Timed to hit stores right before Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” hits U.S. theaters, “The Apocalypse Now Book” is the type of tome film buffs dream about. Having also penned “Coppola” and “The Godfather Book,” author (and Variety senior international advisor) Peter Cowie had unprecedented access to Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and most of the production corps from the 1979 epic. The result is likely the definitive book on the subject — unless the director himself should take up the task.
Rarely have process and product been so intertwined in cinema as they were on “Apocalypse.” As Cowie quotes Coppola from a playbill presented to audiences across the country, “Over the period of shooting, this film gradually made itself; and curiously, the process of making the film became very much like the story of the film.”
Which is to say, anyone who would understand “Apocalypse Now” would do well to consult Cowie. The casting chaos, typhoon, star Martin Sheen’s heart attack and the cost overruns that forced the director to leverage his estate have been covered elsewhere — especially in doc “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” — but never in such detail.
For example, it’s common knowledge Harvey Keitel was cast in the lead before Martin Sheen was brought in. What’s less known is not only Keitel, but Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones, Keith Carradine, Nick Nolte and Frederic Forrest — who eventually played Chef — were seriously considered. Dennis Hopper was originally slotted as military dropout Colby, an acolyte of the renegade colonel Kurtz. As Coppola tinkered, however, it became apparent Hopper was better suited to play the photojournalist, a court jester character fashioned after Errol Flynn’s son Sean, who is a Vietnam War legend. Colby was eventually played by Scott Glenn.
Production transcripts of conversations between Marlon Brando and Coppola reveal that despite the actor’s fabled girth and lack of preparation for the role, he had considerable input into the development of his character, Kurtz, and the film’s still shaky narrative. In fact, as the director wrestled with the idea of a psychedelia-heavy finale, Brando convinced him to play it straight. Thankfully, Brando’s entreaties to change Kurtz’s name to the somewhat more fey “Leighley” held less sway.
Also fascinating is editor Walter Murch’s theory of George Lucas’ interest in the project. Lucas was originally involved with John Milius’ screenplay but found funding scarce. According to Murch, what grabbed the director was the film’s political dynamic, which he went on to explore in another story. ” ‘Star Wars’ was George’s version of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ” says Murch, “rewritten in an other-worldly context. The rebels in ‘Star Wars’ are the Vietnamese, and the Empire is the United States.”
The ugly business of Coppola’s on-set extramarital affairs, disagreements with screenwriter Milius and struggle to finish the project are all given apt attention. One skirmish involved the U.S. military’s refusal to cooperate with the project, and attendant pressures on the governments of Australia and the Philippines to deny the production assistance. Such was Washington’s ire that when Typhoon Olga pinned a number of the crew in a remote region of the Philippines, the U.S. Navy refused to help them, forcing technical advisor Dick White to pilot a helicopter in himself.
While readers hoping for an exhaustive explication of “Redux” may be disappointed to learn Cowie’s major interviews were conducted before the film was reapproached, he generously devotes an entire chapter to the 5-1/2-hour “rough cut” he had access to, much of which is not in “Redux.” He describes the legendary French Plantation segment — which did make the new cut — as well as the film’s first opening and closing sequences, Saigon street scenes, an additional Playmate encounter and footage in Kurtz’s lair, including the demolition of the compound that provided background for an alternate credit roll.
The other analytical chapters that cap the book are not as adroit. Though the bulk of the work consists of a solid production chronology, the final chapters devoted to the Vietnam War, source novel “Heart of Darkness” and a conclusion might be better folded into the chronology. Instead, they stand awkwardly at the book’s end like misplaced ordinance. It’s a format similar to that of Cowie’s “The Godfather Book,” and impedes the flow of the narrative.
Most sluggish is the conclusion, which becomes breathless at points: “Audiences still feel stunned as the house lights come up. They have been expecting an emotional catharsis; instead, they must opt with Willard for the uncertainty of the night … .” Also, stretching the importance of Coppola’s insistence on owning the film’s copyright, Cowie writes, “As more and more media streams begin to flow at the start of the 21st century, this appears increasingly like one of the shrewdest deals in movie history.” Hardly.
Still, despite some clunkers, Cowie’s knowledge of his subject is commanding, and “The Apocalypse Now Book” provides a fair blueprint for every cineaste’s dream reference: an all-access pass to the great stories behind the making of a great film.