Why Everything About ‘Apocalypse Now’s’ Production Was Unorthodox

Francis Ford Coppola Apocalypse Now BTS
Courtesy of United Artists/Photofest

Lionsgate, myCinema and American Zoetrope are releasing “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” the third version of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic, to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. While multiple versions of any mainstream movie are unusual, everything about this movie was unorthodox.

On Oct. 14, 1969, Variety reported that Warner Bros. bought the script by John Milius, with Coppola to produce and George Lucas to direct. They envisioned a scrappy 16mm film for $2 million, to lense in San Francisco, Louisiana and Thailand.

The project remained in limbo until Coppola revived it. He told Variety in February 1976 that filming would begin in a month, on a $12 million budget, with United Artists aiming for an April 7, 1977 release. The movie finally opened Aug. 15, 1979, after endless shooting in the Philippines, on a budget of $30 million-plus.

At the Cannes world premiere in May 1979, Coppola stunned the press conference by comparing the prolonged production to America’s role in 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.”

When the film debuted at Cannes (where it eventually won the Palme d’Or), it had a running time of 139 minutes. For the theatrical release three months later, it ran 147 minutes. For the 2001 “Apocalypse Now Redux,” Coppola and editor Walter Murch restored 49 minutes. The new “Final Cut” clocks in at 183 minutes, and Coppola says it’s finally right.

Milius’ script had been loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 “Heart of Darkness,” about imperialism in the Congo as a man searches for a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz. Milius transposed the action to Vietnam; an early draft was titled “Psychedelic Soldier.”

When Variety later reviewed Peter Cowie’s “The Apocalypse Now Book,” the critic quoted editor Murch’s statement that Lucas ultimately withdrew from the project but remained haunted by the subject matter. Said Murch: “ ‘Star Wars’ was George’s version of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ rewritten in an otherworldly context. The rebels in ‘Star Wars’ are the Vietnamese and the Empire is the United States.”

When Coppola took over, he wanted Steve McQueen to play protagonist Captain Willard, but the red-hot star didn’t want to film for 17 weeks in the Philippines. At first McQueen asked for $3 million, a huge fee in those days. When he decided against playing Willard, the actor came up with an alternate plan: Clint Eastwood should play Willard and he would play Kurtz, which required only three weeks of filming — but McQueen still wanted $3 million for the role.

In a Feb. 5, 1976, story headlined “McQueen Too Rich for Coppola,” the filmmaker acknowledged that the actor would have boosted box office, but he rejected the offer, saying the high price would set a dangerous precedent for filmmakers, adding, “Whose fault is it that there are only six world stars today? Every studio should be developing talent. At this point, I can’t afford to work with people I started with.”

Those people included James Caan and Al Pacino, both of “The Godfather.” Coppola also talked with Jack Nicholson for Willard.

Eventually he hired Harvey Keitel for the role, but the actor soon exited over a “contract dispute,” balking that Coppola agreed to a filming hiatus to accommodate the schedule of Marlon Brando, who was hired to play Kurtz. Coppola later said that Keitel was simply miscast, and Martin Sheen was hired to star. “Apocalypse” required four days of reshoots with Sheen, but that was the least of the production’s problems.

In May 1976, two months after filming began, a typhoon hit the Philippines, which led to an unscheduled three-month hiatus. The U.S. military refused to cooperate, and there were claims that the governments of Australia and Philippines were pressured to deny production assistance to the film, which was considered to be taking a negative look at America’s role in Vietnam.

In March 1977, after a year of off-again/on-again filming, Sheen had a heart attack that he later attributed to stress; at the time, he described it as heat stroke, to prevent worry and interference from UA executives and insurance companies.

When the film finally screened for reviewers, Variety’s Dale Pollock on May 16, 1979 (page 21), wrote that it was worth the wait, describing it as a “complex, demanding, highly intelligent piece of work, coming into a marketplace that does not always embrace those qualities.”

He marveled: “There are no models or miniatures, no tank work, nor process screens for the airborne sequences. The resulting footage outclasses any war pic made to date.”

But the reviewer had misgivings, saying the film was an exhilarating action-adventure for two-thirds, then shifts to “surrealistic symbolism.” Wrote Pollock: “Despite Vittorio Storaro’s haunting imagery, the explosive editing (by Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg and Murch) and Dean Tavoularis’ eerie production design, final third of the pic fails to jell. Without crib notes for the Joseph Conrad novel, audiences may have trouble understanding what’s going on.”

Pollock also notes, “ ‘Apocalypse Now’ is emblazoned with firsts: a 70mm presentation without credits (the film was incomplete when it screened in Cannes), a director putting himself personally on the hook for the film’s $18 million cost overrun, and then obtaining rights to the pic in perpetuity, and a revolutionary sound system that adds immeasurably to the film’s impact.”

The sound, supervised by the multi-talented Murch, included the radical idea of three channels of sound in the front of the auditorium and two at the rear.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars, with two wins: for Storaro and the sound team of Murch, Mark Berger, Richard Beggs and Nathan Boxer. (The big winner that year was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” with five Oscars.)