Apocalypse Now - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1979

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Production: United Artists; initial release in color, 70mm, Dolby sound; later releases in color, 35mm, Dolby sound with added footage of large-scale air attack which serves as backdrop for credit sequence; running time: 153 minutes, also 139 minutes. Released 1979. Filmed 1976–77, though pre-production work began mid-1975 and post-production lasted until 1979; shot on location in the Philippines; cost: about $30,000,000.

Producer: Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola suggested by the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; narration: Richard Marks; photography: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Richard Marks; sound: Walter Murch, Mark Berger, Richard Beggs, and Nat Boxer; production designer: Dean Tavoularis; art director: Angelo Graham; original music: Carmine Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola; song: "This Is the End" by the Doors; special effects: A. D. Flowers.

Cast: Marlon Brando ( Colonel Walter E. Kurtz ); Robert Duvall ( Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore ); Martin Sheen ( Captain Benjamin L. Willard ); Frederic Forrest ( Chef ); Albert Hall ( Chief ); Sam Bottoms ( Lance ); Larry Fishburne ( Clean ); Dennis Hooper ( Freelance photographer ); G. D. Spradlin ( General ); Harrison Ford ( Colonel ).

Awards: Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, 1979; Palme d'Or (Shared with The Tin Drum ), Cannes Film Festival, 1979.



Milius, John, and Francis Ford Coppola, L'apocalisse e poi , from the collection Cinema e Cinema , vol. 24, Venice, 1980.


Coppola, Eleanor, Notes , New York, 1979.

Pye, Michael, and Lynda Myles, The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood , London, 1979.

Kolker, Robert Phillip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman , Oxford, 1980; revised edition, 1988.

Adair, Gilbert, Vietnam on Film: From "The Green Berets" to "Apocalypse Now, " New York 1981; revised edition, as Hollywood's Vietnam , London, 1989.

Thomson, David, Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking , New York, 1981.

Chaillet, Jean-Paul, and Elizabeth Vincent, Francis Ford Coppola , Paris, 1984.

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Frundt, Bodo, and others, Francis Ford Coppola , Munich, 1985.

Belton, John, and Elizabeth Weis, editors, Film Sound; Theory and Practice , New York, 1985.

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Chown, Jeffrey, Hollywood Auteur; Francis Coppola , New York, 1987.

Palmer, William J., The Films of the 1970s: A Social History , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

Cowie, Peter, Coppola , London, 1989.

Von Gunden, Kenneth, Postmodern Auteurs: Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, Spielberg & Scorsese , Jefferson, 1991.

Lourdeaux, Lee, Italian & Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola & Scorsese , Springfield, 1993.

Lewis, Jon, Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola & The New Hollywood , Durham, 1997.

Bergan, Ronald, Francis Ford Coppola-Close Up: The Making of His Movies , New York, 1998.

French, Karl, Apocalypse Now: The Ultimate A-Z , New York, 1999.

Horsley, Jake, Millennial Blues, from "Apocalypse Now" to "The Matrix": Vol II , Lanham, 1999.


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Pollack, D., "An Archival Detailing of UA's Apocalypse Now since 1967 Start," in Variety (New York), 23 May 1979.

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"CinemaScore's 781 Interviews on Apocalypse Now ," in Variety (New York), 22 August 1979.

Bock, Audie, "Zoetrope and Apocalypse Now ," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1979.

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Riley, B., "Heart Transplant," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1979.

Anderson, P. and J. Wells, in Films in Review (New York), October 1979.

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Tessitore, J., "The Literary Roots of Apocalypse Now ," in New York Times , 21 October 1979.

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Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), November 1979.

Heijs, J., in Skrien (Amsterdam), November 1979.

Marcus, Greil, "Journey up the River," in Rolling Stone (New York), 1 November 1979.

Vallely, J., "Martin Sheen: Heart of Darkness, Heart of Gold," in Rolling Stone (New York), 1 November 1979.

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Kinder, Marsha, "The Power of Adaptation in Apocalypse Now ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1979–80.

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Zablotny, Elaine, "American Insanity— Apocalypse Now ," in Film Psychology Review (New York), Winter-Spring 1980.

Sharrett, C., "Operation Mind Control: Apocalypse Now and the Search for Clarity," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1980.

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Alutto, Massimo, in Cinema e Cinema (Venice), July-September 1980.

Boehringer, Kathe, "Banality Now," in Australian Journal of Screen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales), no. 8, 1980.

Franz, R. C., " Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter: The Lies Aren't Over," in Jump Cut (Chicago), October 1980.

Klein, M., " Apocalypse Now: The Absence of History," in Jump Cut (Chicago), October 1980.

Rich, B. Ruby, " Apocalypse Now: Coppola's American Way," in Jump Cut (Chicago), October 1980.

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Vien, N. K., " Apocalypse Now Viewed by a Vietnamese," in Framework (Norwich), Spring 1981.

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Jacobs, Diane, "Coppola Films Conrad in Vietnam," in The English Novel and the Movies , edited by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, New York, 1981.

Bourget, Jean-Loup, "D'un opéra à l'autre," in Positif (Paris), December 1982.

De Antonio, Emile, "Interview with Martin Sheen," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1982.

Wander, P., "The Aesthetics of Fascism," in Journal of Communication (Philadelphia), Spring 1983.

"Vietnam Issue" of Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 7, no. 4, 1985.

Viviani, Christian, "Quelques réflexions sur Coppola, histoire de faire le point," in Positif (Paris), January 1987.

Schneider, Tassilo, "From Cynicism to Self-Pity: Apocalypse Now and Platoon ," in Cinefocus (Bloomington, Indiana), no. 2, 1990.

Guneratne, A. R., "Coppola's Apocalyptic Vision: Something Like an Answer to Tassilo Schneider," in Cinefocus (Bloomington, Indiana), no. 2, 1990.

Dibble, T., "Another Response to Schneider's 'From Cynicism to Self-Pity . . . ,"' in Cinefocus (Bloomington, Indiana), no. 2, 1990.

Hirshey, Gerri, "The Artist as Big Fat Baby," in GQ—Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), October 1991 .

Karren, H., "Bungle in the Jungle," in Premiere (New York), Winter 1991.

Worthy, K., "Hearts of Darkness: Making Art, Making History, Making Money, Making Vietnam," in Cineaste (New York), no. 2–3, 1992.

Cahir, L. C., "Narratological Parallels in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1992.

Greiff, L. K., "Soldier, Sailor, Surfer, Chef: Conrad's Ethics and the Margins of Apocalypse Now ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1992.

Whaley, D. M., "The Hero-Adventurer in the Land of Nam," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1992.

Uszynski, J., "Poza granicami oikoumene," in Kino (Warsaw), April 1992.

van Tongeren, P., "The Horror, the Horror. . . ," in Skoop (Amsterdam), July-August 1992.

Kuchta, T.M., "Framing 'The Horror': Voice and Voice-over in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now ," in Studies in the Humanities , no. 1, 1994.

Petri, Elio, " Apocalypse Now ," in Positif (Paris), no. 415, September 1995.

Worthy, K., "Emissaries of Difference: Conrad, Coppola, and Hearts of Darkness ," in Women's Studies , no. 2, 1996.

Film Threat (Beverly Hills), April 1996.

Trussler, M., "Apocalypse 'Now': Does Conrad Really Sound Like Jim Morrison?" in Arachne , no. 1, 1997.


Coppola, Eleanor, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse , 1991.

* * *

As he set out to plan Apocalypse Now filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola ranked as one of the most important young talents then working in Hollywood. His two Godfather films (1972, 1974) had landed on the list of the most profitable in Hollywood history, while The Conversation (1974) had been hailed as a masterful "art film." In Apocalypse Now Coppola attempted to create both a personal look at America's recent tragic war in Vietnam, and a film which could compete at the box-office with Jaws and The Towering Inferno. As Apocalypse Now moved from the story boards into actual production, however, Coppola's attempt to become a complete popular culture mogul had begun to sour. His considerable investments (in a magazine, movies, and even a legitimate theatre) simply were draining him of his then considerable wealth. Apocalypse Now would have to be a true blockbuster simply to enable Coppola to recover financially and pay off mounting debts.

But Coppola has always been a risk-taker, and his diminishing portfolio hardly lessened his enthusiasm or his ambition. When first conceived the film had been planned as purely an action-adventure war film; quickly it transformed Vietnam into a metaphor for the downfall and corruption of an entire generation of Americans. The budget and screenplay pushed this $12 million potential blockbuster into a $31 million extravaganza. Coppola fully intended Apocalypse Now to be his magnum opus. What actually took place stands as one of the great epic journeys in movie-making history.

Much has been made of how the production of the film seemed to mirror America's involvement in the war itself. Apocalypse Now required four grueling months on location; the film's star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack; vast arrays of military equipment never seemed to work just right. Coppola's movie company pumped $100,000 per week into production while on location in the Philippines. (In paying the Marcos government for the use of military equipment, however, Coppola was supporting a government as corrupt as the Vietnam regime of Diem.) To meet constant cost over-runs (Brando demanded a million dollars for his minor part) Coppola mortgaged his dwindling assets, so if the film failed at the box-office it would be ruin for him. In the end, Apocalypse Now went on to earn about $200 million worldwide, but, in a way, the making of the movie offered a more gripping narrative than the actual movie itself.

The structure of Apocalypse Now was borrowed from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness: a journey up a primitive river as a metaphor serving for an excursion into the darkest parts of the human mind. However, Coppola's formulation of this narrative never was able to grip audience interest. The greatest successes of Apocalypse Now can be found in moments of extraordinary visual texture, capturing the look and feel of a war of madness. Whether it is in a jungle where the vegetation dwarfs all human activity, or a PT boat racing up a river filled with black soldiers fighting for the rights of the oppressed when they know what they will find back home, or an armada of helicopters steaming in and destroying a village so primitive it could have been built 2,000 years earlier, we feel, at times, we are actually there.

For example, the scene in which Robert Duvall, as crazed Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, leads his troops in a helicopter assault on a defenseless village brilliantly portrays the horror and passion of war. As the rockets jump from the war ships, to Wagner's operatic overtones, for a moment we are "in the battle." Yet this particular violence serves no purpose. Duvall's men are mercilessly murdering the very people they are meant to "help."

Apocalypse Now is a film of moments, with a fuzzy monologue by Colonel Kurtz (Brando) at the close never fully wrapping things up. Coppola wanted his film to mean something, and as such raced around the world interpreting for anyone who would listen. (His boldest claim: "This isn't a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam.") In the end, as with his best films, Apocalypse Now remains structurally disjointed and thematically inconsistent, yet it will always be watched and studied for its moments of cinematic grandeur.

—Douglas Gomery

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