You look at the planned shooting script of Apocalypse Now, and that ending just blows you away. It would have been a battle extravaganza, tinged with LSD and morphine, and protagonists warring against both sides. That's what John Milius was looking for—a big, beautiful blow-out of a night fighting scene, not unlike the big cavalry charge at the end of a Western—The Alamo with a happier ending. Day-glo carnage.
But Marlon Brando arrived in the Phillipines overweight—his mass had ballooned since his recent relatively svelte appearances in The Missouri Breaks and Superman. Brando had shaved his head, and was extremely shy about being photographed heavy. And his character, Colonel Kurtz, was supposed to be in shape, frail but, with a long scraggly head of blonde hair. Nor had Brando read the script, or its source, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." For his several million dollar salary (in exchange for his presence to acquire investors), Brando merely showed up, completely unready to play his part.
And Francis Ford Coppola, already hip-deep in a big muddy of an out-of-control movie shoot, only had him—his star attraction—for one week. Brando ultimately didn't like the script—Coppola was also having doubts about it—and so director and star hunkered down to try and re-shape the part of Kurtz to Brando's satisfaction and the ending of the film to Coppola's. With so much money at stake, it was a wild gamble with bad odds, but Coppola was never afraid of taking chances.
He devised a way of shooting Brando that was mostly in the shadows, hiding his body, while he and Martin Sheen—who'd already suffered a heart attack shooting the movie—discussed matters philosophical. After the intense journey, it was a disappointment to sit through a series of disjointed chats where you barely saw Brando. But even a shadow-Brando can do some interesting things—the tightening fist after Willard calls him insane, the way he pushes through the shadows like parting a curtain to finally reveal his face, the soft-pallette voice belying the threat of the man. It's an eerie, unsettling scene that pushes the bounds of absurdism at times.
But, it holds your gaze, challenging it. As Brando always did.
The Set-Up: After a long trip up the Nung River aboard a PBR with a slowly disintegrating crew (Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall and Sam Bottoms), Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has finally reached his destination—the Montagnard village in North Vietnam that is the base for Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who's been waging his own unauthorized war. Willard's mission: "terminate the Colonel's command...with extreme prejudice." At this point, he hasn't even had a chance to see the Colonel. He's just been a dossier, some blurred photographs, a whisper on a hissing tape recording. A ghost in the dark.
INT. KURTZ HEADQUARTERS - DAY
Willard, hands tied behind his back, is guided down a long corridor, followed by two Montagnards, both armed.
WILLARD (V.O.)It smelled like slow death in there.
WILLARD (V.O.) Malaria and nightmares. This was the end of the river, all right.
They turn into the main room. The natives indicate for Willard to kneel down on the floor. The CAMERA MOVES, REVEALING KURTZ lying in shadow on a bed. We will SEE him only in darkness and shadow throughout the scene.
KURTZ: Where you from, Willard?
WILLARD: I'm from Ohio, sir.
KURTZ: Were you born there?
WILLARD: Yes, sir.
WILLARD: Toledo, sir.
KURTZ: How far are you from the river?
WILLARD: The Ohio River, sir?
WILLARD: About two hundred miles.
KURTZ: I went down that river once when I was a kid. There's a place in the river, I can't remember...must have been a gardenia plantation, or a flower plantation at one time. It's all wild and overgrown now. But for...
KURTZ: ...about five miles, you'd think that heaven just fell on the earth, in the form of gardenias.
Kurtz reaches down and picks up a bowl full of water. He splashes water on his face and head.
KURTZ: Have you ever considered, any real freedoms?
KURTZ: Freedoms from the opinions of others.
KURTZ: Even the opinions of yourself.
KURTZ: Did they say why, Willard?
KURTZ: Why they wanted to terminate my command?
WILLARD: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
KURTZ: Well, it's no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?
WILLARD: They told me, that you had gone...totally insane.
WILLARD: And that your methods were unsound.
KURTZ: Are my methods unsound?
WILLARD: I don't see any method...at all, sir.
KURTZ: I expected someone like you. What did you expect?
Willard shakes his head.
KURTZ: Are you an assassin?
WILLARD: I'm a soldier.
We finally SEE KURTZ'S FACE.
KURTZ: You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks...
KURTZ:...to collect a bill.
Words by John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando and Michael Herr
Pictures by Vittorio Storaro and Francis Ford Coppola
Apocalypse Now is available (sometimes with the expanded Apocalypse Now Redux) on Miramax, Paramount and Lionsgate Home Video.