When Francis Ford Coppola asked Al Pacino to play Willard, Pacino turned him down saying, "I know what this is going to be like. You're going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I'm gonna be down there in a swamp for five months." The shoot actually lasted sixteen months.
There are no opening credits or titles. The title appears late in the film, as graffiti which reads, "Our motto: Apocalypse Now." The film could not be copyrighted as "Apocalypse Now" unless the title was seen in the film.
The scene at the beginning, with Captain Willard alone in his hotel room, was completely unscripted. Martin Sheen told the shooting crew to just let the cameras roll. Sheen was really drunk, and punched the mirror, which was real glass, cutting his thumb. Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Director Francis Ford Coppola. The crew was so disturbed, that they wanted to stop shooting, but Sheen wanted to keep the cameras going. He was fighting a drinking problem, and his own issues. He got so caught up in the scene and his personal internal struggles, that he hit the mirror. He believed that continuing the scene would help face his problems. This was revealed later in a conversation with Coppola and Sheen, and has been shown in the Redux version.
It took Francis Ford Coppola nearly three years to edit the footage. While working on his final edit, it became apparent to him that Martin Sheen would be needed to tape several additional narrative voice-overs. Coppola soon discovered that Sheen was busy, and unable to perform these voice-overs. He then called in Sheen's brother, Joe Estevez, whose voice sounded nearly identical, to perform the new narrative tracks. Estevez was also used as a stand-in when Sheen suffered a heart attack during the shoot in 1976. Estevez was not credited for his work as a stand-in, nor for his voice-over work.
The canteen scene with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and the wounded Viet Cong, is based on an actual wounded VC fighter who fought while keeping his entrails strapped to his belly in an enameled cooking pot. The incident was documented by the photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths. The real-life U.S. soldier was quoted as saying, "Any soldier who can fight for three days with his insides out can drink from my canteen any time!"
More than a year had passed between the filming of Willard and Chef searching the jungle for mangoes and encountering the tiger, and the immediately following shots (part of the same scene) of Chef clambering back onto the boat, ripping off his shirt and screaming.
Marlon Brando improvised a lot of Kurtz's dialogue, including an eighteen-minute speech, of which only two minutes survived the final cut. According to Peter Manso's "Brando", Meade Roberts, Screenwriter for The Fugitive Kind (1960), later heard the entire monologue, and said that while some of it was incoherent, most of it was brilliant. At the end of the speech, Brando reportedly said to Francis Ford Coppola, "Francis, I've gone as far as I can go. If you need more, you can get another actor."
Francis Ford Coppola invested several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his house and Napa Valley winery to finish the film.
When Francis Ford Coppola first described the role to Marlon Brando, Brando remarked that an American Colonel would not have a name like Kurtz, he would have an English name like "Leighley". Having never read "Heart of Darkness", Brando did not appreciate the reference. Brando eventually read "Heart of Darkness", but not until after the film's completion. After reading the book and liking it, Brando demanded that his name be changed to Kurtz in the film, and Harrison Ford's lines were dubbed to accommodate him.
Francis Ford Coppola believed that Marlon Brando was familiar with Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", the novel, on which the movie is based. When Brando arrived on-set, Coppola was horrified to find that Brando had never read "Heart of Darkness", did not know his lines, and had become extremely overweight. Kurtz had always been written as tall and very thin. After some panic, Coppola decided to film the 5'10" Brando as if he was a massively built, 6'5" brute to explain his size, and kept the camera away from his huge belly.
The scene in which the helicopters swoop in on the village while playing "The Ride of the Valkyries" was meant to be an ironic comment on the Vietnam War. In the original Wagner opera "Der Ring des Nibelungen," the Valkyries arrive at a point of apparent victory, which later results in defeat. The apparent victory in the helicopter battle would be followed by the eventual defeat in the war.
Marlon Brando was paid one million dollars in advance. He threatened to quit and keep the advance. Francis Ford Coppola told his agent that he didn't care, and if they couldn't get Brando, they would try Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and then Al Pacino. Brando eventually turned up late, drunk, and about eighty-eight pounds (forty kilograms) overweight. He admitted he hadn't read the script or "Heart of Darkness". He read Coppola's script, and refused to do it. After several days of arguments over single lines of dialogue, Coppola agreed to an ad-lib style script, with Brando filmed mostly in shadows.
George Lucas was originally set to direct the film from a screenplay by John Milius. Lucas' initial plan was to shoot the movie as a fake documentary on-location in South Vietnam while the war was still in progress. Francis Ford Coppola, who was to be the Executive Producer, tried to get the film made as part of a production deal with Warner Brothers. The deal fell through, and Coppola went on to direct The Godfather (1972). By the time both men were powerful enough to get the film made, Saigon had fallen, and Lucas was busy making Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). Milius had no interest in directing the film. Lucas gave Coppola his blessing to direct the film.
The water buffalo slaughter in the film was real. The scene was inspired by a ritual performed by a local Ifugao tribe, which Francis Ford Coppola had witnessed along with his wife (who filmed the ritual later shown in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)) and film crew. Although it was an American production subject to American animal cruelty laws, scenes filmed in the Philippines were not policed nor monitored. The American Humane Association gave the film an "unacceptable" rating.
Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the filming and some shots of Willard's back are of doubles, including Sheen's brother Joe Estevez, who was flown out specially. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen were so worried that backing would be withdrawn by the studio and distributor, if news of Sheen's heart attack leaked out, that they both kept it quiet, even to the extent of explaining Sheen's hospitalization as being due to "heat exhaustion" in the official Shoot Schedule.
In a 2006 interview, Screenwriter John Milius said that after he had written the now famous line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", he thought to himself, "This is over the top. This will be the first thing they'll take out."
Harvey Keitel was initially cast as Willard. Two weeks into shooting, Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen. According to Coppola, one piece of film with him did make it into the final cut (although you really can not see him), in a shot from the distance of the river boat as it is moving through the water.
The opening tracking shot of the film was originally a discarded trim from the footage of the village napalm attack. While going through the trims, Francis Ford Coppola accidentally stumbled on the trim and added it. He later said that having that trim complemented well with the The Doors' "The End" and the accompanying montage.
Francis Ford Coppola, who considered offering the role of Willard to Al Pacino, said that Pacino would probably have played the role if they could have filmed the movie in his New York City apartment. Jack Nicholson also was offered the role, but turned it down.
When asked what he thought about Marlon Brando's three and a half million dollar fee after a New York City screening of the film, Tennessee Williams reportedly said, "Gee, I don't know. I think they paid him by the pound."
In May 1979, this became the first film to be awarded the Palme D'Or at The Cannes Film Festival before it had actually been completed. Because the Cannes jury was unable to come to a unanimous vote, this film shared the Best Picture prize with The Tin Drum (1979).
According to Screenwriter John Milius, he wrote the entire script of the movie listening only to music by Richard Wagner and The Doors. To him, the music by The Doors had always been "music of war", though when he, at one point, mentioned this to the band, they were horrified. As, to them, it was the exact opposite. Ironically, the lead singer of the band, Jim Morrison, was a son of George S. Morrison, who was an important Admiral of the United States Navy.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos agreed to let his Army supply the helicopters and pilots used in the film. The Marcos government was also fighting rebels in the area where filming was taking place, and sometimes withdrew the helicopters and pilots when they were needed in battle, replacing them with pilots who were not familiar with the filming, which caused some problems.
The Philippines had no professional film laboratories at the time, meaning the raw camera negatives had to be shipped to the U.S. to be processed. Thus, the entire movie was shot blind. Francis Ford Coppola never saw a shot on film until after returning to California.
According to Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando yelled at him over a simple misunderstanding. He then decided to deliberately antagonize Brando whenever he could. This resulted in Brando refusing to share the set with him, and the one scene they share together being shot on separate nights. So when Kurtz throws the book at Hopper's photojournalist character and calls him a "mutt", one can only assume that was Brando's genuine feelings about him.
Steve McQueen was the first to turn down the role of Captain Willard. He had initially verbally agreed to play him when Francis Ford Coppola agreed to his salary of three million dollars. But after thinking about the fact the work would require several months of on-location shooting in the Philippine jungle, McQueen told Coppola he would rather play the Kilgore role instead, which would require much less location work, as long as he would still be paid his full salary. Coppola, who was essentially self-financing the movie, simply could not afford it, and said no.
According to an interview given by Robert Duvall for National Public Radio's Fresh Air on July 22, 2010, Colonel Kilgore's name was originally going to be Colonel Carnage, but they changed it to make their statement about him less obvious.
The visit by the Playboy Playmates was based on an actual visit by 1965 Playmate of the Year Jo Collins. She was so popular with the troops, that she was made an honorary G.I. The Playmate of the Year character in the movie was played by Cynthia Wood, who was Playmate of the Year in 1974.
John Milius explained how he had come up with the title "Apocalypse Now". Apparently, this was derived from, at that time (1965), a very popular tattoo amongst the hippie community of a peace sign that said "Nirvana Now". Milius, by adding just a couple of extra lines, edited the peace symbol to make it look like a circle with a B52 bomber in the middle, and changed the slogan to "Apocalypse Now".
Military sets for the movie were nearly destroyed by a hurricane during filming. Instead of breaking them down and starting over, the partially-destroyed sets were used to create new scenes in the movie (including the scene in "Redux" where the playmates are stranded at the deserted military base).
Colonel Bill Killgore (Robert Duvall) was loosely based on author and syndicated columnist Colonel David H. Hackworth's exploits in Vietnam. Hackworth, born and raised in Southern California, commanded a helicopter Air Cavalry brigade, in which pilots actually wore Civil War campaign hats and flew in helicopters with crossed swords painted on them.
Kurtz reads from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Hollow Men". Eliot was inspired to write this poem by "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. The first line of the poem reads, "Mistah Kurtz - he dead." Kurtz leaves this line and the following line out when he reads. Also, the photojournalist says, "This is the way the fucking world ends. Look at this fuckin' shit we're in, man. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack." This is taken from the same poem's famous last two lines, "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
In the DVD commentary, Francis Ford Coppola downplays his involvement in the controversial slaughter of the water buffalo, saying he "happened to film a ritual" being performed by Ifugao natives. However, in the article "Ifugao extras and the making of Apocalypse Now", cast and crew detail how Coppola staged the entire scene, directing the natives to chant and sing while they killed the animal which Coppola provided. Afterwards, Coppola "went overboard and ordered a whole truckload" of animals which he gave to the Ifugao to slaughter on-camera. However, only one water buffalo slaughter was used in the final cut. ('Flip Magazine 2003, v.2, n.3, pp. 29-33, 90-91')
Using "The Ride of the Valkyries" on the soundtrack was John Milius' idea. He claimed that it seemed so obvious to him that he almost did not write it, as he was certain it had to have been done in a film before.
Francis Ford Coppola wanted the film to be a special event by having it play in exactly one theater somewhere in Kansas in the geographical center of the country, built especially for the film, with a specially-made sound system, where the film would run continuously for ten years, and then hopefully anybody who wanted to show the film in their theaters would have to approach Coppola and exhibit it on his terms.
The iconic opening scene of the palm trees burning under a storm of napalm involved the destruction of a real forest. Around twelve hundred gallons of gasoline were poured over the splendid palm trees and then set alight. Tires were also burned to generate more smoke for the shot, while canisters were dropped onto the area to look like falling napalm. Acres of the forest were destroyed in a matter of seconds. Since the movie was filmed in the Philippines, who were in the midst of their own war with rebels, environmental issues were not a big priority. Francis Ford Coppola later said, "They'd never let you in the U.S., the environmentalists would kill you."
According to the George Lucas biography "Skywalking", Lucas' decision to pull out of this movie destroyed his working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who felt betrayed, and ended their friendship, and the Colonel Lucas character was meant as a back-handed snub to his then ex-friend. It would be several years before they would be on speaking terms again, and would not work together again until Captain EO (1986).
There are three different treatments of the opening and end credits. In the 35mm version, the credits roll over surrealistic explosions and burning jungle. The 70mm version has none of this, no credits, nothing but a one-line copyright notice at the end. Both versions are available on video. The 70mm version has been letterboxed. A third version has the credits rolling over a black background.
One of the sequences cut from the original release version but added to the "Redux" version is a sequence featuring the soldiers making out with two Playboy Playmates. Colleen Camp was the Playmate surrounded by birds. Camp said her character trained birds at Busch Gardens, she did this in real-life. Camp, who had never been a Playmate (although Coppola thought she had), had to be specially photographed topless to make the ersatz centerfold seen in the movie.
Francis Ford Coppola went to UCLA film school with all of the members of The Doors, including Jim Morrison, who agreed to let Coppola use the master recordings of their music for his Vietnam film. The five-and-a-half-hour early assembly cut of the movie was scored entirely using songs by The Doors before an actual score was created.
The character of Colonel Kurtz is inspired by the story of the traitor Lope de Aguirre, a sixteenth century Spanish soldier whose caravan trekked through the Amazon jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado.
Although no date or year is given for when the film took place, a newspaper article being read by Chef reports the trial of Charles Manson. This would date the action to November 1969 at the earliest since the article could've reached Chef and the crew after that date.
In the Playboy Bunny show scene, several drums with the name "Dow Chemicals" are visible. Dow is one of the companies that manufactured Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used throughout Southeast Asia to kill the jungle plant life that the United States government claimed was aiding the enemy in hiding from Army forces.
The character of the photojournalist was first suggested by Unit Photographer Chas Gerretsen and Robert Capa, Gold Medal Award winner (1973) during a lunch with Francis Ford Coppola. During the lunch, they discussed the scene where an American television correspondent (played by Coppola) yells at some passing soldiers, "Don't look at the camera". Gerretsen suggested that if Coppola wanted to portray the manic side of the press, he should use a photojournalist because, "We were all crazy".The three black body Nikon F cameras that Hopper's character used, had been used by Gerretsen in Vietnam. He sold the three cameras to Zoetrope Studios after Hopper, who had originally been cast as Captain Colby, became the photojournalist. Gerretsen used three Nikon F2 cameras, and one Leica M4 during the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979). He did not like using blimps (sound boxes) because it prevented him from immediately shooting an image when he saw it (as he had learned as a photojournalist). Coppola gave him permission to shoot during filming in-between the dialogue (except for Marlon Brando's dialogue), to the great unhappiness of the soundman, who had to edit out the clicking of the camera.
When Steve McQueen was being pursued for the role of Willard, the script was called "Apocalypse Three" as it featured three main characters, including a helicopter pilot. Gene Hackman reportedly was considered for the role of the pilot, as it was Francis Ford Coppola's idea initially to cast the three roles with stars.
John Milius originally wrote the script in 1969, which was known then as "The Psychedelic Soldier". As Francis Ford Coppola described it, the original screenplay was a series of "comic book" scenes to point out the absurdity of the Vietnam War. Over the course of several years of re-writes, the final script kept some of the absurd elements from Milius' original screenplay for the first half, with Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness" added to it for the second half of the movie.
Francis Ford Coppola played the reporter on the camera crew that was yelling at Willard, "Don't look at the camera. Just keep moving", during the beginning of the "air cav" scene with Robert Duvall. The actors that were to play the camera crew didn't show up, so Coppola stood in as the reporter.
The movie's line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", was voted as the number twelve movie quote by the American Film Institute, and as the #45 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
The photojournalist quotes two T.S. Eliot poems. In a late scene in the film, a slow pan over a table in Kurtz's room shows a copy of "From Ritual to Romance", a book by Jessie Weston that inspired Eliot's poem "The Waste Land".
Writer Michael Herr was called in to write much of Willard's voice-over dialogue and a few scenes. The scene where Roach uses a grenade launcher to kill the North Vietnamese soldier in the wire during the scene at the Do Long bridge is taken directly from "Dispatches", Herr's memoir of the year (1967 to 1968) he spent in-country as a journalist accredited to Esquire Magazine during the war.
"Dennis Gassner" is the author of one of the articles about Kurtz in the dossier given to Willard. Dennis Gassner designed the dossier information for the movie and later became a noted production designer.
The boat's name is "Erebus", seen on the transom, referring to the son of the Greek god of utter darkness, as the movie's source novel was Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". (Erebus and Terror were also the two lost ships in the famous 1845 to 1846 British polar expedition of Sir John Franklin.) The back of the seat in the forward turret (with dual M2 .50 cal MGs) of the PBR (Lance's position) has the words "God's Country" written on it. The steel gun-shield protecting the gun mount (single M2 .50 cal MG) on the back of the boat is marked with the words "Canned Heat".
In the original script, and the shooting of some scenes, Colonel Kurtz was originally to be called Colonel "Leighley" (this can be seen in bonus materials of "Apocalypse Now Redux" DVD edition). In the movie, when Harrison Ford says the line, "pick up Colonel Kurtz path at Nu Mung Ba", you can see his mouth does not match the word "Kurtz" (indicating it was dubbed).
In addition to the other T.S. Eliot references, one book shown at the Kurtz compound is "The Golden Bough", one that Eliot said, along with "From Ritual to Romance", his "The Waste Land" was largely based.
Actual Locales: The film was not shot in Vietnam, but rather in the Philippines (duh!). The surfing scenes ("Charlie doesn't surf") were shot in a place called Baler (Aurora), which now has surfing shops. The beach is now called "Charlie Beach" after the movie. Other scenes were shot in: Zambales, north of Subic Bay, which was a U.S. Navy base, on a beach near Iba; a typhoon struck at that time, and yet the crew shot a few scenes; it was also shot in Pagsanjan (near Manila). Francis Ford Coppola initially wanted to shoot the movie in Vietnam, but felt that would be too dangerous, and it would be difficult to convince the cast and crew.
Orson Welles wanted his first feature film to be an adaptation of "Heart of Darkness". In 1939, he presented RKO with his one hundred seventy-four page script for the film, but the studio turned it down, feeling it would be too expensive. They asked Welles for a more conventional script, so Welles gave them his script for Citizen Kane (1941).
Lee Beaupre, publicist for this movie until his murder in 1979, wrote in a publicity release on Chas Gerretsen as a war photographer for Apocalypse Now, "From Real to Reel". "His (Chas Gerretsen's) photographic career had come full circle." The release was later withdrawn, since it was decided that Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, had more publicity value.
War movie staple R. Lee Ermey has an uncredited cameo as a pilot who flies one of the Huey helicopters during the "Flight of the Valkyries" scene, before he would gain fame as the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987), co-written by Michael Herr who scripted the narration here as voiced by Martin Sheen.
Laurence Fishburne's character mentions in Boyz n the Hood (1991) that he was a soldier in Vietnam, meaning that he played an older character in this movie, Boyz n the Hood (1991), as well as Last Flag Flying (2017), in which he also played a Vietnam veteran.
The original choice for the soundtrack was to be done by Isao Tomita, as Francis Ford Coppola liked his version of Holst's Planets. Tomita even travelled to the Philippines to see the filming. Because Tomita's contract was with RCA, and the film was released through United Artists, he could not compose the score.
While Willard is riding on the boat, one section of the dossier on Kurtz he reads is entitled "IVORY IV". In "Heart of Darkness", Kurtz is an ivory trader, and Marlow (the book's version of Willard) is a boat Captain working for the same ivory company.
Although it is said that Sean Flynn was the main inspiration for the drug-addled-brave war photographer played by Dennis Hopper, the character was largely based on English-born Tim Page. He was regarded by his press friends from that time as one of the craziest and most daring photographers running around between Saigon, May Lay, and Hamburger Hill.
Harrison Ford's character is named "Colonel G. Lucas", a nod to George Lucas. Lucas, of course, directed Ford in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), in which his character, Han Solo, was modelled after Francis Ford Coppola. The last film in that trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) also featured Ian McDiarmid, who appeared in the television movie Heart of Darkness (1993).The climax of the film was also modelled after Lucas' original concept for the ending of this film.
The helicopter attack scene bears more than a passing resemblance to some parts of a 1941 German propaganda-newsreel "Angriff auf Kreta" (Attack on Crete). Replace the helicopters with Junkers 52 and everything is there: inside and outside shots, attacking airplanes and, above all, Wagner's music.
John Milius had written the story for this movie a few years earlier. It was originally planned to be directed by George Lucas, but after Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), Lucas lost interest in this project, and Francis Ford Coppola and Milius decided to make the movie.
The way that Captain Willard is directly told, on the record, by U.S. Army senior leadership to go out and kill Colonel Kurtz ("terminate with extreme prejudice") is not remotely plausible. The U.S. Military has never authorized the murder of American personnel in an official way as was shown here, and while it's certainly possible that the military would have UNOFFICIALLY tasked Willard to kill Kurtz, this scene is not clandestine nor covert, and thus implausible. Furthermore, given that Kurtz was wanted for desertion, and not direct crimes against fellow U.S. service members (such as assault or murder), the UCMJ would have called for him to be arrested alive and brought home for a court-martial. It's a good thing that this was a fictional story, otherwise Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius would have a lot of explaining to do.
In, or just before each of the scenes where a member of the boat crew dies, purple smoke from a flare is visible. A similar thematic element was used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather trilogy, where oranges appear just before, or in a scene where, a character dies.
One ending considered for the film was that an air strike was called to destroy the temple. Explosives were rigged especially for this sequence, but Francis Ford Coppola changed his mind, feeling that the finale should represent the end of war and the beginning of peace. However, since it was required by Philippine law to get rid of the sets after filming, the sets were blown up anyway. After its initial engagements, which presented the film without credits, Coppola decided to use footage of the demolition as the backdrop for the end title sequence. After the public misconstrued this sequence as the alternate ending, Coppola re-edited that portion and had the titles run on black.
One of the books on Kurtz's night table is "The Golden Bough" by James Frazer. It is an anthropological study of rites in several cultures in which a young usurper ritually kills an aging King and inherits his throne.
The sequence where the PBR gets attacked with spears exactly mirrors the attack on the jungle boat in the novel "Heart of Darkness". In the book, the pilot on the steam boat is killed, whereas in the movie, it is the Captain.
The original script by John Milius climaxes with Kurtz fighting off an attack by U.S. Army helicopters, firing a machine gun while exclaiming to Willard, "I can feel the power in my loins!" Francis Ford Coppola thought this was absurd.
The document, through which Willard skimmed, near the film's conclusion, on which "DROP THE BOMB. EXTERMINATE THEM ALL" was scrawled, was titled "The Role of Democratic Force in the Underdeveloped World, by Walter E. Kurtz, Colonel USSF", and was "Commissioned by The Center For Democratic Studies, Santa Barbara, California". This is taken directly from Joseph Conrad's novella, where a report written for "the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" by Kurtz is also graffitied with a similar message: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
In the theatrical version of the film, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper leave the same way, by standing up from a squatting position and walking out of the frame to the right. However, this changes in the "Redux" version of the film, which features a few extra minutes with Duvall's character.