors on unspecified business of his own.
Captain Willard is, of course, Conrad’s Marlow, and his journey up the river is, like Marlow’s, a voyage of discovery, the difference being that Marlow discovered things about himself, whereas Willard discovers things about the war in Vietnam. Principally he discovers that it is insane and that the troops, the American troops, have been driven mad. At each new stretch of the river the stink of lunacy grows more pungent. At one point, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), wearing a broad-brimmed black cavalry hat, charges San Juan Hill with a fleet of helicopters. Or, to put it more factually, this latter-day Teddy Roosevelt massacres a Vietcong village and sacrifices a good number of his own men to verify his hypothesis that war is a bully game. This is also the occasion for a cute Coppola stunt: the Colonel is convinced that music from the sky panics the savages on the ground, so as the choppers sweep in for the kill, their loudspeakers rock the theater with “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Dolby Stereo. It really shakes you up.