Transplanting the story of Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novel Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, Francis Ford Coppola created a visually mesmerising fantasia on the spectacle of war.
“Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul.”
Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, 2002
Shy of controversy, Hollywood steered clear of tackling the war in Vietnam until the conflict was over. In the late 1970s, emboldened by the critical successes of his two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola famously spent a vast amount of time and money in the jungles of Southeast Asia to bring to life the story of an American officer (Martin Sheen), sent up river to bring the wayward, megalomaniac Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) to ground.
The troubled production – beset by a typhoon, a heart attack (Sheen’s) and the perils of excess – has entered film-making lore, but the resulting film rivals Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) for its hallucinatory visuals and grandness of conception. Coppola defined its uniquely unhinged genius best: “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”
Coppola was part inspired by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), an equally visionary going-up-river tale of madness and obsession in the jungle.