In 1976, Francis Ford Coppola set out for the Philippines to shoot ‘Apocalypse Now.' He returned a changed man.
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
'MY FILM IS NOT A MOVIE; it's not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."
Sounding at times like P. T. Barnum crossed with Timothy Leary, Francis Ford Coppola made many boasts in the late '70s, but his description of Apocalypse Now ‑adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and set in Vietnam during the war ‑was not hyperbole. The misguided optimism that led Americans to defeat in Southeast Asia was amply evident during production. After a few weeks on location in the Philippines, Coppola fired his lead, Harvey Keitel, and he didn't write Dennis Hopper's role or the movie's ending until months later. The budget mushroomed from $12 million to a reported $37 million, but that's hardly surprising for a shoot that took more than a year to complete. Meanwhile, Hurricane Olga razed two major sets; Marlon Brando showed up grotesquely overweight and ready for lengthy Method debates on how Kurtz, his character, should be portrayed; and Martin Sheen, Keitel's replacement, pushed himself too far and suffered a heart attack and a nervous breakdown.
Apocalypse Now was Coppola's Altamont. Like the soldiers in his movie, the brilliant creator of the Godfather pictures was beaten by the rules of the jungle; his once boundless idealism began to appear quixotic. In the end, of course, it was what was onscreen that counted, and the film is remarkable, even more so today than when it opened in 1979.