Apocalypse Now: the horror of war according to Coppola

Apocalypse Now: the horror of war according to Coppola

Apocalypse Now

More than forty years have passed since on August 15, 1979, American cinemas welcomed Apocalypse Now. Four decades that have seen Francis Ford Coppola's film become a real cult, a symbol of that New Hollywood that at the end of the 70s was revolutionizing the way of understanding cinema, not only from the point of view of the spectators, but especially by those who created these stories on film. Those were the years in which the big screen told The Godfather, Star Wars and Alien, in which much of the modern taste of cinema was taking its first steps, thanks to the intuitions of names that have become legend like Lucas, de Palma and Scorsese, a circle of filmmakers to whom Coppola also deservedly belonged. One wonders if the then forty-year-old Coppola would have embarked on what became a real ordeal to realize this cult, but it is also thanks to Apocalypse Now that he is considered a symbol of the cinema of those years.

It seems destiny that all the cult released in those years were accompanied by a sort of curse, a condemnation that fell on those who made them. Lucas with Star Wars had nervous breakdowns and a divorce, Jodorowsky's Dune never saw the light and Blade Runner was considered by all to be a toxic set to work on. Coppola certainly did not fare better, considering that working on Apocalypse Now was an intense and overwhelming experience for him. A personal experience that is an integral part of the myth of this immortal cult.

Horror, horror

First of all, we must give Coppola the merit of having wanted to tackle an extremely delicate issue for American society of the period: the Vietnam War. Wound never really healed, which not only hit the States during its development, but which haunted the existence of an entire generation of Americans with its ghost, as told in films of the caliber of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Rambo and Forrest Gump. Vietnam became for the Americans the first physical manifestation of the Cold War, of an ideological contrast that after invading the nightmares of the Americans with the fear of the nuclear holocaust becomes real, with a real and ruthless, inhuman war.

For years after Vietnam the word 'veteran' in America was the bearer of a sense of unease and shame, but in the days immediately following the end of the conflict it was a veritable taboo. Yet, Coppola had intended to tell this horror since the early 1970s, making the hell of the Asian jungle the scene of his own personal reinterpretation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. On the other hand, Conrad's novel represented a forerunner of the critical spirit with which Coppola faced this chapter of American history.

Set at the end of the 19th century, Heart of Darkness was a critique of the colonialist mentality of the period, where the exploitation of the colonies was carried out with ferocity. Conrad imagines his story as Marlow, an employee of a Belgian trading company, searches for a colleague, Marlow, who disappeared in the Congo forest on an expedition to find new supplies for the company's businesses. Going up the Congo, Marlow finally finds himself in the presence of Kurtz, who has become insane and placed himself at the head of a community of savages, over which he despoticly dominates. A merciless portrait of the flaws of European colonialism, the consequences of which seemed to return within American interventionist politics after World War II, inspiring Coppola in his vision for Apocalypse Now, as confirmed by the director himself:

“While I was directing, I didn't have a script with me, but I always carried a paperback edition of Heart of Darkness's Penguin with me with all my underlining, I made the film thanks to that "

The American tendency to impose a its presence, although presented behind noble ideals, was increasingly evident in the second half of the twentieth century, reaching its peak precisely with the intervention in Vietnam. A decision that was welcomed at home with protests and which became the vital spark of Apocalypse Now, even if the intuition of transposing Heart of Darkness into the asphyxiating Vietnamese forests was not of Coppola, but of the screenwriter John Milius (U n Wednesday from lions, Conan the Barbarian, Hunt for Red October). Milius, since the late 1960s, had sensed how Conrad's work could adapt to the Vietnam War, and under the advice of two dear friends, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he had started writing a script in this direction, which was paid by Coppola, intending to produce a possible film, with the agreement that the direction would be entrusted to George Lucas.

Milius's work was strongly influenced not only by Conrad's work but also by news that came from the Vietnamese front. Crude tales of repatriated soldiers and press reports revealing backstory of heinous cruelty and madness on the part of the US military stimulated Milius's creativity. Once the screenplay was completed, it was Warner who became interested in the making of the film, relying on Lucas, who wanted to transform the idea of ​​Milius into a dark-toned comedy, to be realized after his two projects in progress: The Man Who Escaped from the future and Star Wars. The long processing of the second, however, totally absorbed Lucas, who, despite having already identified the ideal location for filming in the Philippines, had to postpone the start of production indefinitely.

Until 1974, when Coppola, fearing that the film would not be made, he tried to convince Milius or Lucas to direct Apocalypse Now, but after collecting their waste he made an unexpected decision: he would direct the film. George Lucas, on the other hand, is honored in the film with the presence of an officer with his name, played by Harrison Ford, who at the time was working with Lucas in Star Wars, where he played the smuggler Han Solo.

Facing the enemy at home

The first obstacle faced by Coppola was the most unexpected: his own nation. To tell the truth, the director should have expected a certain resistance from certain circles, considering how the idea of ​​his film was considered essentially as a denunciation against the war, even if in the director's vision Apocalypse Now does not respect the characteristics of a no-war film:

“Nobody wants to make a pro-war film, everyone wants to make an anti-war film. But an anti-war film, I've always thought, should be like The Burmese Harp, something filled with love, peace, tranquility and happiness. It should not have sequences of violence that can arouse a thirst for violence. Apocalypse Now has exciting scenes of helicopters attacking innocent people. This is not anti-war ”

Despite this vision of Coppola, the American military circles did not take kindly to his film, doing everything to prevent it. For those years, the director's idea was too uncomfortable to the point that when the crew had to face various difficulties during filming in the Philippines, no support was provided from the American government, which tried to obstruct this project in every way. As if that were not enough, the Carter administration tried in every way to exert pressure on the Philippine government, which had instead welcomed Coppola by supporting him and also providing war material to make everything more likely. A real necessity, considering that the narrative fulcrum of Apocalypse Now was the characterization of the war element, recalling the most dramatic moments of the Vietnam War.

Mindful of the story of Heart of Darkness, in Coppola's film we follow the mission of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), an officer severely affected by the violence of the conflict, sent to eliminate colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a soldier who, despite the prohibition of his superiors, has started his own personal war against the Vietnamese enemy, after creating a community of American officers and local rebels who worship him as a demigod. Contrary to Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow had to bring Kurtz back to the base camp, in Apocalypse Now the element of Kurtz's physical elimination is introduced, a key element in the narrative economy of the film, which is based on the dehumanization caused by the war, of the way in which the feral nature of man emerges.

It was precisely this detail that made Coppola's film unpopular to American military circles, who, as mentioned, tried every road to not prevent the making of Apocalypse Now. If facing the adversity of social environments was a test of determination, finding the cast to bring this to life was much more difficult. After having approached names like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Orson Welles and Al Pacino, Coppola was able to convince actors of some importance such as Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brandon, not imagining how much these choices would have complicated his production.

An infernal set

All those who took part in the making of Apocalypse Now share a memory: the excess of production. Not only for the incredible budget allocated, but for the life that was led on the set, in which alcohol and drugs were the order of the day, complicating a process already afflicted by climatic adversities and tropical diseases, which greatly expanded the work. With a desperate Coppola, forced to take out mortgages on his house to have more budget and who, from stress, came to the brink of suicide. It didn't help his mental health having to deal with complex personalities like Brando and Hopper, who with their excesses made the set a real madness. To the point that Doug Clayborne, a production assistant with a military background in the Vietnam conflict, said:

"The hotel where the crew was housed was the realm of parties. Hundreds of beers were lined up around the pool, there were people diving directly from the roofs, there was madness all day "

A delusional environment, where the madness of Dennis Hopper, who worked under the constant influence of alcohol and drugs, also involved the young Lawrence Fishburne, who after having lied about his age to act in this film, found himself overwhelmed by this climate of excess, developing an addiction to drugs.

After having fired Harvey Keitel shortly before filming began, Coppola hired Martin Sheen. At the time, the actor was trying to cure his alcohol addiction, a situation that Coppola wanted to exploit for the opening scene, in which Willard is drunk in a hotel. For the occasion, the director forced Sheen to get drunk and not sleep for two days, in order to obtain a convincing effect, giving a moment of great cinema, but which was part of an effort for the actor that culminated in a heart attack. Sheen's health deteriorated to the point that Coppola used Sheen's brother, Joe Estevez to finish filming.

For Colonel Kurtz, Coppola wanted Marlon Brando, an actor who had written great pages of cinema. American, but which was now on the wane. His talent, however, was considered an important value in characterizing Kurtz, but this hope of Coppola turned out to be a disappointment. When Brando showed up on set, he was obese and could not learn the script beats, forcing Coppola to suggest lines through a headset and film the actor in constant dim light so as not to show his physical state.

What transpires from the testimonies of those who collaborated in the realization of Apocalypse Now is an almost unreal picture. Coppola was determined to get the maximum sense of realism from his actors, to the point of using rubbish and dead mice to give Kurtz's hermitage a sense of rot that would help the actors identify with the role, despite protests from Martin Sheen's wife. who said she was scandalized. A feeling shared by the local police when it emerged that for certain scenes Coppola used real corpses, apparently supplied by a young medical student who claimed to have access to bodies for medical use, but soon it was discovered that the boy was actually recovering corpses from cemeteries locals. A discovery made by the police, who detained the crew as accomplices, before having ascertained the innocence of Coppola and his collaborators.

The legacy of Apocalypse Now

The ordeal experienced by Coppola to make Apocalypse Now ended after two years of postproduction. The first presentation of the film was made in Los Angeles in April 1979, obtaining little appreciation from those present. Before the scheduled screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Coppola decided to risk a screening reserved for some critics, but his hope of receiving positive feedback was shattered when several journalists anticipated decidedly contemptuous views of Coppola's work.

Of all Another notice was the reactions aroused during the Cannes Film Festival, from which Coppola returned with the Palme d'Or for best film. An award that caused quite a stir, considering that for the first time at the French festival an unfinished film was presented, and that Coppola did not miss the opportunity of the traditional press conference to attack the journalists who had attacked him during the making of the film. in addition to having given unfavorable opinions on the final result based on a work in progress.

Opinions that penalized Apocalypse Now at the time, which, like other films of the period, became a cult in the following decades. With the release of new versions, which Coppola himself worked to give his work its definitive shape, new generations of spectators approached Apocalypse Now, appreciating not only its visual dynamics, but the message contained in Coppola's narrative, conveyed to the best from the dialogues and actions of its protagonists. Yet, already at its release, Apocalypse Now made school, thanks to the creation of historical scenes such as the assault of helicopters on the notes of the Ride of the Valkyries, pages of cinema that have marked the collective imagination, which has metabolized them as photographs of a scenario war among the bloodiest in history.

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