Sometimes life imitates art in the worst possible way. To make his Vietnam War epic — about a Green Beret colonel who goes into the jungle, be-comes a godlike chieftain, and loses his mind — Francis Ford Coppola led his cast and crew into the wilds of the Philippines for more than a year and, yes, almost lost his mind. Like the Vietnam War, the project took longer, cost more, and suffered greater losses than expected; unlike that conflict, the outcome was critically acclaimed. Finally released Aug. 15, 1979, Apocalypse Now would earn eight Oscar nominations and gross over $84 million.
Coppola signed on to the film, conceived by screenwriter John Milius in 1967 as an update of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in 1970. By 1975, fresh off the success of his first two Godfather films, the director upped the budget from $1.5 million to $12 million, with a fourth of it going to Godfather star Marlon Brando for three weeks of work.
The location shoot finally started in 1976, and so did Coppola’s troubles. Steve McQueen had agreed to costar, then backed out; his replacement, Harvey Keitel, was fired after several days. Martin Sheen soon took over. Then virtually all the sets were destroyed when Typhoon Olga dumped 40 inches of rain on the region. When Brando finally arrived on set, he was 90 pounds overweight. Six months later, Sheen had a heart attack and was out for six weeks. (Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, chronicled the director’s travails in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness.)
”Francis said, ‘This is going to be the first movie to win a Nobel Prize,”’ recalls Milius. Coppola spent many a $60,000 day reworking a script that had already been through 11 drafts. Costs ballooned, pushing the budget to a then-astronomical $31.5 million; to raise $16 million, Coppola mortgaged his own home. He shot well over a million feet of film, but, like the American army before him, he couldn’t figure out how to end his Vietnam struggle. Finally, the director entered a preliminary version of Apocalypse in the 1979 Cannes film festival, where winning the Palme d’Or helped compensate for no Nobel.