Articles – Apocalypse Now

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“How do you make a film about moral ambiguity that is not ambiguous?”
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now Press Conference 1978)

Apocalypse Now Redux Screenplay: The History

In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola ordered a Vietnam War screenplay to be penned by a relatively unknown John Milius. It was loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness with the setting transplanted to Vietnam. A decade later one of the most troubled productions in film history received eight Oscar nominations and won two. The final film resembled only portions of Milius’s first screenplay.

The two main characters Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen who had a heart attack during production) and Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando who insisted on rewriting all his own lines) represent the two extremes of Nietzsche’s image of the human condition. As Coppola states, the film is about “walking the tightrope between the primitive man, which is in us, and the Godly man”.

Milius notes that Heart of Darkness was about Kurtz “giving oneself over to the forest, to primitivism.” While he was starting to think about adapting the book, many of his friends were returning from the war in Vietnam. He had wanted to fight but his asthma kept him out. At the insistence of George Lucas, Milius began to write, using Heart of Darkness more like an allegory rather than a direct adaptation. Coppola wanted to make a war film that was unique. Today it still stands out as the pre-eminent work in the genre.

“I felt my audiences are familiar with a war film, so first I would like to win their confidence and say ‘Come with me on a trip. It’s not a movie, it’s a trip, it’s a journey.’ I take you by the hand and say ‘come with me. We start in a movie that you understand, that you’ve seen before. We go a little further we get stranger. We go a little further we get stranger. Until after a while you are in a new place where you’ve never been before. But still, come with me’. So that after a while the only way I thought I could show the film was the way I made the film. Because I started in a regular movie. And then I made it stranger and stranger. So I take the audience on the same trip that I did.”

  • Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now Press Conference 1978)

Originally casting Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard, Coppola decided that the chemistry was just not right. Keitel was sent home after a week of shooting. Martin Sheen, who was battling alcoholism at the time, stepped in. The film would take almost two years to shoot, 19 months longer than first planned and budgeted for. Walter Murch, the film’s editor was responsible for ordering the chaos, so that the script was once again reworked in post production.

“Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane.”

  • Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

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Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Structure

A very strong external goal motivates the story from start to finish.

“I needed a mission and they brought me one. After that I wouldn’t need another.”

  • Captain Willard

Willard starts the film as a lost and forlorn figure (perhaps today he would be classed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He wallows in booze, misery and divorce, waiting for a second tour to escape a return to an America that will never be the same to him. And so the classified mission to hunt down and kill a rogue Colonel who has become a destructive ghost becomes both Willard’s and the film’s driving force throughout.

There’s much of Homer’s The Odyssey in the film as Willard has to overcome a series of obstacles (mythological beasts in human form) to reach his goal. Kilgore is the first of these obstacles. Milius likens Kilgore to the Cyclops, the Playboy Bunnies to the Sirens and so forth, so that by Act Two, the journey of the crew aboard the PBR unit boat already seems fraught with impossibility.

By the midpoint of the film, Willard’s mission passes the last American outpost on the Nung River. From there the delve into ‘the strange’ is magnified. Willard tries to keep his dwindling crew content without telling them what their mission really is. The challenges he face to remain good, to remain true to his mission come to an apogee when Willard and the two remaining crew members arrive at Kurtz’s Valhalla and he is imprisoned. Finishing what he had started becomes his final test of faith.


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Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Characters

The exploration of the darkness in humanity is brought to life through the characters. It is the kind of journey that requires a seat belt. Some of the characters, like Kurtz, are immortalised in celluloid grandiosity. The soldiers on the PBR unit – the boat, aptly named Erebus, a Greek God of the underworld – are mostly souls trapped in the war, trying to get out alive, almost always out of their depth. Within the context of war, the spectrum of this humanity is explored through its characters. The good and evil of Willard and Kurtz respectively straddle the others who fall somewhere in between these extremes.


Martin Sheen plays Willard with slow, deliberate strokes. He feels almost anaesthetised at points in his delivery. He represents many positive traits, courage, morality, and yet the sense of the good in him being doused by war is ever noticeable. This is only exacerbated as the mission moves deeper into the unknown.


Kurtz plays antithesis to Willard. He is in many ways the man Willard could have become if he had allowed the war to drag him down. Instead Willard kept to the righteous path, while Kurtz ventured far from it; into the woods never to return. In doing so he strayed from all notions of morality. It’s not that he is immoral exactly. Instead there is a sense that Kurtz has embraced primitive animalism so completely that he is rendered amoral.


Originally called Colonel Carnage in earlier drafts, Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) exists right in the middle of Willard and Kurtz on the morality scale. War suits his temperament. He is clearly bored of it, or no longer surprised by war, but actually seems to enjoy the unique experience of war that is unparalleled elsewhere. His actions are always within the parameters of acceptable wartime conduct: he even cares for a wounded enemy with his guts hanging out, but will not think twice about decimating the enemy from above either.

“Any man brave enough to fight with his guts strapped in can drink from my canteen any day”.

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Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Beats


Inciting Incident – minute 17 – Willard is cleaned up and handed a classified mission. He must go upriver into Cambodia to find a once brilliant US army Colonel (Kurtz) and ‘Terminate his command…Terminate with extreme prejudice”.

Strong Movement Forward – minute 35 – Kilgore offers to take the crew and the boat to the start of the river by Air Cav, and heck, why not destroy a Vietnamese outpost while they’re at it? This offers the prospect of forwards momentum, while Kilgore’s madness and surfing obsession threaten to derail the trip.

End of Act One Turn – minute 49 – The first act turn in the 193 minute Redux comes with real fanfare. After Colonel Kilgore attacks a Vietnamese village with Wagner blaring then waxes lyrical on napalm odour, Willard takes the opportunity to escape Kilgore’s carnage with his crew and begin the journey by boat for the first time.


First Trial – minute 67 – In need of fuel and supplies without being able to provide any details of their classified mission, Willard is forced to get tough at the army store. Meanwhile the crew have their first taste of the playboy bunnies whose very presence among the soldiers causes a stampede.

Combat – minute 93 – A routine yet unnecessary stop of a sampan boat leads to Willard’s trigger happy crew killing some innocent Vietnamese civilians. This is the first time there is disunity between the crew and the beginning of increasing disharmony within as well as without.

Midpoint – minute 103 – Willard’s mission reaches Do-Lung Bridge, the last American outpost on the river. Nobody is in charge, madness reigns and beyond this point the feeling of a safety net for Willard’s mission is completely gone. Now they enter Viet Cong country.


Assumption of Power – minute 136 – When Chief Phillips is killed (“A spear!”), Captain Willard has to literally take command of the boat. Phillips had previously been the most outspoken and level-headed crew member. It was his boat and Willard was his cargo with superiority. Willard now has to assume real responsibility for the boat, the mission and his remaining crew.

End of Act Two Turn – minute 142 – The remaining three, Willard, Chef and Lance, reach their final destination – Kurtz’s camp. Eerie silence greets the crew as they sail past hundreds of villagers in war paint lining banks and filling canoes.

Decision – minute 150 – Captain Willard is resolved to meet Kurtz and talk with him. Flanked by the nervously energetic Journalist (Dennis Hopper), he trudges past the hallmarks of Kurtz’s madness – severed heads and corpses hanging from the trees. Willard tells Chef to remain on the boat with orders to radio in a carpet combing if his mission fails. “If I was still alive it was because he wanted me that way”.


Point of No Return – minute 171 – It seems as though somewhere in the confusion of captivity and Kurtz’s ramblings, Willard becomes confounded, unsure of whether his mission is just. We know he is not the first man sent to kill Kurtz. The last guy sent works for Kurtz now. Seeming as though all is lost, it is Kurtz himself who spins Willard back around. “You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me.”

Climax – minute 179 – One of cinema’s best ever climaxes. With The Doors providing a psychedelic score, the gruesome end of Kurtz at the hands of Willard is intercut with the ritualistic slaughter of a water buffalo by the villagers. Cinematic perfection packed into every single moment. This ending also ties up the thematic triumph of good over evil.

“I was really desperately looking for a way to end the film, as the original script had an ending more appropriate for a war film in the style of A Bridge Too Far. So I decided, after much thought and conversation, to have Martin end by assassinating the great king (Kurtz), and utilise the fact that the Ifagao (sic) people were going to sacrifice their water buffalo on our last day of shooting.”

  • Francis Ford Coppola

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Apocalypse Now Screenplay: The Analysis


1 – Interview between Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius

2 – Press conference with Francis Ford Coppola c.1978

3 – Documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – the making of Apocalypse Now

4 – TCM

5 – The Literary Traveller