Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and personal accounts from soldiers who had recently returned from the war, the movie was originally conceived and written by John Milius and George Lucas, who intended to direct it. But because of delays, Lucas began preparing to film his space opera Star Wars (1977), and it eventually fell to his good friend and mentor, Frances Ford Coppola to direct it. Francis Coppola was already a successful filmmaker with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather – Part II (1974), and used his own money to finance the new film.
Inspired by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), and filmed entirely on location in the Philippines, Apocalypse Now is the story of an obsessed Special Forces marine, Captain Willard played by Martin Sheen, looking for a suicide mission. He is eventually entrusted with a top secret operation to find and terminate a rogue Colonel, played by Marlon Brando, who has set himself up as a warlord, fighting his own war in the jungles of Cambodia without any military authorization. Taking control of a group of young inexperienced soldiers, the Captain sets off in a gun boat that will take them on a journey up the Mekong River into the unknown regions, where the rebel Colonel Kurtz is believed to be hiding. Along the way, the group comes across all manner of surreal and hellish sights that comprise the Vietnam War experience.
The movie is stunningly filmed in epic style with dissolving montages, grand scale battle scenes and a psychedelic soundtrack of popular Doors tunes of the time, giving the move a surreal nightmarish feeling. It’s one of the most personal films by director Francis Ford Coppola who took his family to the Philippines and spent more than a year there while filming and writing the movie. During this time his wife filmed a great deal of behind the scenes footage about their experiences and eventually released it as an acclaimed ‘making of’ documentary called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).
A longer re-edited version of the film with deleted scenes restored was released in 2001, adding an additional 49 minutes to the film and was retitled Apocalypse Now Redux. This longer and more complete version is well worth seeing and was praised for improving on a film already considered a masterpiece by many and Frances Coppola’s magnum opus.
Considered to be one of the most iconic war films of all time and a masterpiece of unforgettable images depicting the horrors of war, it’s a visceral cinematic experience that was as chaotic and difficult to make as the chaos depicted in the film and set the standard for later films about Vietnam like Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), 84 Charlie MoPic (1989) and Casualties of War (1989).
The Vietnam War was the first highly visible war being covered by the media in graphic detail on television news, and films about Vietnam have become a popular subgenre within the war film genre. Well know master filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma all weighed into the Vietnam War experience with their own films in the 1980s. As more details of the brutality of that war began to surface, filmmakers became interested in exposing the post war trauma suffered by returning service men in movies like Birdy (1984), Jacknife (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).