When the lights came up, the audience sat stunned, not quite knowing what to think of what they had just experienced. As we rose to exit the old University Theatre on Bloor Street in downtown Toronto, you could see the stunned looks on the faces of the audience as we moved out of the cinema. I found my way to the box office and paid for another ticket to see the next show, but first I made a call to my father. I told him I had just seen Apocalypse Now (1979) and knew I no longer wanted to be an actor, I wanted to write about film, I wanted to spread the word about films like this.
Two hours and forty-five minutes earlier, the lights had gone down and on the screen was a jungle scene, the palm trees gently blowing in the breeze. You were at once hypnotized by the strange green beauty of the nature. Sounds were heard, an electronic chopping sound and suddenly helicopters appeared in the frame and the jungle exploded into flames as Jim Morrison moaned mournfully on the soundtrack The End, the first words of the song being …this is the end…and at that moment we were plunged into the nightmare that would be Apocalypse Now (1979). You wanted to look away from the inferno, but could not, and gradually the nightmare had a face superimposed on it upside down, a man…Willard.
For three years I had been hearing about the film as reports came from the set that the shot was hell on earth, that Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola had made a terrible mistake by deciding to make the film. Worse he made the decision to shoot the film in the Philippines where he encountered wild weather and a war going on in the hills. The shoot was fraught with all sort of issues, beginning with the firing of actor Harvey Keitel cast as Willard, who was replaced by Martin Sheen who then suffered a massive, near fatal heart attack during the shoot, so serious he was administered the last rites. Sheen returned several weeks later and finished the film, but then Brando showed up hugely overweight and having not read the script..or so he said. He certainly knew enough about the character to spend hours discussing the role with Coppola on the set. Not the only actor to make waves, Dennis Hopper was doing every drug known to man at that time and was in very bad shape, argumentative and spaced out most of the time, which comes across in his frantic (however brilliant) performance.
The problems did not end there, as typhoons wiped out the sets of the Kurtz compound, the helicopters on loan from the government were routinely called off to fight the rebels, and the script was constantly be revised, especially during the Brando scenes. This of course was all documented by Eleanor Coppola and would later become the stunning documentary Hearts of Darkness (1990), possibly the greatest film ever made about the making of a movie.
Three years after filming began, Coppola announced the film would have its première at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival as an unfinished film, a work in progress he termed it. With all of Hollywood watching, waiting for his failure, the film unspooled to more than twenty-five hundred critics, industry types and world press. It is the only time in my lifetime I can remember a film being front page news, but the next day the papers screamed the audience reaction to Apocalypse Now (1979).