The Greatest War Movie Ever Made Turns 40

Abhishek Srivastava - 58 weeks ago

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, has turned 40. Apocalypse Now was a tour de force which involved blood, sweat, toil and tears. The film was premiered 40 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival and had won the Palme d’Or. The effort that Coppola took for the film nearly destroyed him. Right from choosing his lead actor, typhoon on the sets of the film, the film crossing its stipulated budget - it nearly broke the director. It took 238 days for Coppola to come out with a masterpiece which, till today, has no equal. 

(Director Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro during the shoot of Apocalypse Now)

The character that Dennis Hopper plays in the film was inspired by Sean Flynn, son of superstar Errol Flynn and also a marijuana smoking photographer who covered the Vietnam War. Hopper was constantly high even during the shooting of the film. There was a moment during the shooting when Hopper could not get right a shot even after 37 takes. 

(Vittorio Storaro looking for perfect camera placement to shoot a scene involving Martin Sheen)

Martin Sheen was not the original choice for the role of Captain Benjamin Willard. Harvey Keitel was initially signed on to play the role. He had even shot for few days for the masterpiece but Coppola was not happy with the outcome and thus immediately replaced him. Sheen had suffered a fatal heart attack during the shooting which suspended the film’s activity for few months. 

(Francis Ford Coppola with local Philipino childrens on the set of Apocalypse Now)

Marlon Brando had developed sizeable weight before the shooting of the film and often turned up drunk and unprepared on the sets. No one had a clue that the role of Colonel Walter Kurtz would be one of his best performances. His remuneration for the film was $1 million for three weeks. 

(Francis Ford Coppola giving instructions to crew just before the shooting of a scene for the film)

Before Martin Sheen and Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood too were considered for the role of Captain Benjamin Willard but all of them said no to the role as they were scheduled to shoot for the film in jungles of Philippines for four months. The final shooting period of the film turned out to be 238 days. After meeting rejections by actors for the role of captain Benjamin Willard, Coppola was so frustrated that he threw his Oscar trophy out of his San Francisco home. Later his wife Eleanor picked up the broken trophy and ensured it was repaired. 

(A behind the scene image of Marlon Brando on the set of the film)

A major part of the film’s set was destroyed because of a typhoon and eventually the film went way beyond its stipulated budget. The damage was close to $1.32 million and production of the film was suspended for six weeks. This forced Coppola to offer his house and earnings from The Godfather as security to complete the film. 

(Behind the scenes photo of Dennis Hopper & Francis Ford Coppola)

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s book on which the film is based, is not credited as the literary source of the film. John Milius, one of the writers of Apocalypse Now, complained to the Screen Writers’ Guild and the reference to the book was removed. 

(Behind the scenes photo of Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Bottoms)

Coppola’s original screenplay of the film is still preserved in the Research Library of UCLA. His script begins and ends with Benjamin Willard sitting on the deck of a cruise in the harbor at Marina del Ray. He is shown as the bodyguard of a man who is hosting a party for his friends on the cruise. These scenes were not shot by Coppola.


Francis Ford Coppola / John Milius / Martin Sheen / Marlon Brando / Robert Duvall / Joseph Conrad / Heart of Darkness / Phillipines / Typhoon / Vittorio Storaro / 40 year /

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

Sign up to get access to the stories behind films and conversations on cinema worldwide.