June 1979
Text : Jim Watters
Photography : Marvin Llchtner, Mary Ellen Mark, Nancy Moran

Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”

As movie legends go, Apocalypse Now is already up there with the biggest and the best. Not since the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra has a film sparked more rumors or been so plagued by delays and budget overrun. It began four years and $40 million ago when Francis Coppola started shooting an updated version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In the film, Vietnam takes the place of colonial Africa and Marlon Brando plays a godlike Colonel Kurtz who deserts the Army and crosses into Cambodia. On location in the Philippines, corruption, typhoons, illness, near death and script problems stalked Coppola and his colleagues. In many ways the story began to reflect his own journey into self-doubt and fear (page 118). Adding to the pressure, his marriage was in trouble and he ultimately had to put his Godfather-spawned fortune on the line to keep the picture going. As with the Godfather epics, Coppola will tamper with this one until release time in August. His dedication, anguish and attention to every detail will help make Apocalypse Now the most expensive movie in history.

In his best role since The Godfather, a shaven-headed Marlon Brando plays Colonel Kurtz, described by his pursuers as both “a poet laureate in the classical sense” and “obviously insane”.

Even with Brando, Sheen is the Star

As special officer Captain Willard, 38-year-old Martin Sheen has the role of a lifetime in Apocalypse Now. Ordered into the Vietnam jungle to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade Green Beret Colonel Kurtz, Sheen is on screen nearly two hours before Brando materializes for their death duel. With this role, Sheen will now be recognized as the equal of such other gifted actors of his generation as Robert Dc Niro and Al Pacino. None of his good earlier work (in movies as the son in The Subject Was Roses and the mass killer in Badlands, on TV as a homosexual in That Certain Summer) has shown his range and power to such advantage. The role of Willard came to him by default. Coppola first offered it to Steve McQueen, who wanted $3 million, then to James Caan, who asked for $2 million. Pacino and Jack Nicholson were also approached. A frustrated Coppola settled on Harvey Keitel, but less than a month into shooting fired him as "unsuitable." Returning to Los Angeles to seek a replacement, the director bumped into Sheen at the airport. Cooperative and adaptable, he was one of the few positive forces of the production. One night during the year of shooting in the Philippines, Sheen suffered a heart attack in an isolated cabin. In severe pain and facing death, he struggled on foot for almost a mile until he found help. Remarkably, he was able to return to work in only seven weeks. In her soon-to-be-published journal on the film, Coppola's wife, Eleanor, writes: "In a way, the script is about confronting death and coming out on the other side. Marty confronted it in real life. Imagine what that will do to his performance in the final scenes …"

A Corps of Killers to Remember

Again and again, Coppola's movie dramatizes his own revulsion for war. In one scene Coppola has Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, march through the victims of an air attack to distribute a pack of calling cards of death‑-he sticks one behind a dead man's ear, another in a gaping mouth. Kilgore believes in fighting an "L.A. war," the sort of easy, one‑sided combat in which his men don't get a scratch‑-not difficult to manage when the enemy is largely women and children. Duvall says he based his characterization on the war-loving values of a West Point trained officer he once knew. Coppola's characters love the smell of napalm. "It smells," says one, "like victory!"

Man‑made Infernos and a Real Typhoon

From the start, the filming of Apocalypse Now was besieged with problems. The cast and crew were struck with dysentery almost immediately. In the worst of many serious accidents, a Filipino workman was killed by a log during the construction of a set. Then on May 20, 1976, just two months after filming started, the heavy seasonal rains came. A week later typhoon Olga had flattened most of the sets or left them mud covered; Coppola was forced to close down production for June and July. He also checked himself into a hospital, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. After less than three months, his film was $2 million over budget and weeks behind schedule. Cynics in the film industry were already offering new titles for the picture: "Coppola's Folly" or "Apocalypse When?"

Several hundred Ifugao natives from Luzon were recruited to play the Montagnards who protect Brando's hideaway fortress, which took seven months to build. Special‑effects technicians claim that the final napalm explosion that destroys this Angkor Wat‑style temple at the film's end was the biggest ever set outside a real war. Today there are no remnants of the inferno; the ground has been cleared and replanted with coconut palms.

“Soar like an Eagle, Drop like a Rock"

Hundreds of well‑wishers traveled to the Napa Valley to celebrate Francis Coppola's 40th birthday in April. That weekend the artist appeared to be in great spirits-‑better, in fact, than his friends had seen since Apocalypse Now became his obsession. True, the film's narration was still being reworked by Michael Herr, who wrote Dispatches, and a musical score had to be done. But for the first time in memory, Coppola was talking about his future projects: a biography of the man who made the Tucker automobile and a drama about wine growers in his adopted home outside San Francisco.

Yet Apocalypse Now may well be a matter of concern to Coppola for another decade; it could take half that time to realize a profit if any is to be made (90 percent will go to Coppola). It has been 10 years since the first announcement that an original screenplay by John Milius would be produced by Francis Ford Coppola, UCLA's most illustrious film school graduate. Billed as "a comedy drama about an army troop in Vietnam," It would be directed by Coppola's protégé, George Lucas. When Lucas (Star Wars) bowed out, Coppola said he would still do the film "as a macabre comedy that would be very pertinent." Later Milius dropped out too‑-his right‑wing ideas conflicted with Coppola's liberal views. From the outset, Coppola demanded a press blackout, had photographers sign pledges not to release pictures without his approval and became even more secretive than during the Godfather productions. As a result, the full history of Apocalypse Now may never be told. Many of the sequences shot will never appear on screen. A French plantation sequence with Christian Marquand is missing, and there are gigantic cuts in the climactic scenes where Willard escapes from the Kurtz compound. The violence is simmered down too. While his initial plan was to do a big action‑adventure melodrama, Coppola got caught up in Conrad's journey into self‑knowledge and became fascinated with the fears of failure and longing for death that were expressed in the original. Coppola has had some recent experience with failure and defeat. His grandiose dream of turning San Francisco into a private culture capital with his own magazine, theatrical company and production studios has not worked out, Apocalypse Now may falter and fade too. "It is an incredible story not only as a movie but in Coppola's daring risk," says Mike Medavoy, the film executive who initially backed the movie. "Francis is at the edge of the cliff, and he'll either soar like an eagle or drop like a rock,"

The Man Who Plays God Offstage

In 1971 the young Coppola fought the biggest moguls of the day to hire an aging actor who desperately needed a good role to restore his reputation and box office clout. The gamble paid off; Marion Brando's uncanny performance was a highlight of The Godfather. But when Coppola called again, Brando didn't make things easy. He said no to Godfather II and in 1975 even refused phone calls about Apocalypse Now. When Brando came around, his price for three weeks was reportedly $2 million plus 10 percent of the gross.

Those weeks in late 1976 were as rough as anything Coppola ever had to contend with. The star pulled his celebrated delaying tactics--endless hours discussing the character and script, agonizing days to find the right words, the precise shadings of truth in the performance. Each day thus lost cost $60,000. Coppola had envisioned the Kurtz character as a man with a lean, hard look. He was appalled when Brando arrived grossly overweight and had to be filmed in shadowy light. Preview audiences have been disappointed by Brando's less than charismatic acting. Observers on the set recalled a line of dialogue: "It must be a temptation to be God…." they agreed, had played God offstage instead of on camera.

But as an international draw on the world movie market, Brando is worth it at any frustration level. When filmmakers like Coppola or the producers of Superman sign him up for extraordinary sums, they know that his name guarantees overseas sales and advances that help carry huge production costs. As long as Brando remains Brando, he's still as hot as any star in the movie sky.

Brando's fans may not take to his new bald look, but one creature obviously does.