August 15, 2019

Why 'Apocalypse Now' Might Be Dangerously Overrated

Apocalypse Now is on the AFI Top 100 list and is soon getting a new edit from Coppola for its 40th Anniversary. Many people adore it... I'm not of the same opinion.

Perhaps you've heard the infamous stories of the movie's shoot gone awry. That the budget of Frances Ford Coppola's war epic doubled while under production. Or maybe the story about how the director almost killed himself, and his star, Martin Sheen, had a heart attack. There's also the impressive narrative that has the movie being saved in the editing room and going on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, win the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, land on the AFI Top 100 list, and be lauded for decades. 

Now, on its 40th Anniversary, I'm here offer a counterpoint on Apocalypse Now.  For all it's worship, is it possible that at the same time this was a dangerous enabling of bad behavior?

I'm not going to sit here behind my laptop and tell you that this is a bad movie. That would be crazy.

I can't wait to read the comments. 

Why Apocalypse Now is Overrated 

The first thing anyone knows about the movie, other than it is set during the Vietnam War, is how hard it was to make. It's like a legend that permeates from Hollywood out into the ether. For me, that legend, and the documentary that covers it, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, is way more enthralling than what actually ends up on screen. But let's go through the risks to give the movie a fair shake. 

The Risks 

John Milius wrote the screenplay in 1969. He had wanted to serve in Vietnam but was not allowed because of his asthma.

Instead, he went to USC, where one of his professors told the class "no screenwriter has ever done a decent adaptation of Hearts of Darkness" so he set out to tackle the subject matter. He changed the location of the novella from Africa to Vietnam and set off to make his movie... with George Lucas.

Coppola, a friend of Milius and Lucas, thought George was the right person to handle the subject matter, but Lucas got too busy on a movie called Star Wars, and the script fell back into Coppola's lap. 

Coppola was coming off The Godfather, Part II and The Conversation, two of the greatest movies of all time, and he wanted to take the audience "through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war."

So he and his team headed to the Philippines where, under a brutal government regime, they decided to film most of their movie. After Coppola met with then-president Ferdinand Marcos about the project, Marcos loaned helicopter gunships to the production.

During filming, Marcos had to recall the gunships for actual combat against a rebel army.

The shoot was supposed to be five months long but with a rebel war going on, inclement weather, and lots of bad luck, the film took a few years to complete.

Things got off to a terrible start as the island they were shooting on was hit by a typhoon that destroyed many of the sets. The bad weather delayed the shoot for eight weeks. By the time they could roll cameras again, Coppola and his crew were already $2 million over budget. 

As they got back into shooting, star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. He was put on bed rest and they had to lie about his condition to keep the movie from shutting down. His brother filled in on some scenes until Sheen could walk again. 

By the time Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz got to set, he was overweight. So he didn't fit into any of the costumes, and he was deemed too out of shape for the production to shoot the original ending. Coppola had to work around it and Brando's ego. Brando hated Dennis Hopper, who played his cohort, so all their scenes had to be shot separate. 

As the money spiraled over budget, Coppola began investing his own money -- at least $30 million -- into the movie, mortgaging his home and doing whatever means necessary to keep the production going. 

Aside from Sheen's health and his own funds, Coppola also risked his own mental health, saying:

“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”

In the end, Apocalypse Now wound costing over $31.5 million. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFTQcwgq4C

Egomania Now?

I'm not going to sit here behind my laptop and tell you that this is a bad movie. That would be crazy. But I think a lot of why I feel the movie became lauded is the legendary struggle to make it. Coppola compared to an actual war where people died.

That's... a bit of a reach. But a romantic one, certainly for filmmakers. 

Let's talk about the impressive aspects of the movie: the cinematography and sound design are amazing. The editing is a feat unto itself, considering Coppola maybe shot over a million feet of footage. 

But on the other hand, this shoot almost killed an actor, consistently put the crew in danger, and enabled a terrible dictator inside the Philippines.  

Dangerous on-set behavior is costly beyond the budget and the shooting schedule. Sadly it can even cost human lives. 

The world abhors what happened on the set of the Twilight Zone movie. When casts and crews sign up to work on a feature they expect that certain egos and goals will not run wild- that they will be taken care of. The truth is... Apocalypse Now was one bad helicopter shot away from killing people. It almost killed the lead actor. That opening scene? That was Martin Sheen – then an alcoholic bombed out of his mind – stumbling around while Coppola screamed direction at him. The mirror break is real. So is Sheen's blood. 

That just feels like a footnote, a piece of imdb trivia. But shouldn't it be part of what we talk about when we talk about this movie?

The commitment to executing the material bordered on insanity. The New York Times ran an article saying "Coppola Risks $22Mil Fortune on Movie" and we latched onto that narrative. 

Coppola put up his house and risked it all. Although... there is some question to that as well...

Turns out Coppola had a side conversation with George Lucas who was going to buy Coppola's house and sell it back to him in case of an emergency. And Coppola has said in interviews from the time that he had zero worries because he was so rich back then, that he would have made all his risked income back in residuals off his other movies in only a year or two. 

You can hear a lot of these clips in the podcast Unspooled, where they cover the movie. 

While the footage from Apocalypse now is astounding to look at, it doesn't have the realism or gut-wrenching truth that movies like Platoon, Coming Home, or Born on the Fourth of July espouse. It's somewhere between an attempt to represent the Vietnam war and an attempt to adapt a story that had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. 

Coppola told the AP this: 

The Vietnam War was different than other American wars. It was a West Coast sensibility rather than an East Coast sensibility. In war movies before “Apocalypse,” there was always a sort of Brooklyn character, an East Coast and Midwest personality. In “Apocalypse Now,” it was LA and it was surfing and it was drugs and it was rock ‘n’ roll so it was more of a West Coast ambiance to the war. In addition, there were many sort of odd contradictions that related to the morality involved. There was a line I once read that’s not in the film but to me it sums up the meaning of the movie. It was: “We teach the boys to drop fire on people yet we won’t let them write the word ‘f---’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

That's a great line, and it suggests there was an attempt on the filmmaker's behalf to tell a version of the story of this war. But it's not really a fair depiction in so many other ways... so is the Vietnam War here metaphor? Or what? 

It could explain in part why there have been so many cuts and recuts. It suggests a lack of confidence in the message.  

It is no coincidence that the best parts of the movie come during the middle act, when the Willard's crew meet up with Kilgore and talk surfing. 

Milius was an avid surfer and it seems like he's writing from his most confident there. The juxtaposition is great because, knowing he was never in war and wrote this with the war still going on, he shows what real war would look like to a surfer who just showed up and doesn't understand what's happening around him. 

As our surfer gets deeper and deeper, all he learns is that war is hell. The personal drifts away because you can tell these guys aren't sure what part of this story should be personal to them.  

Are they mad at America? At Capitalism? At the military-industrial complex? 

Or are they obsessed with the way things look? 

It's hard to tell where Apocalypse Now's mind is, which is maybe part of what has fascinated viewers for so long, but to me, it feels a bit more like a mistake and lack of intentionality. Not a real stroke of genius... 

What happened in Hollywood after Apocalypse Now 

There's no denying that Apocalypse Now went on to critical and financial success. All the bets paid off, with the movie grossing $150 million worldwide and frequently being listed as one of the best films ever. Still, the impact of the Hollywood director as a crazed artist still holds up today. 

It's why Heaven's Gate bankrupted a studio. Why we tolerated Bertolucci's horrific behavior on Last Tango in Paris, and why it took so long to get the #MeToo movement started and to talk about safer practices on set. 

In many ways, this movie defined the modern era. It's when studios realized they needed to take more control, to find budgetary limits, and to maximize payoffs for what's invested. 

Does that come with other problems? 

Of course. To many, the 1970s were the hey-day of filmmaker-first filmmaking. It got a little bit out of control though, and the filmmakers became their own worst enemy. 

Coppola and others might lament the lack of new voices rising, but a lot of those problems arose from his behavior and wonton spending. 

Again I'm not here to tell you if Apocalypse Now is a good or bad movie. That's everyone's call to make for themselves. 

At No Film School were interested in peeling back the layers on the film, it's production and talking about it's effects to the craft as a whole. 

When we laud the movie do we talk about some of these other aspects that may have helped put an end to the era of filmmaking we miss? Do we talk about safety practices? It's important to keep it all in mind and learn as much as we can. 

What's next? Old vs. New Testament: 'First Reformed' & 'Taxi Driver' Deconstructed!

Paul Schrader is interested in life, death, humanity, God, and punishment. We theorize how his message has changed over the past 40 years. 

Learn how by clicking the link!      

Your Comment

20 Comments

"Apocalypse Now is the ultimate pretentious movie"
This article is the ultimate pretentious article.

Seriously, when are we going to get the old NFS back?

August 14, 2019 at 2:49PM, Edited August 14, 2:49PM

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Alex Alva
1235

Apocalypse Now is a cinematic journey following one man's descent into madness. It encapsulates Nietzsche's famous quote: "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you." The movie a brilliant adaptation and reimagining of Heart of Darkness, featuring stellar performances by Sheen, Brando, Duvall, and Hopper. Thanks for the reminder of how great this movie is on the 40th anniversary of its release.

August 14, 2019 at 3:47PM, Edited August 14, 3:47PM

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Rick Caplan
Writer/Producer/Director
94

This is why Jason is writing for NFS and not working in the industry. His self-righteous "safety-first" non-sense and doesn't understand suffering for ART. There's a big reason documentaries about this film have been almost as acclaimed as the film itself. This article is garbage, written by someone who knows nothing about filmmaking. But good job promoting the anniversary of its release.

August 15, 2019 at 1:34PM, Edited August 15, 1:34PM

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Shawn Montgomery
Post Production Coordinator / Director and Producer
94

I couldn't disagree with this hypothesis any more and there are countless examples of films with deeply troubled productions that were completely ripped apart (Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, even Blade Runner upon it's initial release, oh and One From the Heart was troubled and panned).

Apocalypse Now captured the Vietnam experience better than any film that I can think of. It is every bit as insane as that conflict was. The depth of that film cannot be understated. It's visually incredible, it has a deep sub text and the performances and characters are all very memorable. I saw this in high school and Heart's of Darkness hadn't even come out yet and I was obsessed with this film before I knew anything about the behind the scenes drama.

Honestly, between The Godfather and Rumble Fish, Coppola could do no wrong (well maybe One from the Heart). He was at the height of his game and this film stands toe to toe with the first two Godfathers as his finest work. If you don't "get" the film...fine but don't have the hubris that because you don't "get" it that its overrated. That takes some serious chutzpah!

Here's an essay that has far better insight than this article https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r23wOiCHK5E

August 15, 2019 at 1:56PM, Edited August 15, 1:56PM

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Brad Jones
Director/Producer/Writer/Editor
718

Ok. Why am I reading on NFS an article by somebody who doesn't understand cinema the art form, like, at all? Because I've thought NFS is entertaining and educational, a source of information and thought. Perhaps it's better I use my time more wisely going forward.

P.S. Apocalypse.Now is not a film about war - at all. It is conversation about the human experience, our struggles to contain the beast within, and the lure of the quick fix. The production itself doesn't have anything to do with the film itself. I suggest the author go read some books.

August 15, 2019 at 3:44PM, Edited August 15, 4:03PM

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I graduated from Animation at Sheridan in '79. Throughout my film/special effects carrier I always look for the technical effects. Then I looked for the digital effects and now that there is no film and we are on the verge of total virtual reality I am still looking for magician behind the magic. But today we do not suspend our reality because there is not one to suspend. We are cemented into a universe just as we used to be strapped into a ride at the fair for the experience. What led me to this was Wick III. I walked out when I had experienced enough dog fight scenes. Tell me a story. I think that is why people go to see movies like "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood." As dark as Tarantino is, he is telling you a story and you have to suspend reality to digest his campy effects. But like Hitchcock, he is not working with a $500,000,000 dollar budget and you don't need to.

August 15, 2019 at 5:17PM, Edited August 15, 5:17PM

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Bradley Dieno
Producer Corporate Video
2

I graduated from Animation at Sheridan in '79. Throughout my film/special effects carrier I always look for the technical effects. Then I looked for the digital effects and now that there is no film and we are on the verge of total virtual reality I am still looking for magician behind the magic. But today we do not suspend our reality because there is not one to suspend. We are cemented into a universe just as we used to be strapped into a ride at the fair for the experience. What led me to this was Wick III. I walked out when I had experienced enough dog fight scenes. Tell me a story. I think that is why people go to see movies like "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood." As dark as Tarantino is, he is telling you a story and you have to suspend reality to digest his campy effects. But like Hitchcock, he is not working with a $500,000,000 dollar budget and you don't need to.

August 15, 2019 at 5:20PM, Edited August 15, 5:20PM

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Bradley Dieno
Producer Corporate Video
2

I think the nuance of what is being said here is lost in the claims of the title. Over-rated is a loaded word. I feel like the question being posed here is key - how much should be sacrificed for art? It's easy to romanticize the extent to which Coppola went to make the movie but where do we draw the line between art and abuse. This is a much more important take for filmmakers to contemplate than whether or not to buy the next 6K camera.

August 15, 2019 at 9:42PM, Edited August 15, 9:42PM

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Agreed, framing this as "Apocalypse Now is Overrated" is really burying the lead in a bucket of click-bait. I'd be fine with that if the article really went for the "what should we be willing to do for art? and How far is too far?" angle. Unfortunately we don't really get deep into that.

Some of the most acclaimed films of the past century were brutal productions or made by meglomaniacs. Blade Runner was a walking disaster of a production, and Alfred Hitchcock was at times downright abusive to his stars. This extends to other art forms as well, so the question is indeed a deep and valid one.

August 16, 2019 at 4:46PM

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Nathan Taylor
Jack of all trades, master of none
500

That's such a bad article... In so many ways. Basically, the author (who uses the childish word "movie") claims that the films is overrated because: 1. "the movie became lauded is the legendary struggle to make it."-> Hum, probably 99% of the people who watched that film don't care about the making and never heard of it. The film had a Palme d'Or. It's a famous film because it's a great one.
2. "it feels a bit more like a mistake and lack of intentionality. Not a real stroke of genius" -> The author don't understand the film, and that's the fault of the director?

And what about this Bertolucci thing? Tay Garnett and then Bob Rafaelson directed the adaptation of "The Postman...". He probably thought about Last Tango in Paris...

So the author thinks that the film is mostly famous because of its making and then criticizes that making to tell the film is overrated? That's complete non-sense.

I've been reading No Film School since the beginning, but I can see that this website is going in the wrong direction... Like Hollywood and US cinema in general.

I wish No Film School would focus on cinema, art, on films, not movies, and talk about great contemporary filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Na Hong-jin or new promising filmmakers like Beatriz Seigner, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng or Robert Eggers. There is so much to talk about!

August 16, 2019 at 3:42AM, Edited August 16, 3:42AM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
453

And NFS continues to sink into black hole of shadow artists shouting out noise pretending to be journalism. You can't even rebut this article as it's just nonsense so poorly thought out posing as argument but it's hard to figure out if it's a article about lack of safety practices in the film, a rant on overrated films or diatribe on Coppola.

August 16, 2019 at 11:22AM, Edited August 16, 11:22AM

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Stephen A van Vuuren
Filmmaker
507

Hey everyone thanks for the comments here. This post was an attempt to offer some counterpoint editorially to the wide held beliefs on the movie. There is room, we think, for subjectivity in discussing some of the great and lasting films. We have heard you all loud and clear though and we really value this sort of input, even when highly critical. We try to slate and publish a wide array of content and push the boundaries of our discussion about film and filmmaking here past the well-worn paths. Please continue to chime in and tell us what we're doing right and wrong in your eyes. Thanks as always.

August 16, 2019 at 12:54PM, Edited August 16, 12:54PM

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George Edelman
Editor-in-Chief
Producer and Screenwriter

Thanks for your comment, George. Speaking only for myself, the appeal of NFS has always been a combination of thoughtful, educational articles about gear and craft, as well as filmmaker interviews. Speaking of...I'd be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to pitch a piece about my first feature, Mr Misfortune (trailer: https://vimeo.com/327521448). It's playing in festivals, and I think there's value for the NFS community in a lot of the details of the film's production.

August 16, 2019 at 6:37PM

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Rick Caplan
Writer/Producer/Director
94

> Hey everyone thanks for the comments here. This post was an attempt to offer some counterpoint editorially to the wide held beliefs on the movie.

So, like the anti-vaxx movement is an attempt to offer some counterpoint editorially to the wide held beliefs on the benefits of vaccination?

August 16, 2019 at 8:31PM

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Why has my comment been deleted?

August 16, 2019 at 6:01PM, Edited August 16, 6:01PM

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Don't take this the wrong way, but your troll articles are complete dogshit.

August 17, 2019 at 12:45PM, Edited August 17, 12:45PM

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Jake
591

So what happens to the great movies that can't be made any other way ?

...The biggest problem I have with Hollywood feature films over the past five years is that too many are playing it safe. The story is boring, the characters are boring, nobody is willing to take a risk, so we end up with a box-office where week after week I can't find a film that's worth watching. Tarantino's latest was a life-raft to an audience that is drowning in safe crappy films...

August 17, 2019 at 12:46PM, Edited August 17, 12:48PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
31653

Ive been thinking about deleting NFS from my RSS feed for a long time now. This is the article that made me do it.
Absolute trash click bait headline followed up with troll like writing.

Mentioning the recuts over the years are non confidence in the message. The message hasnt changed, how he tells it has. Generally he is adding more. I have a issue with reframing Storaros shots in the latest version but that isnt necessarily changing the message.

I have never met a film maker who was 100% happy with any project. Most of them dont have the clout or money to keep trying at a project like Coppola can. Whether we need or he should keep remaking this film is another conversation entirely.

Im also shocked that the author is pro studios instead of pro artists. In his case I wish someone had stepped in and taken this article project away from this "artist" and completely changed it.

Absolute trash article on a website that has been trash for a long time. See ya NFS

August 18, 2019 at 6:12AM, Edited August 18, 6:12AM

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“but to me, it feels a bit more like a mistake and lack of intentionality. Not a real stroke of genius...”

Are you serious?

You must be insane to say that this is not a real stroke of genius. If this isn’t, I don’t know what is. Your analysis lacks the knowledge of context with which the movie is based on. As mentioned in several comments here, it is not a movie about a war, it is about the darkness of humanity. It is your analysis that requires further examination. It perhaps explains why today’s movie industry lacks the heart and soul it so desperately needs for its ART FORM. Please refrain from making such film analysis in the future. Trust me, you are not helping. Spend your time on better contributions.

August 19, 2019 at 5:55AM, Edited August 19, 5:55AM

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Randy Lao
Filmmaker/Cinematographer
81

The title bears very little relation to the content. "Again I'm not here to tell you if Apocalypse Now is a good or bad movie. That's everyone's call to make for themselves." So why are you asking if it's overrated? Do you like the film? I don't know. Making an analysis of best on set practice and impacts to the industry doesn't bear any relation to whether or not the film itself is overrated.

I first saw it as a teenager, I knew nothing about the making of it or who any of the cast were and it completely blew me away. Hollywood funks out so many turds and bores the living shit out of me so often (never have and never will know any film in the 'marvel universe'), and I didn't really know that these kind of films existed. It opened up a whole world of 70's cinema that felt exciting, risky and posed questions about what it is to be human, it made me fall in love with film. It may be a huge budget blockbuster but Apocalypse Now is also a philosophical and experimental film at the same time, and there are precious few of those. It's not really a film about war either, it's a film about the madness of men.

August 19, 2019 at 9:46AM, Edited August 19, 9:49AM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
1057