Born Detroit 1939. Studied UCLA 1960-62. MA Cinema 1968. Career in film begins as technician for Roger Corman 1962; employed as scriptwriter 1964; founded production company American Zoetrope in San Francisco 1969; produces George ("Star Wars") Lucas first film "THX 1138" (1971); directs theatre and opera in San Francisco 1972. Academy Awards for best screenplays ("Patton" 1970; "The Godfather" 1972; "The Godfather II" 1974); Academy Awards for best direction ("The Godfather" 1972; "The Godfather II" 1974).

Films: assorted porno films in early 1960s; "Finian's Rainbow" (1968); "The Godfather" trilogy (1972-74); "The Conversation" (1974); "Apocalypse Now" (1979); "One from the Heart" (1981); "The Outsiders" (1983); "Rumble Fish" (1983); "The Cotton Club" (1984); "Gardens of Stone" (1987); "Tucker: A Man and his Dream" (1988); "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).


The Novel

Based upon Joseph Conrad's story "Heart of Darkness" (1898-99) about the journey upriver (Congo) of the Englishman Marlow to meet ivory hunter Kurtz at the Company outpost. Theme of the "mission civilisatrice" of the white man in the African darkness; the corruption of the white man by the savagery of Africa increases as one travels upstream; perhaps unintended reversal with the corruption (darkness) which lies in the heart of the colonialist white man being imposed upon Aftrica.


Meaning of the Title

Reference to the last book of the New Testament (Revelations of St. John the Divine) in which a revelation or knowledge of the future is "revealed"(or uncovered) to John. One of the most important aspects of this revelation is of the "last battle" (Armageddon Rev. 16.16) in which the forces of good and evil are set against each other prior to the final day of judgemenr. The suggestion seems to be that Vietnam was an apocalyptic moment for the US: struggle of good (democracy and capitalism) vs evil (communism); day of judgement however seems to have gone against the US. The two different endings of the film suggest FFC could not decide on the form the "last battle" would take: the TV version ends with an air strike on Kurtz's base; the cinematic and LD version ends with the hacking to death by machete of both Kurtz and a sacrifical cow. Note the grafitit on the steps of the temple in Kurtz's compound - "Apocalypse Now. Ambiguous interpretations of title (satirical reference to "Peace Now" chant of anti-war demonstrators, or warning that American intervention in VN has brought on the apocalypse and day of judgement (for whom? the VN or the Americans?))


  • Marlon Brando - Col. Walter E. Kurtz
  • Robert Duvall - Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore
  • Martin Sheen - Capt. Benjamin Willard
  • Frederic Forrest - Chef
  • Albert Hall - Chief
  • Sam Bottoms - Lance
  • Larry Fishburne - Clean
  • Dennis Hopper - Photo-journalist
  • G.D. Spradlin - the General
  • Harrison Ford - the Colonel
  • Scott Glenn - the civilian (CIA?)
  • Tom Mason
  • Cyndi Wood - 1974 Playmate of the Year
  • Linda Carpenter & Colleen Camp - other bunnies

Original screenplay by John Milius (1969) with later additions by FFC. Narration written by Michael Herr ("Dispatches").

FFC began work on AN 1975 - year SVN collapsed and NVN takeover began. During production AN was touted as the definitive Vietnam war movie which would help "heal" America over its loss in VN. Much about the film parallels the problems and confusions of America's involvement in VN:

  • filmed on location in Philippines during anti-communist insurgency. Helicopters from Philippines air force often disappeared from film shoot to "shoot" for real in jungle
  • cost overruns ($12m -$31m) and administrative problems almost destroyed project - hurricane Olga, heart attack of Sheen, Brando's late arrival, weight problems (285 lbs), high fee and refusal to learn lines; hospitalisation of FFC for malnutrition and dehydration
  • FFC's arrogance and conviction he could handle project. Stated at Cannes Film Festival 1979, thus comparing his film with the VN war itself: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and, little by little, we went insane." (quoted in Fitzgerald, p. 285).
  • Began project with no clear idea of how to end it, rewrites continued until last minute, improvisation when Brando arrived, FFC filmed 2 different endings (pro-war apocalyptic ending with bombing of Kurtz's base (VHS and TV version); anti-war ending where Willard drops machete and leaves (70 mm and LD version))

Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a much decorated soldier and rising star of the military establishment (modelled on Hackworth?) who becomes a renegade Green Beret fighting a private war with the assistance of Montagnard tribespeople (not ethnic VN). The US military send a Special Forces assassin Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) to find Kurtz and kill him (Orwellian euphemism - "terminate with extreme prejudice"). W travels upriver in a gunboat with a four-man crew to find K. Along the way W reads the dossier on K prepared by military intelligence and discovers what K has become. The journey upriver also enables FFC to reveal the nature of the VN war in a series of spectacular episodes:

  • Lt Col Kilgore's (Robert Duvall) air cavalry attack on a VN village, the "psy war" use of loud music of Wagner to scare the VN, seizing a beach in order to surf a unique wave formation, the airstrike which napalms the tree line
  • the ex-saucier from New Orleans "Chef" who goes looking for mangoes in the jungle and comes across a tiger
  • the USO show at Hau Phat in the middle of the jungle, starring 3 Playboy "bunnies" who have to be rescued by helicopter when the sex-starved soldiers storm the stage; Playmates dressed as cowboy, Indian, and cavalry.
  • the massacre of the civilians on board the sampan, W's execution of a survivor
  • the leaderless soldiers defending and rebuilding the bridge at Do Lung, the hallucinatory light show
  • the Montagnard attack on the boat with bows and arrows
  • the arrival at the Kurtz Compound (the "heart of darkness"), greeting by the journo (Dennis Hopper), the bald-headed philosophising K


Frances Fitzgerald,"Apocalypse Now" in Past Imperfect: History according to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), pp. 284-287.


1. Historical references: the US program of assassinating suspected communist military and political village leaders - Operation Phoenix; Kurtz figure based upon Col. David Hackworth, About Face (Sydney: Pan, 1990) most decorated living American soldier who denounced conduct of war from front and went into exile in Australia; sampan massacre reference to Lt Calley and My Lai massacre of 1968; the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

2. Historical fabrications: no use of spears or bows and arrows against Americans (although some booby traps used sharpened bamboo spikes); VC did not hack off arms of innoculated children (compare "Deer Hunter"'s references to Russian roulette on POWs); no Montagnards in Cambodia (Laos); cannot sail upriver to Cambodia from central VN (mountain chain in the way); can sail up Mekong but no jungle, rice paddies.

3. Kurtz and Willard are virtual doubles (Doppelgänger), father and son, in telling his story (W) he also tells K's story, in one version of film W assumes K's position as leader after he kills him, K asks W to tell his son all about him when he returns to US

4. The music used to accompany the images on screen - The Doors, "This is the End"; Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (in Norse myth Valkyries were the maidens of Odin, rode through air in armour, chose the warriors who were to be victorious on battlefield and those who were to die, then conducted the dead warriors to Valhalla; link to Hitler's adoption of Wagner's operas as semi-official music of Nazism); Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as they steam upriver. History copied film: journalists waiting for US helicopters to land during invasion of Haiti hummed "Ride of the Valkyries" (Fitzgerald, p. 284).

5. Image of the helicopter and its association with VN war in movies. The First Air Cavalry Division pioneered a new form of air assault tactics in early 1960s and used very effectively in VN.

6. Religious references: Apocalypse in Book of Revelation in New Testament, W "for my sins they gave me a mission", Operation Archangel (K's private war against the VC), ritual slaughter of ox (and K with similar weapon, intercut), statues of Buddha; apotheosis of Kurtz by tribespeople

7. Literary references: the books K is reading (Holy Bible; James Frazer, The Golden Bough; Jesse L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance; ); the poems he quotes (T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" and "The Hollow Men" which ends with a quote from Conrad's story - "Mistuh Kurtz, he dead" and Kipling's "If..." about becoming a man) and the book he is writing (over-written on a page is his final suggestion "Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them All", i.e. "nuke 'em"). Co-wrtiter Milius described W as an amalgam of Adam, Faust, Dante, Aeneas, Huckleberry Finn, Jesus Christ, the Ancient Marriner, Capt. Ahab, Odysseus, Oedipus.

8. References to journalists who covered VN war: cameo appearance of FFC as cameraman on beach during Kilgore's attack urging troops "Don't look at the camera. Just go by as if you're fighting"; Michael Herr wrote narration, book Dispatches (1977)

9. Issue of madness (Heller's "Catch-22"): is K mad or is he the only one to see clearly enough what has to be done to win; are the senior officers who order the assassination of K mad or not; reference to madness at home with Manson killings, are VC mad to cut off arms of innoculated children?.

10. References to American wars against the Indians in 19thC: air "cavalry", Kilgore's hat, Playboy bunnies dressed as cowboy, Indian, cavalry.

11. Idea of Quest: drawn from Arthurian legend, hero pursue "fallen" Black knight (i.e. Kurtz)

12. Image of fire (napalm) and water (rain, river): Kilgore "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It is the smell of victory", Kilgore offering water bottle to injured VC soldier, turns away as napalm explodes in background; waves which "break" both ways" on beach (amivalence)

13. 2 different versions of the film's ending. 35mm version has massive air attack called in by W on K's Compound combined with VC attack as final credits roll (K's last wish "Drop the Bomb"). Biggest staged explosion ever conducted for film.

14. Brilliant photography by Vittorio Storaro, especially Kilgore's helicopter attack on the village which critic Dunagan describes as "perhaps the most spectacular battle sequence ever filmed".

15. Idea that all soldiers are assassins (W - accusing K of murder was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500) and renegades (from civilisation)

16. Problem of leadership: K goes off on his own because disillusioned with US command decisions, no-one in charge at Do Long bridge, no one willing or able to make the "hard decisions", K's admiration for "crystalline purity" of VC decision to cut off arms of innoculated children. Is FFC suggesting US might have won if they had had better (i.e. more ruthless) leadership?

17. Ambiguity of FFC's interpretation of the VN war. Anti-war apsects include: interpretation of title as warning of apocalyptic logic of VN war (moral corruption of those involved, massacre of civilians), depiction of the absurdity of war (surfing, Playboy bunnies), cultural imperialism of US (radios blaring Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" in the jungle), both W and K have gone beyond laws of war, insanity of leadership (Kilgore), lack of clear purpose of US soldiers, contribution of Herr . Pro-war aspects include: satirical interpretation of title, the alternate ending of the final bombing which destroys them all, excitement of the battle sequences (Kilgore) which US always wins, faceless VN villagers vs agony of injured US soldier, K's insights into nature of conflict are correct but hampered by unwilling leadership ("four star clowns"), contribution of Milius ("Red Dawn" (1984)).

18. Ambiguity captured in visual form with use of light and shade: General tells W "There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational (head turns to dark side) and the irrational (head turns to light), between good and evil, and good does not always triumph"; emergence of K's bald head out of darkness into light

19. The meaning of K's final words - "The horror, the horror"