Hell on Earth: The Making of Apocalypse Now

“My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” announced Francis Ford Coppola to the gathered press before they viewed the masterpiece that is called Apocalypse Now. Few who worked on the shoot would disagree, especially Dennis Hopper who said afterwards “ I felt like I had fought in the war”.

The filming of Apocalypse Now was eventful to say the least. It has gone down in history as the most chaotic, hellish nightmare of a production that there has ever been.

Coppola, the director, was in up to his neck from the very start. He wanted Steve McQueen for the role of Willard, McQueen refused. He tried Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and Al Pacino. When they all refused, Coppola, at the end of his tether and roaring like a wounded bull, hurled his five Oscars out of his window.

Harvey Keitel was hired for the lead, but after a short time was fired. Martin Sheen took the main role, but he was struggling from the outset. In the midst of a complete personal alcoholic breakdown, he walked into the Apocalypse Now production set which was riddled with alcoholism, drug-binges, tropical diseases and monsoons.

One day early on, Sheen got completely shitfaced and ordered the crew to film him. He got aggressive, punching out mirrors and even tried to attack Coppola. The director kept rolling, and the footage is now in the scene with Martin Sheen sitting on the edge of his bed.

Martin Sheen has since described the making of Apocalypse Now as ʻChaos”, and even told friends back home that he generally believed he was going to die.

Shooting in the Philippines had itʼs own problems. Coppola got in trouble for filming the ritual killings of water buffalos, rogue tigers prowled the set at night, and the Philippine dictator President Marcos kept stealing their helicopters.


To his shock, he discovered that over-enthusiastic prop workers had decided to use real dead bodies in shots rather than dummies. this was only discovered when a pungent odour became too strong to ignore.

With Coppola making the script up as he went along, there was a lot of free time on the set of Apocalypse Now. Crew members described the crazy shoot as the result of too much money, too much time, too much drink and too much drugs. Little by little they all went insane. Actor Sam Bottoms, who played the surfer Lance Johnson, spent the whole shoot high on speed, LSD and marijuana.

Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse NowThings became much worse when the legend that was Marlon Brando arrived on set. He turned up drunk, weighing as much as an african elephant and having never looked at the script or read the book it was based on. After reading the script Coppola handed to him, Brando refused to do it. After much arguing, he agreed on the promise that he was shot entirely in shadow and could say whatever he liked. The next day he appeared on set having shaved his head bald.

Coppola lost over 100 pounds in weight, he threatened to commit suicide several times during the shoot and, when Martin Sheen was found crawling up the road having suffered a heart attack, he collapsed and had an epileptic seizure.

Things werenʼt improved by the typhoon that tore through the production destroying all the sets. More down time, which the crew put to good use. Parties at the hotel grew more infamous by the day. Swimming pools surrounded by bottles of beer and actors hurling themselves off the roof.

Amidst all the chaos, stood Dennis Hopper. The hippy hellraiser of Hollywood. A man who lived on a daily diet of a half gallon of rum, 28 beers and three ounces of cocaine. When Coppola asked him how he could help him with his role, Hopper replied “an ounce of cocaine”. The production team ended up supplying him throughout the filming.

Brando hated Hopper. He wouldnʼt appear with him even if they were in the same scene. They had to be shot separately. Eventually Brando told his director that they had used him for long enough, that if they needed more they could hire someone else. With that he got up and never came back.

An estimated 6-week schedule ended up taking 68 weeks to film.

So when Coppola said “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” You can understand where he was coming from.

For more info on the making of Apocalypse Now, check out the 1991 behind the scenes documentary called “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse“.

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  1. Kirstie at

    Give it a shot. Just read this article!

  2. jim carlin at

    the object of war is to take territory and create casualties this film does both

  3. Travis at

    I came here because Kirk Douglas died yesterday. I thought, “Was Michael Douglas in ‘Apocalyse Now’?” But no, it was Martin Sheen.

    The energy of that movie is intense – and dark. It makes sense that so many people that were involved in its making were in a dark place. It is a “natural” place for humankind since many of us see our dreams fail to become reality and then do not know why or why any of this is here.

    As Tom Stoppard has Guildenstern say: “To be told so little—to such an end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation——”

    But there is an explanation. The world was made by a good God, who we have rebelled against because we did not want to be ruled, even by God. He sent His Son, Who became like us and taught us truth and love. Then we killed Him. But in His death He paid the price of our crimes, so that through Him we may be reconciled to our Creator.

    He was risen from the dead, appeared to many of His followers, showed them that He had conquered death and sent them out to proclaim that good news to all the people of the earth. We are still doing that today.

    “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord (Jesus) will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)


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