Apocalypse Now (1979), one of the most important films to emerge from the Vietnam War era, took ten years and more than $30 million to make. Director Francis Ford Coppola struggled with setback after setback during production and constantly questioned his work on the film, to the point of threatening suicide. Because the film was shot in the Philippines and financed largely outside of the Hollywood studio system, it acquired a certain mystery among the media. By the time of its release, it had become almost mythical in stature.
Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s 1898 novella Heart of Darkness, the story of a ship captain’s journey up the Congo River during the heyday of European imperialism in Africa. Conrad’s novella follows Marlow’s quest to find Kurtz, an ivory trader and philosopher whose intentions to enlighten the African natives fail as he gives in to the jungle’s savage temptations and ultimately goes insane. Orson Welles worked to adapt the novella for the screen in 1939, but his studio feared the production would go over budget and backed off the project. Welles ended up making Citizen Kane instead.
In 1969, Coppola founded American Zoetrope with young filmmaker George Lucas, hoping to create a film company that could be financially and creatively independent from the conservative, restrictive Hollywood studio system. Among the first projects they sought to complete was Apocalypse Now, an original screenplay by John Milius based on Heart of Darkness but updated to take place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Lucas hoped to direct the film, but they were unable to secure financing. At the time, the American antiwar movement was gaining power, as citizens became increasingly bitter and resentful about the United States’ role in the war. Executives were reluctant to release a Vietnam-related film amid such a volatile social context.
The project was shelved as Coppola and Lucas put the almost-bankrupt American Zoetrope on hold. Meanwhile, Coppola directed The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974), which together went on to win nine Academy Awards and make Coppola a multimillionaire. With his new wealth, he revisited his plans for an independent filmmaking company and again chose Apocalypse Now to spearhead the reemergence of American Zoetrope. When Coppola took up the film for the second time at age thirty-six, he had seven feature films under his belt and was the winner of six Academy Awards. Apocalypse Now, however, was to be his most ambitious film in terms of both vision and scale—he felt prepared to create an epic movie that would capture the totality of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was fought from 1959 to 1975. South Vietnamese independence was at stake, as the war’s outcome would determine whether North and South Vietnam would be unified under communist North Vietnamese rule. The United States became involved in the conflict because its policymakers feared the spread of communism. China and much of Eastern Europe were already under communist control, and U.S. leaders felt they could not “lose” Southeast Asia as well. The United States helped install an anticommunist prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, in South Vietnam in1954. When Diem was killed in a military coup in 1963, the United States became more directly involved in the war. The first U.S. combat troops were sent to Vietnam in 1965. With conscription in effect, the U.S. military drafted increasing numbers of young men to serve as the war progressed. The average age of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam was nineteen, and the majority were youths from the poorer sections of American society. By 1968, about 40,000 young men were drafted each month to meet demands for increased troops in Vietnam.
Opposition to the war within the United States developed even before troops were deployed, but its scope was relatively narrow. As the war progressed, an unprecedented antiwar movement emerged in America. Millions participated in protests, teach-ins, and riots. The movement was fueled by public confusion as to the reasons for the U.S. invasion; increasing draft numbers; the Kent State University protest, in which National Guardsmen shot four students dead; and the 1969 revelation of the My Lai Massacre, in which a U.S. Army division killed some five hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Accounts of government deception and secret bombings further aggravated the flame of dissent rippling through America. By 1971, 70 percent of Americans sought the immediate withdrawal of American troops, and a majority thought the war was a mistake. Many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam also opposed the war and the draft, resulting in internal dissension, low morale, and an increasing number of soldiers going AWOL, or absent without leave.
In January 1973, all parties involved in the Vietnamese conflict came together to sign the Treaty of Paris. The treaty’s terms provided for, among other things, a cease-fire between North and South Vietnam and the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973, after nearly 58,000 young soldiers had died and more than 300,000 had been wounded.
Filming for Apocalypse Now began in February 1976. Coppola was able to secure a large area in the Philippines as the setting for the film shoot. The humid, typhoon-prone climate and dense vegetation provided a convincing substitute for Vietnam’s sticky, thick jungles. Coppola made every effort to re-create accurately the atmosphere, character, and action of the Vietnam War. As he said famously in a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival: “My film is not a movie. It is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, after it spent two years in the editing room being painfully whittled down from six hours to two and a half. By its release date, the film had been delayed for so long it had become the butt of many media jokes, spurring headlines that screamed “Apocalypse Never.” Upon its highly anticipated release, the film received mostly superlative reviews, and the bulk of critics considered it a flawed masterpiece. It took home the top award at the Cannes Film Festival and won two Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, out of eight nominations. Coppola, who had never been happy with the final cut of the film, in 2001 released Apocalypse Now Redux, which restored forty-nine minutes of scenes deleted from the original film. The new version received mixed reviews, but the original is still widely recognized as Coppola’s most ambitious, far-reaching work and the king of Vietnam War movies.