For those interested in knowing more about Apocalypse Now , Peter Cowie's book on the making of the film offers an excellent starting point. Apocalypse Now has earned a place among the best American movies and is one of the most thoughtful and interesting films confronting war. It shows the virtuosity of Francis Coppola at the height of his artistic powers, which allows the film to appeal to an audience on many levels. Those who want a war film filled with spectacle, tension and entertainment will not be disappointed - how can one forget Robert Duvall leading his band of merry helicopter gunships to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries , with his crew members surfing while the gunships bomb and strafe the enemy? For those in search of weightier things, there is Coppola's bold and ambitious attempt to explore the metaphysical aspects of our relationship to warfare.
What brought him to this project? According to his wife, Eleanor, "Francis saw Apocalypse Now as a big, outdoor opera and thought he would be in his shorts, run around in the jungle, swim and make a film that was far from the kinds of issues and dynamics that he had previously worked on. Francis has never been a political animal."
The origins of Apocalypse Now are curious and complicated. It started with screenwriter John Milius reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a student. As the Vietnam war grew in importance for the United States, Milius was inspired to use Conrad's story as the basis for the screenplay of Apocalypse Now . He passed it on to his pal George Lucas, a young and aspiring director, who wanted to make it as a very low-budget, documentary-style feature film with the rice fields of northern California doubling for Vietnam. Coppola agreed to produce this script along with several other projects he was developing for his production company. But everybody went on to other movies: Coppola, The Godfather ; Lucas, American Graffiti ; Milius, Dillinger . Then in 1974, Coppola decided to resurrect Apocalypse Now . According to him: "I said to George Lucas, Apocalypse Now is yours, do you want to do it? But George was already at work on Star Wars . And I thought, if I make Apocalypse Now , I'll do this big war picture, maybe it will be successful and make a lot of money, and then our company will be up and running. So I decided to shoot it myself because I had no other director available."
As with The Godfather , Coppola's greatest successes seem to have been generated more from necessity than inspiration. But once he got his teeth into Milius's powerful screenplay, he made it his own defiant vision of Vietnam. Coppola retained large portions of Milius's narrative and dialogue but added his special point of view. He went back to the source, reading and rereading Heart of Darkness , infusing the script with questions of morality, the mystique and immense power of the jungle and the madness of modern warfare. In 1976, filming at last began in the Philippines, with Coppola providing $7 million of his own money to make the film. He is almost unique among Hollywood film-makers in using his own resources and finances to make things happen.
The production of the film is legendary, and Cowie documents it with abundant detail. Coppola's personal comfort requirements seem to emulate those of the US forces in Vietnam. His culinary needs on remote locations in the Philippines included roast turkey, leg of lamb, veal peperonata, Lyonnaise potatoes, carrots à l'Anglaise and caramel custard, while Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and his crew had their own plum tomatoes, olive oil, pasta and Italian bread delivered at regular intervals. The island's worst typhoon in more than 40 years washed away sets and locations and forced the film to shut down for six months. There followed an entire week of intense discussion between Coppola and Marlon Brando on how the character of Kurtz would be interpreted while a crew of more than 300 waited patiently. It took an inspirational suggestion from Storaro to finally determine how Brando would make his appearance.
The book is full of such insights about how important decisions were made and artistic choices arrived at. Cowie's close relationship with Coppola provides previously unpublished material, but it has also led to careful editing of the more controversial aspects of the production and Coppola's own erratic behaviour. I suggest that Eleanor Coppola's Notes and her documentary Hearts of Darkness would be useful in providing a more complete impression of the film's making. People inevitably compare Apocalypse Now to a film like All Quiet on the Western Front . But its inspiration seems to be closer to The Charge of the Light Brigade , where all of man's follies are laid bare.
Sandy Lieberson is former president of 20th Century-Fox and has produced more than 30 films and documentaries.
The Apocalypse Now Book
Author - Peter Cowie
ISBN - 0 571 20369 8
Publisher - Faber
Price - £14.99
Pages - 201