Evolution of a Screenplay: ‘Apocalypse Now’

Last week I wrote about the screenplay for ‘The Birds’.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) was based on three things. The first was the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, by Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Marlowe, sent up the Congo River to bring back one of his company’s representatives who terrorizes the surrounding countryside looking for ivory. He is their best producer, but his methods, as our narrator discusses with his manager, are unsound.typewriter-726965_1280

These words are echoed, almost verbatim, in the screenplay written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, which serves as the second basis for the film.

Marlowe later learns that he was recommended by the same people who had recommended Mr. Kurtz, who he is being sent to retrieve.

Milius had been thinking about writing a screenplay about the war in Viet Nam for some time. One of his writing instructors had mentioned Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Milius read it. He decided that it would be the perfect basis for his film, about a colonel in Special Forces who violates chain of command by carrying out operations over the border in Cambodia without authorization, using an army of Montagnard villagers willing to do anything he orders.

The narrator of the screenplay is Captain Willard, sent up the Nong River to terminate the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’. He travels on a patrol boat with a crew of young men in an absurdist version of the military inspired in large part by Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). As Willard gets closer to his destination, as he delves deeper into the Colonel’s dossier, he discovers how much he has in common with this man he’s being sent to kill.

As in the book, there is a strong connection between the two men. It is symbolized by the river, in what William Faulkner described as the ‘Geologic umbilical’ in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’. And in the Milius/Coppola screenplay, this connection is so strong that the two men bond together for a climatic battle against the Viet Cong.

Wait. What?

That is the film as Milius originally conceived it. Milius wanted to write a war movie as much as he wanted to make a statement about the war. His politics are well-known. He wrote and produced the film ‘Red Dawn’ (1984) about a Soviet invasion of the United States. It was basically an NRA commercial, demonstrating how the invaders would use the registration system to track down and confiscate all firearms.

The early drafts of ‘Apocalypse Now’ have all the major set pieces seen in the final film, but with Milius’ original ending. In some cases scenes appear as written, in others they take place either in different places geographically or in different times within the flow of the film itself. There are some startling changes in terms of key pieces of dialog – and many of those that have become the most quotable in film history – which were originally delivered by other characters. Willard himself utters the now famous ‘Charlie don’t surf’ and ‘Someday…this war is gonna end.’

It is the river itself that is the third basis for the film. The production had been fraught with problems. Actor Harvey Keitel, originally cast to play Captain Willard, was replaced a couple of weeks into shooting. And then Martin Sheen had a heart attack, shutting down production. And then there was a typhoon. They worked when they could. While Sheen was unavailable, the cast and crew shot scenes that would later be edited with shots of Sheen. There are even some long shots of the patrol boat featuring an unidentifiable Keitel used in the final film.

As Coppola describes it, he had no ending. Even though he had started production with the script as written, he hadn’t been happy with that final battle scene. They were going to the location and Marlon Brando would be flying in for a million dollar week. And there was no ending. According to Coppola, by this point he’d shot everything that could be shot in the script. He had taken to leaving the script in his hotel room and bringing his original paperback copy of ‘Heart of Darkness’ to the set every day.

Brando’s monologues were worked out in detail ahead of time with Coppola. But in front of the camera it was all Brando improvising, both solo and with Sheen and, only rarely, Dennis Hopper. It is one of these exchanges where the lines from ‘Heart of Darkness’ occur, when Col. Kurtz tells Willard the generals think his methods are unsound.

It was on the river that Coppola finally came to terms with what had to happen. Willard had to carry out his mission. He had to kill Kurtz. The entire scene where the villagers sacrifice a water buffalo by brutally hacking it to death with machetes was something Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, discovered while visiting a neighboring village (Her excellent documentary, ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (1991) covers this in detail). And this is how Willard came to hack Kurtz to death in one of the most amazing scenes in film history.

Willard is more present in the film because of his narration. This was added after the film was shot. There was narration in the script, which Coppola recorded himself for use in editing, but he wasn’t happy with it. He knew of Michael Herr’s writing from the research Milius had done writing the screenplay (Herr is also one of the screenwriters credited for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ [1987]). Coppola asked Herr to write his own narration, following the script but hewing more towards the film as it had evolved during the production.

Years after the film was released, Coppola approached editor Walter Murch about creating a new version of the film, utilizing footage that had been shot at the time but which, for various reasons, had not been used in the final film. There are a number of smaller changes, including the addition of transitions between the ‘episodes’ of the film.

The main additions are a scene involving the crew of the patrol boat encountering the Playboy Bunnies from the show at a fuel depot, another in which the boat docks at a French rubber plantation, and one in which Willard steals Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard.

It’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it is necessarily a better movie. I found the scene in which Willard trades fuel for ‘time with the bunnies’ for the guys objectionable. It’s a scene straight out of the Milius screenplay though, as written, I found it not just objectionable, but totally missing the mark of the film in general.

Interestingly, Milius himself objects to the scene being restored to the film.

“The bunnies were like the Sirens in mythology,” he explained an interview. “Kilgore was the Cyclops, and the bunnies were the Sirens. To show less of them made them more mysterious.”

All three of the added scenes significantly alter our perception of Willard. The downright playfulness he exhibits stealing Kilgore’s board is unlike anything we’ve seen of him before. His sexual encounter with a beautiful French woman at the ghostly plantation and the pimping out of the bunnies shows a man who has needs beyond wanting a mission. The Willard of the original film was closed off. He even refuses the offer of a joint from the rest of the crew and then withdraws from them, literally drawing a curtain between them.