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Theatrical release poster by Bob Peak
|Directed by||Francis Ford Coppola|
|Produced by||Francis Ford Coppola|
|Based on||Heart of Darkness |
by Joseph Conrad (uncredited)
|Distributed by||United Artists|
153 minutes (Theatrical)202 minutes (Redux)
|Box office||$150 million|
Theatrical release poster by Bob Peak
|Directed by||Francis Ford Coppola|
|Produced by||Francis Ford Coppola|
|Based on||Heart of Darkness |
by Joseph Conrad (uncredited)
|Distributed by||United Artists|
153 minutes (Theatrical)202 minutes (Redux)
|Box office||$150 million|
Apocalypse Now is a 1979 American epic war film set during the Vietnam War, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall. The film follows the central character, U.S. Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Sheen), of MACV-SOG, on a mission to kill the renegade and presumed insane U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando).
The screenplay by John Milius and Coppola came from Milius's idea of changing Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War era. It also draws from Michael Herr's Dispatches, the film version of Conrad's Lord Jim which shares the same character of Marlow with Heart of Darkness, and Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
The film has been noted for the problems encountered while making it. These problems were chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which recounted the stories of Brando arriving on the set overweight and completely unprepared; costly sets being destroyed by severe weather; and its lead actor (Sheen) suffering a heart attack while on location. Problems continued after production as the release was postponed several times while Coppola edited millions of feet of footage.
Upon release, Apocalypse Now earned widespread critical acclaim and its cultural impact and philosophical themes have been extensively discussed since. Honored with the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, the film was also deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2000. In the Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, the film was ranked #14.
U.S. Army Captain and special operations veteran Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), returned to Saigon since his involvement in the Vietnam War, drinks heavily and hallucinates alone in his room. One day military intelligence officers Lt. General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) approach him with a top-secret assignment to follow the Nung River into the remote jungle, find rogue Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz and kill him. Kurtz apparently went insane and now commands his own Montagnard troops inside neutral Cambodia.
Willard joins a Navy PBR commanded by "Chief" (Albert Hall) and crewmen Lance (Sam Bottoms), "Chef" (Frederic Forrest) and "Mr. Clean" (Larry Fishburne). They rendezvous with reckless Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a commander of an attack helicopter squadron, who initially scoffs at them. Kilgore befriends Lance, both being keen surfers, and agrees to escort them through the Viet Cong-filled coastal mouth of the Nung River due to the surfing conditions there. Amid napalm air strikes on the locals and Ride of the Valkyries playing over the helicopter loudspeakers, the beach is taken and Kilgore orders others to surf it amid enemy fire. While Kilgore nostalgically regales about a previous strike, Willard gathers his men to the PBR, transported via helicopter, and begins the journey upriver.
Willard sifts through files on Kurtz, learning that he was a model officer and possible future General. The crew later encounters a tiger and visit a supply depot USO show featuring Playboy Playmates which goes awry. Afterwards, the crew inspect a civilian sampan for weapons but Mr. Clean panics and machine-guns everyone on board. Willard coldly shoots dead the only woman alive to prevent any further delay of his mission. Tension arises between Chief and Willard as Willard believes himself to be in command of the PBR, while Chief prioritizes other objectives over Willard's secret mission. Reaching the chaos of a US outpost at a bridge under attack, Willard learns that the missing commanding officer, Captain Colby (Scott Glenn), was sent on an earlier mission to kill Kurtz.
Meanwhile, Lance and Chef are continually under the influence of drugs. Lance in particular smears his face with camouflage paint and becomes withdrawn. The next day the boat is fired upon by an unseen enemy in the trees, killing Mr. Clean and making Chief even more hostile toward Willard. Ambushed again, by Montagnard warriors, they return fire despite Willard's objections. Chief is impaled with a spear and tries to pull Willard onto the spearhead before dying. Afterwards, Willard confides in the two surviving crew members about the mission and they reluctantly agree to continue upriver, where they find the banks littered with mutilated bodies. Arriving at Kurtz's outpost at last, Willard takes Lance with him to the village, leaving Chef behind with orders to call an airstrike on the village if they do not return.
In the camp, the two soldiers are met by an American freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), who manically praises Kurtz's genius. As they proceed, Willard and Lance see corpses and severed heads scattered about the temple that serves as Kurtz's living quarters and encounter Colby, who is nearly catatonic. Willard is bound and brought before Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the darkened temple, where Kurtz derides him as an errand boy. Meanwhile, Chef prepares to call in the airstrike but is kidnapped. Later imprisoned, Willard screams helplessly as Kurtz drops Chef's severed head into his lap. After some time, Willard is released and given the freedom of the compound. Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, humanity and civilization while praising the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong. Kurtz discusses his son and asks that Willard tell his son everything about him in the event of his death.
That night, as the villagers ceremonially slaughter a water buffalo, Willard enters Kurtz's chamber as Kurtz is making a tape recording, and attacks him with a machete. Lying mortally wounded on the ground, Kurtz whispers his final words "The horror ... the horror ..." before dying. Willard discovers substantial typed work of Kurtz's writings and takes it with him before exiting. Willard descends the stairs from Kurtz's chamber and drops his weapon. The villagers do likewise and allow Willard to take Lance by the hand and lead him to the boat. The two of them ride away as Kurtz's final words echo eerily.
Several actors who were, or later became, prominent stars have minor roles in the movie including Harrison Ford, G. D. Spradlin, Scott Glenn, R. Lee Ermey and Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne was only fourteen years old when shooting began in March 1976, and he lied about his age in order to get cast in his role. Apocalypse Now took so long to finish that Fishburne was seventeen (the same age as his character) by the time of its release.
Although inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the film deviates extensively from its source material. The novella, based on Conrad's experience as a steamboat captain in Africa, is set in the Congo Free State during the 19th century. Kurtz and Marlow (who is named Willard in the movie) work for a Belgian trading company that brutally exploits its native African workers.
When Marlow arrives at Kurtz's outpost, he discovers that Kurtz has gone insane and is lording over a small tribe as a god. The novella ends with Kurtz dying on the trip back and the narrator musing about the darkness of the human psyche: "the heart of an immense darkness".
In the novella, Marlow is the pilot of a river boat sent to collect ivory from Kurtz's outpost, only gradually becoming infatuated with Kurtz. In fact, when he discovers Kurtz in terrible health, Marlow makes an effort to bring him home safely. In the movie, Willard is an assassin dispatched to kill Kurtz. Nevertheless, the depiction of Kurtz as a god-like leader of a tribe of natives and his malarial fever, Kurtz's written exclamation "Exterminate the brutes!" (which appears in the film as "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them All!") and his last words "The horror! The horror!" are taken from Conrad's novella.
Coppola argues that many episodes in the film—the spear and arrow attack on the boat, for example—respect the spirit of the novella and in particular its critique of the concepts of civilization and progress. Other episodes adapted by Coppola, the Playboy Playmates' (Sirens) exit, the lost souls, "taking me home" attempting to reach the boat and Kurtz's tribe of (white-faced) natives parting the canoes (gates of Hell) for Willard, (with Chef and Lance) to enter the camp are likened to Virgil and "The Inferno" (Divine Comedy) by Dante. While Coppola replaced European colonialism with American interventionism, the message of Conrad's book is still clear.
Coppola's interpretation of the Kurtz character is often speculated to have been modeled after Tony Poe, a highly decorated Vietnam-era paramilitary officer from the CIA's Special Activities Division. Poe's actions in Vietnam and in the 'Secret War' in neighbouring Laos, in particular his highly unorthodox and often savage methods of waging war, show many similarities to those of the fictional Kurtz; for example, Poe was known to drop severed heads into enemy-controlled villages as a form of psychological warfare and use human ears to record the number of enemies his indigenous troops had killed. He would send these ears back to his superiors as proof of the efficacy of his operations deep inside Laos. Coppola denies that Poe was a primary influence and says the character was loosely based on Special Forces Colonel Robert B. Rheault, whose 1969 arrest over the murder of suspected double agent Thai Khac Chuyen in Nha Trang generated substantial contemporary news coverage.
In the film, shortly before Colonel Kurtz dies, he recites part of T. S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men". Not only is Kurtz in the novel characterized as "hollow at the core", the poem is preceded in printed editions by the epigraph "Mistah Kurtz – he dead", a quotation from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Two books seen opened on Kurtz's desk in the film are From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, the two books that Eliot cited as the chief sources and inspiration for his poem "The Waste Land". Eliot's original epigraph for "The Waste Land" was this passage from Heart of Darkness, which ends with Kurtz's final words:
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –"The horror! The horror!"
When Willard is first introduced to Dennis Hopper's character, the photojournalist describes his own worth in relation to that of Kurtz with: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas", from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".
While working as an assistant for Francis Ford Coppola on The Rain People, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg encouraged their friend and filmmaker John Milius to write a Vietnam War film. Milius came up with the idea for adapting the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War setting. He had read the novel when he was a teenager and was reminded about it by one of his college lecturers who had mentioned the several unsuccessful attempts to adapt it into a movie.[note 1]
Coppola gave Milius $15,000 to write the screenplay with the promise of an additional $10,000 if it were green-lit. Milius claims that he wrote the screenplay in 1969 and originally called it The Psychedelic Soldier. He wanted to use Conrad's novel as "a sort of allegory. It would have been too simple to have followed the book completely".
Milius based the character of Willard and some of Kurtz's on a friend of his, Fred Rexer, who had experienced, first-hand, the scene related by Marlon Brando's character wherein the arms of villagers are hacked off by the Viet Cong. Kurtz was based on Robert B. Rheault, head of special forces in Vietnam.
At one point, Coppola told Milius, "Write every scene you ever wanted to go into that movie", and he wrote ten drafts, amounting to over a thousand pages. Milius changed the film's title to Apocalypse Now after being inspired by a button badge popular with hippies during the 1960s that said "Nirvana Now". He was also influenced by an article written by Michael Herr titled, "The Battle for Khe Sanh", which referred to drugs, rock 'n' roll, and people calling airstrikes down on themselves. He was also inspired by such films as Dr Strangelove.
Milius says the classic line "Charlie don't surf" was inspired by a comment Ariel Sharon made during the Six Day War, when he went skin diving after capturing enemy territory and announced "We're eating their fish". He says the line "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning" just came to him.
Milius had no desire to direct the film himself and felt that Lucas was the right person for the job. Lucas worked with Milius for four years developing the film, alongside his work on other films, including his script for Star Wars. He approached Apocalypse Now as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after making THX 1138, with principal photography to start in 1971. Lucas' friend and producer Gary Kurtz traveled to the Philippines, scouting suitable locations. They intended to shoot the film in both the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, California and on-location in Vietnam, on a $2 million budget, cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on. However, due to the studios' safety concerns and Lucas' involvement with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas decided to shelve the project for the time being.
Coppola was drawn to Milius' script, which he described as "a comedy and a terrifying psychological horror story". In the spring of 1974, Coppola discussed with friends and co-producers Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson the idea of producing the film. He asked Lucas and then Milius to direct Apocalypse Now, but both men were involved with other projects; in Lucas' case, he got the go-ahead to make Star Wars, and declined the offer to direct Apocalypse Now. Coppola was determined to make the film and pressed ahead himself. He envisioned the film as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. The director said that he wanted to take the audience "through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war".
In 1975, while promoting The Godfather Part II in Australia, Coppola and his producers scouted possible locations for Apocalypse Now in Cairns in northern Queensland, that had jungle resembling Vietnam. He decided to make his film in the Philippines for its access to American equipment and cheap labor. Production coordinator Fred Roos had already made two low-budget films there for Monte Hellman, and had friends and contacts in the country. Coppola spent the last few months of 1975 revising Milius' script and negotiating with United Artists to secure financing for the production. According to Frederickson, the budget was estimated between $12–14 million. Coppola's American Zoetrope assembled $8 million from distributors outside the United States and $7.5 million from United Artists who assumed that the film would star Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Gene Hackman. Frederickson went to the Philippines and had dinner with President Ferdinand Marcos to formalize support for the production and to allow them to use some of the country's military equipment.
Steve McQueen was Coppola's first choice to play Willard, but the actor did not accept because he did not want to leave America for 17 weeks. Al Pacino was also offered the role but he too did not want to be away for that long a period of time and was afraid of falling ill in the jungle as he had done in the Dominican Republic during the shooting of The Godfather Part II. Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and James Caan were approached to play either Kurtz or Willard.
Coppola and Roos had been impressed by Martin Sheen's screen test for Michael in The Godfather and he became their top choice to play Willard, but the actor had already accepted another project and Harvey Keitel was cast in the role based on his work in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Principal photography began three weeks later. Within a few days, Coppola was unhappy with Harvey Keitel's take on Willard, saying that the actor "found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker". After viewing early footage, the director took a plane back to Los Angeles and replaced Keitel with Martin Sheen. By early 1976, Coppola had persuaded Marlon Brando to play Kurtz for an enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month's work on location in September 1976. Dennis Hopper was cast as a kind of Green Beret sidekick for Kurtz and when Coppola heard him talking nonstop on location, he remembered putting "the cameras and the Montagnard shirt on him, and we shot the scene where he greets them on the boat".
On March 1, 1976, Coppola and his family flew to Manila and rented a large house there for the five-month shoot. Sound and photographic equipment had been coming in from California since late 1975.
Typhoon Olga wrecked the sets at Iba and on May 26, 1976, production was closed down. Dean Tavoularis remembers that it "started raining harder and harder until finally it was literally white outside, and all the trees were bent at forty-five degrees". One part of the crew was stranded in a hotel and the others were in small houses that were immobilized by the storm. The Playboy Playmate set had been destroyed, ruining a month's shooting that had been scheduled. Most of the cast and crew went back to the United States for six to eight weeks. Tavoularis and his team stayed on to scout new locations and rebuild the Playmate set in a different place. Also, the production had bodyguards watching constantly at night and one day the entire payroll was stolen. According to Coppola's wife, Eleanor, the film was six weeks behind schedule and $2 million over budget.
Coppola flew back to the U.S. in June 1976. He read a book about Genghis Khan to get a better handle on the character of Kurtz. After filming commenced, Marlon Brando arrived in Manila very overweight and began working with Coppola to rewrite the ending. The director downplayed Brando's weight by dressing him in black, photographing only his face, and having another, taller actor double for him in an attempt to portray Kurtz as an almost mythical character.
After Christmas 1976, Coppola viewed a rough assembly of the footage but still needed to improvise an ending. He returned to the Philippines in early 1977 and resumed filming. On March 5, 1977, Sheen had a heart attack and struggled for a quarter of a mile to reach help. He was back on the set on April 19. A major sequence in a French plantation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but was cut from the final film. Rumors began to circulate that Apocalypse Now had several endings but Richard Beggs, who worked on the sound elements, said, "There were never five endings, but just the one, even if there were differently edited versions". These rumors came from Coppola departing frequently from the original screenplay. Coppola admitted that he had no ending because Brando was too fat to play the scenes as written in the original script. With the help of Dennis Jakob, Coppola decided that the ending could be "the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it's the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough".
A water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete for the climactic scene. The scene was inspired by a ritual performed by a local Ifugao tribe which Coppola had witnessed along with his wife (who filmed the ritual later shown in the documentary Hearts of Darkness) and film crew. Although this was an American production subject to American animal cruelty laws, scenes like this filmed in the Philippines were not policed or monitored and the American Humane Association gave the film an "unacceptable" rating. Principal photography ended on May 21, 1977.
In the summer of 1977, Coppola told Walter Murch that he had four months to assemble the sound. Murch realized that the script had been narrated but Coppola abandoned the idea during filming. Murch thought that there was a way to assemble the film without narration but it would take ten months and decided to give it another try. He put it back in, recording it all himself. By September, Coppola told his wife that he felt "there is only about a 20% chance [I] can pull the film off". He convinced United Artists executives to delay the premiere from May to October 1978. Author Michael Herr received a call from Zoetrope in January 1978 and was asked to work on the film's narration based on his well-received book about Vietnam, Dispatches. Herr said that the narration already written was "totally useless" and spent a year writing various narrations with Coppola giving him very definite guidelines.
Murch had problems trying to make a stereo soundtrack for Apocalypse Now because sound libraries had no stereo recordings of weapons. The sound material brought back from the Philippines was inadequate, because the small location crew lacked the time and resources to record jungle sounds and ambient noises. Murch and his crew fabricated the mood of the jungle on the soundtrack. Apocalypse Now had novel sound techniques for a movie, as Murch insisted on recording the most up-to-date gunfire and employed the Dolby Stereo 70 mm Six Track system for the 70mm release. This used two channels of sound from behind the audience as well as three channels of sound from behind the movie screen. The 35mm release used the new Dolby Stereo optical stereo system, that has a single surround channel and three screen channels.
In May 1978, Coppola postponed the opening until spring of 1979 and screened a "work in progress" for 900 people in April 1979 that was not well received. That same year, he was invited to screen Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival. United Artists were not keen on showing an unfinished version in front of so many members of the press but Coppola remembered that The Conversation won the Palme d'Or and agreed, less than a month prior to the start of the festival, to screen Apocalypse Now at Cannes. The week prior to Cannes, Coppola arranged three sneak previews of slightly different versions. He allowed critics to attend the screenings and believed that they would honor the embargo placed on reviews. On May 14, Rona Barrett reviewed the film on television and called it "a disappointing failure". At Cannes, Zoetrope technicians worked during the night before the screening to install additional speakers on the theater walls, to achieve Murch's 5.1 soundtrack. On August 15, 1979 Apocalypse Now was released in the U.S. in 15 theaters equipped to play the first Dolby Stereo 70mm film with stereo surround sound.
At the time of its release, many rumors surrounded the ending of Apocalypse Now. Coppola stated an ending was written in haste in which Willard and Kurtz joined forces and repelled the air strike on the compound; however, Coppola never fully agreed with the two going out in apocalyptic intensity, preferring to end the film in a more encouraging manner.
When Coppola originally organized the ending of the movie, he had two choices. One involved Willard leading Lance by the hand as everyone in Kurtz's base throws down their weapons, and ends with images of Willard's boat pulling away from Kurtz's compound superimposed over the face of a stone idol which then fades into black. Another option showed an air strike being called and the base being blown to bits in a spectacular display, consequently killing everyone left within it.
The original 1979 70mm exclusive theatrical release ended with Willard's boat, the stone statue, then fade to black with no credits, save for '"Copyright 1979 Omni Zoetrope"' right after the film ends. This mirrors the lack of any opening titles and supposedly stems from Coppola's original intention to "tour" the film as one would a play: the credits would have appeared on printed programs provided before the screening began.
There have been, to date, many variations of the end credit sequence, beginning with the 35mm general release version, where Coppola elected to show the credits superimposed over shots of Kurtz's base exploding. Rental prints circulated with this ending, and can be found in the hands of a few collectors. Some versions of this had the subtitle "A United Artists release", while others had "An Omni Zoetrope release". The network television version of the credits ended with "...from MGM/UA Entertainment Company" (the film made its network debut shortly after the merger of MGM and UA). One variation of the end credits can be seen on both YouTube and as a supplement on the current Lionsgate Blu-ray.
In any case, when Coppola heard that audiences interpreted this as an air strike called by Willard, Coppola pulled the film from its 35 mm run, and put credits on a black screen. (However, prints with the "air strike" footage continued to circulate to "repertory" theatres well into the 1980s.) In the DVD commentary, Coppola explains that the images of explosions had not been intended to be part of the story; they were intended to be seen as completely separate from the film. He had added them to the credits because he had captured the footage during the demolition of the sets (required by the Philippine government), which was filmed with multiple cameras fitted with different film stocks and lenses to capture the explosions at different speeds.
In 2001, Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux in cinemas and subsequently on DVD. This is an extended version that restores 49 minutes of scenes cut from the original film. Coppola has continued to circulate the original version as well: the two versions are packaged together in the Complete Dossier DVD, released on August 15, 2006 and in the Blu-ray edition released on October 19, 2010.
The longest section of added footage in the Redux version is a chapter involving the de Marais family's rubber plantation, a holdover from the colonization of French Indochina, featuring Coppola's two sons Gian-Carlo and Roman as children of the family. These scenes were removed from the 1979 cut, which premiered at Cannes. In behind-the-scenes footage in Hearts of Darkness, Coppola expresses his anger, on the set, at the technical aspects of the shot scenes, the result of tight allocation of resources. At the time of the Redux version, it was possible to digitally enhance the footage to accomplish Coppola's vision. In the scenes, the French family patriarchs argue about the positive side of colonialism in Indochina and denounce the betrayal of the military men in the First Indochina War. Hubert de Marais argues that French politicians sacrificed entire battalions at Điện Biên Phủ, and tells Willard that the US created the Viet Cong (as the Viet Minh), to fend off Japanese invaders.
Other added material includes extra combat footage before Willard meets Kilgore, a humorous scene in which Willard's team steals Kilgore's surfboard (which sheds some light on the hunt for the mangoes), a follow-up scene to the dance of the Playboy playmates, in which Willard's team finds the playmates awaiting evacuation after their helicopter has run out of fuel (trading two barrels of fuel for two hours with the Bunnies), and a scene of Kurtz reading from a Time magazine article about the war, surrounded by Cambodian children.
A deleted scene titled "Monkey Sampan" shows Willard and the PBR crew suspiciously eyeing an approaching sampan juxtaposed to Montagnard villagers joyfully singing "Light My Fire" by The Doors. As the sampan gets closer, Willard realizes there are monkeys on it and no helmsman. Finally, just as the two boats pass, the wind turns the sail and exposes a naked dead civilian tied to the sail boom. His body is mutilated and looks as though the man had been whipped. The singing stops. It is assumed the man was tortured by the Viet Cong. As they pass on by, Chief notes out loud, "That's comin' from where we're going, Captain." The boat then slowly passes the giant tail of a shot down B-52 bomber as the noise of engines way up in the sky is heard. Coppola said that he made up for cutting this scene by having the PBR pass under an airplane tail in the final cut.
A three-hour version of Apocalypse Now was screened as a "work in progress" at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and met with prolonged applause. At the subsequent press conference, Coppola criticized the media for attacking him and the production during their problems filming in the Philippines and famously uttered, "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane", and "My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam". The filmmaker upset newspaper critic Rex Reed who reportedly stormed out of the conference. Apocalypse Now won the Palme d'Or for best film along with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum - a decision that was reportedly greeted with "some boos and jeers from the audience".
Apocalypse Now performed well at the box office when it opened in August 1979. The film initially opened in one theater in New York City, Toronto, and Hollywood, grossing USD $322,489 in the first five days. It ran exclusively in these three locations for four weeks before opening in an additional 12 theaters on October 3, 1979 and then several hundred the following week. The film grossed over $78 million domestically with a worldwide total of approximately $150 million.
The film was re-released on August 28, 1987 in six cities to capitalize on the success of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and other Vietnam War movies. New 70mm prints were shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, and Cincinnati — cities where the film did financially well in 1979. The film was given the same kind of release as the exclusive engagement in 1979 with no logo or credits and audiences were given a printed program.
Upon its release, Apocalypse Now received near-universal critical acclaim. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin wrote, "as a noble use of the medium and as a tireless expression of national anguish, it towers over everything that has been attempted by an American filmmaker in a very long time".
Ebert added Coppola's film to his list of Great Movies, stating: "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. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover".
Various commentators have debated whether Apocalypse Now is an anti-war or pro-war film. Some commentators' evidence of the film's anti-war message include the purposeless brutality of the war, the absence of military leadership, and the imagery of machinery destroying nature. Advocates of the film's pro-war stance, however, view these same elements as a glorification of war and the assertion of American supremacy. According to Frank Tomasulo, “the U.S. foisting its culture on Vietnam,” including the destruction of a village so that soldiers could surf, affirms the film's pro-war message. Additionally, a Marine named Anthony Swofford recounted how his platoon watched Apocalypse Now before being sent to Iraq in 1990 in order to get excited for war. According to Coppola, the film may be considered anti-war, but is even more anti-lie: “...the fact that a culture can lie about what's really going on in warfare, that people are being brutalized, tortured, maimed, and killed, and somehow present this as moral is what horrifies me, and perpetuates the possibility of war”.
In May 2011, a newly restored digital print of Apocalypse Now was released in UK cinemas, distributed by Optimum Releasing. Total Film magazine gave the film a five-star review, stating: "This is the original cut rather than the 2001 ‘Redux’ (be gone, jarring French plantation interlude!), digitally restored to such heights you can, indeed, get a nose full of the napalm."
Rotten Tomatoes ranked the film 99% "Certified Fresh" with an average rating of 8.9/10, and the stated consensus that "Francis Ford Coppola's haunting, hallucinatory Vietnam war epic is cinema at its most audacious and visionary".
Today, the movie is widely regarded by many as a masterpiece of the New Hollywood era, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest films of all time. Roger Ebert considered it to be the finest film on the Vietnam war and included it on his list for the 2002 Sight and Sound poll for the greatest movie of all time. It is on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies list at number 28, but it dropped two spots to number 30 on their 10th anniversary list. Kilgore's quote, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," written by Milius, was number 12 on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes list and was also voted the fourth greatest movie speech of all time in a 2004 poll. It is listed at number 7 on Empire's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Entertainment Weekly ranked Apocalypse Now as having one of the "10 Best Surfing Scenes" in cinema.
In 1981, shortly after introduction of martial law in Poland, a British-Polish photographer Chris Niedenthal took an iconic photo presenting a SKOT APC in front of Moscow Cinema (Kino Moskwa) with the film's poster behind it.
In 2002, Sight and Sound magazine polled several critics to name the best film of the last 25 years and Apocalypse Now was named number one. It was also listed as the second best war film by viewers on Channel 4's 100 Greatest War Films and was the second rated war movie of all time based on the Movifone list (after Schindler's List) and the IMDb War movie list (after The Longest Day). It is ranked number 1 on Channel 4's 50 Films to See Before You Die. In a 2004 poll of UK film fans, Blockbuster listed Kilgore's eulogy to napalm as the best movie speech. The helicopter attack scene with the Ride of the Valkyries soundtrack was chosen as the most memorable film scene ever by Empire magazine (although the same track was used earlier in 1915 to similar effect in the score written to accompany the silent film The Birth of a Nation). This scene is recalled in one of the last acts of the 2012 video game Far Cry 3 as the song is played while the character shoots from a helicopter.
In 2011, actor Charlie Sheen, son of Martin Sheen, started playing clips from the film on his live tour and played the film in its entirety during post-show parties. One of Charlie Sheen's films, the 1993 comedy Hot Shots! Part Deux, includes a brief scene in which Charlie is riding a boat up a river in Iraq while on a rescue mission and passes Martin, as Captain Willard, going the other way. As they pass, each man shouts to the other "I loved you in Wall Street!", referencing the 1987 film that had featured both of them. Additionally, the promotional material for Hot Shots! Part Deux included a mockumentary that aired on HBO titled Hearts of Hot Shots! Part Deux—A Filmmaker's Apology, in parody of the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, about the making of Apocalypse Now.
Marlon Brando was also ranked #4 of the Top 25 American male screen legends.
The first home video releases of Apocalypse Now were pan-and-scan versions of the original 35 mm Technovision anamorphic 2.35:1 print, and the closing credits, white on black background, were presented in compressed 1.33:1 full-frame format to allow all credit information to be seen on standard televisions. The first letterboxed appearance, on Laserdisc on December 29, 1991, cropped the film to a 2:1 aspect ratio (conforming to the Univisium spec created by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), and included a small degree of pan-and-scan processing at the insistence of Coppola and Storaro. The end credits, from a videotape source rather than a film print, were still crushed for 1.33:1 and zoomed to fit the anamorphic video frame. All DVD releases have maintained this aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen, but present the film without the end credits, which were treated as a separate feature. The Blu-ray releases of Apocalypse Now restore the film to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making it the first home video release to effectively display the film in its true aspect ratio; the theatrical release had an aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
As a DVD extra, the footage of the explosion of the Kurtz compound was featured without text credits but included commentary by Coppola, explaining the various endings based on how the film was screened.
On the cover of the Redux DVD, Willard is erroneously listed as "Lieutenant Willard".
Apocalypse Now – The Complete Dossier DVD (Paramount Home Entertainment) (2006) Disc 2 extras include:
The Post Production of Apocalypse Now: Documentary (four featurettes covering the editing, music and sound of the film through Coppola and his team)
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