PALME D’OR – “Apocalypse Now”, the cursed filming –


The Cannes Film Festival will not take place. In any case, not in May. And not in the form we know. The editorial staff offers you a non-exhaustive selection of Palmes d’or which have marked the history of the festival since its creation. Holder of the Palme d’Or 1979 tied with Le Tambour, Apocalypse Now is considered one of the greatest films of all time, yet its shooting was chaotic.

In the middle of the Vietnam War, the unhealthy actions of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) entrenched in Cambodia in the middle of the jungle push the American military intelligence services to send Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to find him. Unaccounted for, Kurtz is rumored to have descended into madness putting aside his military responsibilities to become a kind of god among the natives, while committing acts of barbarism. Throughout his war-filled and obstacle-filled journey, as he ascends the river and sinks deeper and deeper into the wild jungle, Willard searches deep within himself for he will have the guts to kill a colonel, one of his ilk.

Revealed by The Godfather in 1972 and subsequently in 1974, Coppola is an emblematic figure of New Hollywood. After the huge success of The Godfather, he set out to make a film about the Vietnam War. The result is Apocalypse Now, released a year after Michael Cimino’s Journey to the End of Hell, one of the first films to evoke the Vietnam War. The film was then released in two edited versions: Redux in 2001 and Final Cut in 2019. The filming itself was hell, a documentary directed by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor Coppola, was even dedicated to him in 1991, In the heart of darkness: the Apocalypse of a director. Between drugs, alcohol, madness and megalomania, the shooting is one of the most incredible in the history of cinema, which makes the film all the more exciting.

Martin Sheen © 1979 – United Artists

A long-standing project

The story of Apocalypse Now begins in 1939 when Orson Welles wants to adapt a short story by Joseph Conrad In the heart of darkness (Heart of Darkness), the story of a sailor who sinks into the African jungle, responsible for finding Kurtz , the leader of a trading post, who has stopped giving signs of life and is suspected to have gone mad. While Welles is ready to shoot, the project is abandoned in the face of pressure from the production which fears a budget overrun. In the end, he recovered well since he was filming the mythical Citizen Kane instead. Thirty years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Inspector Harry) embarks on a script mixing Conrad’s short story with the situation in Vietnam. The story takes up roughly the same plot as the book but transposes it during the war. Coppola is then a young director who wants to launch his independent production studio American Zoetrope, he thinks of producing Apocalypse Now to launch said studio, with his friend Georges Lucas as director. John Milius then has the crazy idea of ​​going to shoot in the middle of Vietnam in the middle of the conflict, too risky the project is logically abandoned. Coppola shoots The Godfather and its sequel and achieves the status of Hollywood’s most respected director.

In 1976, Coppola and Millius plunged back into this long-standing project and wanted to succeed where forty years earlier Orson Welles had failed. The script is revised, because since its first version the war is over and leaves a painful and taboo memory. Georges Lucas being busy preparing for Star Wars, Coppola imposed himself as a director, he hoped that the success of the film would enable him to acquire independence from the studios. So in February 1976, the team landed in the Philippines to start filming, the Coppola family was complete: his wife, children and sister were present.

Show the war in a new way

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Willard (Martin Sheen) entering Kurtz’s lair© STUDIOCANAL

War film, blockbuster film, film about madness, Apocalypse Now cannot be put in a single box as it evokes so many themes. It is one of the first American films about the Vietnam War (released a year after Journey to the End of Hell but started long before), subsequently inspiring a whole series of successful films: Platoon, Full metal jacket. It is in fact above all an adventure film, the ascent of the river to reach Kurtz’s lair is akin to a long journey towards madness. The closer the soldiers get to their objective, the more insane people they encounter, and the more they sink into despair themselves. It is the same for the film crew confronted with Coppola’s megalomania and the various difficulties that follow one another: hurricanes, rebel attacks, heart attack.

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Robert Duvall plays Lt. Col. Kilgore © STUDIOCANAL

The secondary characters, who generally only appear for one scene, are reflections of the military state of mind of the time and of the incomprehension faced with this war. Robert Duvall, nominated for the occasion for the Oscar for best supporting actor, plays a completely crazy airborne cavalry commander who likes to listen to Wagner thoroughly during his aerial attacks. He slips in one of cinema’s best-known lines, “I like the smell of napalm in the morning”. He stands out in particular by bombarding a Vietnamese village with said napalm, in order to be able to go surfing quietly on a beach in the middle of the explosions. This absurd behavior swinging between humor and horror makes the viewer feel incomprehensible and loses him a little, exactly how the soldiers felt at the time. This is the effect intended by Coppola. There are also all those soldiers encountered on the way by Willard, who wander and fire into the crowd without even knowing who is in command, lost in the middle of the jungle in a fight against themselves.

A wind of madness on the set

Beyond the adventure and the war, the film is encompassed in an atmosphere of madness which is sublimated by the psychedelic smoke bombs used repeatedly and the effects of thick fog on the river. It is not easy to understand who is the craziest, Kurtz who cracked by taking himself for god in the middle of the natives, or Willard who also sinks into a state of madness and trance during the finale. But how are they crazier than the other protagonists, such as Kilgore played by an overexcited Robert Duvall? All wander in this war they don’t understand, they don’t know why they are fighting, they shoot into the crowd without thinking. This state of madness is also found on the set, in the shooting conditions.

“We were in the jungle. We were too many. We had way too much money, way too much equipment, and little by little we went crazy. »

Francis Ford Coppola at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival about the shooting.

In the Philippines, the political situation is tense, the dictator Marcos borrows army helicopters for the needs of the film, they are used during the spectacular aerial charge against the backdrop of Wagner. Only, a few kilometers from the plateau, rebels hostile to the government regularly organize attacks and helicopters are systematically requisitioned to go and fight them. All this always slows down the shooting a little more. As if that weren’t enough, the weather adds to the list of problems. At first Coppola is delighted, he can turn in the fog and in torrential rains, which transcribes the climatic conditions that the soldiers experienced. However, when a typhoon hits and ravages all the sets, Coppola takes the brunt, once again forced to delay filming and have all the sets rebuilt.

In the midst of this artistic and climatic chaos, actors and technicians take refuge in drugs. When it’s to add to the credibility of a scene, it can be useful, especially for the scene where Chef cracks after the nocturnal attack of a tiger, the actor had actually taken cocaine. However when it’s between takes it’s more problematic. The set becomes a veritable pharmacy where the film crew can find all existing psychedelic substances. In the film, the drug is present as an escape for the soldiers. Apocalypse Now shows the importation by the Americans of the psychedelic wave in Vietnam (rock, drugs).

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Laurence Fishburne and Sam Bottoms © 1979 – United Artists

Coppola on his side has not yet finished for his film when he has already started shooting, the outcome must be the confrontation between Willard and Kurtz, the stakes are high. He constantly rewrites the script and gives birth to a new ending every four mornings, finally when he lets Brando improvise, who finally manages to fit into his character, he is satisfied. The director behaves like a dictator during the shooting according to the witnesses, a bit like Kurtz, he will recognize it himself later. For example, he insists that the wine be served at 14 degrees and that the bottles be taken out of the fridge at the exact minute before starting to shoot a meal scene. He asks a lot of his actors, especially Martin Sheen, whom he asks to really drink alcohol and to put himself completely naked to let his despair express itself. During the scene, completely drunk and barely standing, Sheen cuts his hand by punching a mirror. Later, in March 1977, Sheen reached his limits, broke down, had a heart attack and was rushed home. It even seems that a priest gave him the last rites. Coppola thinking that he could lose his main interpreter sinks even more into paranoia and drugs. He loses 40kg and brings his mistresses while his wife is there. He thinks about suicide several times. Seeing that the leader of the project is going mad, the whole team breaks down and takes comfort in drugs and alcohol. Finally, Martin Sheen is back in top form, getting away from this crazy shoot for a while has done him the greatest good.

Brando’s whims

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Coppola directing Brando © 1979 United Artists

Succeeding in putting Marlon Brando on the screen ensures the film of prestige, he had already shot with Coppola for The Godfather. However, his reputation as a capricious and authoritarian actor is confirmed during filming, where he complicates everything. Brando arrives obese, without having read his text or even Conrad’s short story, and demands a salary of one million dollars a week. The director could have fired him or hired another less restrictive actor, but he absolutely wanted to have him on screen. Pioneer of the method of the Actors Studio which aims to feel the emotions of the character and not to imitate them, Brando refuses to read the script and prefers to improvise philosophical monologues. The short time it appears, only a few minutes in the film, takes three weeks to shoot, but the result is present.

Finally, Apocalypse Now is 238 days of filming instead of the 16 weeks announced; more than 30 million dollars of budget against the 13 million planned and 3 years of editing to finally present it at the Cannes festival. Coppola as a great perfectionist, constantly disappointed by his work, kept bringing it up. After such an apocalyptic shooting, nothing would have let think that this film would be successful, its director himself declared that it was a failure. And yet, he entered the history of cinema, harvesting 150 million at the worldwide box office, a Palme d’Or and two Oscars: Coppola at the top of his game. The uncontrolled pace that the film took was ultimately the recipe for its success, transcribing the madness of war, the impacted morale of the soldiers and the complexity of the human spirit.

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PALME D’OR – “Apocalypse Now”, the cursed filming –