Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t the only movie about Vietnam released during the ‘70s. But as Roger Ebert put it, Apocalypse Now is a “grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking” that makes it one of the most iconic movies about war.
The lines of fiction and reality were blurred throughout the making of the movie, detailed in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — a must-see for any fan of the film or ‘70s filmmaking. Apocalypse Now was released on this day back in 1979, and 36 years later audiences are still fascinated by Coppola’s production.
Here are 20 things you might not know about Apocalypse Now — a movie that almost didn’t get made and one in which its cast and crew almost lost themselves forever in the process.
Marlon Brando showed up to the set late, wasted, and extremely overweight. (Tennessee Williams once joked that Brando was clearly being paid by the pound.) He admitted he had not read the script or Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, which inspired the story. He threatened to quit several times and argued with director Francis Coppola about the script, which he refused to perform (and had to be rewritten due to the actor’s weight). Coppola eventually agreed to let Brando ad-lib the dialogue and shoot the actor in shadow. He had Brando wear black and focused on his face. A double was used for full-body shots.
Coppola read Heart of Darkness out loud to Brando on set over several days, leaving the 900-man cast and crew totally stalled.
Marlon Brando improvised a lot of Kurtz’s dialogue. From the Daily Mail:
There was still no proper script, and so, for the crucial scenes where Willard confronts and kills Kurtz, Brando invented his own lines and mumbled and slurred them in that incoherent but unmistakable Brando way. Eventually, having put his heart and soul into the interpretation, Brando dried. ‘Francis, I’ve gone as far as I can go,’ he told the director. ‘If you need more, get another actor.’ It wasn’t necessary. Brilliant editing did the job as 18 minutes of rambling were cut to two. The result was electrifying. ‘The horror, the horror,’ were Kurtz/Brando’s apt final words (and also those of Conrad’s Kurtz). They encapsulated both the film’s mighty themes about the Vietnam War but also the nightmare of the way it had been made.
The role of Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, was offered to Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, and Al Pacino. They all turned Coppola down.
Coppola hired Harvey Keitel for the role of Willard, but the actor was fired.