The World of
Apocalypse Now
A CultureMap®
by Dario Sulzman
Published on 1/19/15

Using Joseph Conrad’s allegorical novella Heart of Darkness as a framework, Apocalypse Now vividly and disturbingly depicts the Vietnam conflict as a mad and purposeless enterprise. The movie also borrows material from numerous other sources, including Richard Wagner’s music, combat reporter Michael Herr’s Dispatches and T.S. Eliot’s poetry. The story behind the film’s ambitious scope and turbulent production in many ways resembles the chaotic, brutal war that director Francis Ford Coppola sought to portray.

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Francis Ford Coppola  (b. 1939 | American filmmaker)
to  Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1979)

When Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather (1972) and its sequel (1974), began shooting Apocalypse Now, his goal was largely commercial. “I went [to Southeast Asia] with the intention of making a war film that could make a lot of money so that we could use the money to make little art films,” he has revealed. “As I started making the film, I realized it was becoming more and more surreal.”

The filmmaking and production of Apocalypse Now, which began in 1976, took two years longer than planned and cost nearly triple the $12 million budget. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), directed by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, captures the frenzied production process through interviews and live footage. “We were in the jungle,” Francis Coppola explains in the documentary. “There were too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” Upon its release the film was met with mixed critical reviews, but its regard has grown. When Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), an extended version that includes 49 minutes cut from the original, critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the key films of the century.”

Francis Ford Coppola  (b. 1939 | American filmmaker)
to  Dispatches  (Michael Herr | nonfiction book | 1977)

American journalist Michael Herr spent two years (1967–1969) in Vietnam as a war reporter for Esquire magazine and later compiled his writings in Dispatches (1977). The book was critically acclaimed for its raw and intimate depiction of the conflict. Novelist John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”

Around the time Herr was in Southeast Asia, screenwriter John Milius, with encouragement from budding director George Lucas, was compiling notes for a movie about the war. He called it Apocalypse Now and used Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a guide for his story line. After Lucas began production of Star Wars, Francis Ford Coppola stepped in, offering Milius $15,000 for the script, which was completed in 1975. In an interview with Coppola, Milius cites “the Michael Herr articles,” along with stories from his friends who returned from Vietnam, as additional source material for his script. Herr’s Dispatches strongly influenced the film’s depiction of the war as surreal and absurdist. And after Apocalypse Now was shot, Coppola hired Herr to redraft the voice-over narration. Years later Herr collaborated with Coppola again, writing the narration for The Rainmaker (1997).

Dispatches  (Michael Herr | nonfiction book | 1977)
to  Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1979)

In Dispatches Michael Herr describes a soldier’s camouflaged face as a “bad hallucination, not like the painted faces I’d seen in San Francisco a few weeks before.” Francis Ford Coppola emphasized that uneasy juxtaposition between Vietnam and West Coast counterculture in Apocalypse Now. “Usually war films in the past were all these characters from the East,” he explains. “There was always a guy from Brooklyn. But Apocalypse Now was a California war. They were surfers…listening to the Doors.”

Apocalypse Now records the nightmarish journey of a military patrol boat transporting special-operations agent Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) to the Cambodian camp of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The psychedelic tone peaks when Crewman Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), a professional surfer in civilian life, his face elaborately painted, drops a tab of LSD. The mission then happens upon a chaotic nighttime battle, where a preternaturally calm soldier, borrowed directly from Dispatches, uses a grenade launcher to silence an unseen enemy fighter shouting from the jungle. In the book the “dead-eyed” soldier wears the M79 (“obviously a well-loved object”) holstered to his hip. “Listening very carefully…to the shrieking,” Herr recounts, he fired: “There was an enormous flash…then everything was still.”

Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1979)
to  “Ride of the Valkyries”  (Richard Wagner | opera excerpt | 1856)

On his journey toward the Cambodian border in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard meets the gung-ho, surfing-obsessed Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall with scene-stealing gusto. Flying with his helicopter squadron toward a Vietnamese village, Kilgore blasts Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” at full volume. “Scares the hell outta the slopes,” he explains, just before ordering the village demolished. The music, from Act III of the Ring cycle opera Die Walküre, evokes the Valkyries, female figures in Norse mythology who determine which warriors live and die, shrieking their battle cry.

Wagner’s sternly heroic compositions have accompanied both Nazi newsreel footage of military might and a Ku Klux Klan scene in D.W. Griffith’s controversial film Birth of a Nation. The helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now continues this dark historical usage, as the music, punctuated by the whomp-whomp of the chopper blades, accompanies brutal destruction. Apocalypse scriptwriter John Milius based the segment partly on the use of music broadcasts in actual U.S. military psyops (psychological operations) in Vietnam. “Wagner,” he says, “just lends itself to helicopters.” Real-life soldiers must agree: Some U.S. helicopters blared “Ride of the Valkyries” during the 1990 Gulf war and in the Iraq war in 2003.

Heart of Darkness  (Joseph Conrad | novella | 1906)
to  Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1979)

During the chaotic and often calamitous production of Apocalypse Now, the original script by John Milius, which transferred Heart of Darkness from the colonial Congo to the Vietnam war, sometimes fell by the wayside. While shooting, Francis Ford Coppola often went directly to his “little green copy” of Heart of Darkness, checking it, he explains, to see what he could “give the movie from Conrad.”

Both book and movie concern an episodic boat journey deep into a jungle in search of a renegade named Kurtz. Shortly before the boat arrives at Kurtz’s station, blinding fog gives way to reveal arrow-shooting natives along the riverbank. In Heart of Darkness, the helmsman dies when a large spear pierces his body; the navigator of Captain Willard’s boat in Apocalypse is fatally impaled in the same manner. The film reimagines the Russian—a fanatical, sycophantic follower of Kurtz, who greets Conrad’s protagonist upon his arrival—as a zonked-out photojournalist, but actor Dennis Hopper nevertheless conveys the same fervent devotion to Kurtz. All these scenes, despite Coppola’s claim that his copy of Heart of Darkness influenced him more than the script, appear in Milius’s original.

Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1979)
to  “Terminate With Extreme Prejudice”

In Apocalypse Now, military intelligence officers summon special agent Captain Willard and issue his mission: “Terminate the colonel’s command…terminate with extreme prejudice.” Colonel Kurtz is a former Green Beret (U.S. Army Special Forces) who has defected from the military and stationed himself in Cambodia, where he has raised a personal army of Degar, Vietnamese highlanders. It’s not such a far-fetched idea: U.S. Special Forces trained some 40,000 Degar in guerrilla warfare during the Vietnam conflict.

“Terminate with extreme prejudice” became public in a 1969 New York Times story about the Green Berets’ assassination of a non-American in their ranks who was revealed to be a North Vietnamese spy. A source claims the CIA had ordered the double agent to be “terminated with extreme prejudice”—a chilling phrase, the article clarifies, “said to be an intelligence euphemism for execution.” Although later journalists have implied that the CIA used the phrase routinely during its covert operations in Vietnam, evidence of this is scarce. The agency does, however, admit its policy was to “neutralize” suspected Viet Cong sympathizers, explaining: “Those on a list were arrested or captured for interrogation, or if they resisted, they were killed.”

Colonel Kurtz  (fictional character | Apocalypse Now)
to  Heart of Darkness  (Joseph Conrad | novella | 1906)

Joseph Conrad, in his novella Heart of Darkness, created the disturbing character Kurtz, an ivory trader who rules the local population from an encampment he has set up along Africa’s Congo River. The renegade military commander with the same name in Apocalypse Now borrows a great deal from the literary character. Both Kurtzes renounce a prestigious position in order to reign over native people deep in a jungle, where they engage in such barbaric practices as headhunting and human sacrifice. And both, though deemed insane, mesmerize and gain command over their pursuers and seem to use them as pawns in some larger cosmic game. Kurtz’s eerie final words, in both book and film, are “The horror…the horror.…”

Francis Ford Coppola also took cues from Conrad’s physical portrayal of Kurtz, who is described as “at least seven feet long.” But when Marlon Brando showed up on set significantly overweight, Coppola shot him in shadow, with the camera angled to make him appear enormously tall, while hiding his bulky middle. The director also convinced Brando to shave his head in order to more closely resemble Conrad’s Kurtz—“an animated image of death carved out of old ivory.”

Colonel Kurtz  (fictional character | Apocalypse Now)
to  T.S. Eliot  (1888–1965 | American British poet)

T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” (1925) begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” Conrad had described Kurtz as “hollow at the core.” In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard listens as Colonel Kurtz reads aloud from this very Eliot poem: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw.”

The film abounds with references to Eliot. The manic photojournalist at Kurtz’s enclave greets Willard by quoting Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in comparing himself with his idol: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Kurtz even shares the poet’s taste in literature; among his books are Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, two sources Eliot cited as inspiration for his most famous poem, “The Waste Land” (1922). The poet borrowed from them “certain references to vegetation ceremonies”—sacrificial deaths of animals and humans (often the king) to fertility gods—a motif evident at the film’s climax, when Kurtz’s native army ritually slaughters a water buffalo while Willard slays Kurtz.