For its first four minutes, Apocalypse Now is basically a music video for The Doors’ “The End” — possibly, though this is impossible to calculate or verify, the most expensive music video ever made. For a stretch nothing seems to be happening; we get static shots of a peaceful jungle, the only movement that of leaves swaying in the breeze. At :25 a military helicopter flies through the frame from left to right and some colored smoke appears, gradually intensifying until, at 1:15, Jim Morrison’s voice comes in and the jungle explodes into flame. And so it begins.
The first human face we see is Martin Sheen’s (or is it Captain Willard’s? — more on that later), upside-down, superimposed over what’s left of the jungle as flames leap and flare. The implication is clear: His head is in the jungle, and the jungle is on fire. His body, however, is in a hotel room in Saigon, and that is the first word spoken in Apocalypse Now: “Saigon,” says Sheen/Willard in voiceover at 4:20. “Shit. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle.”
Before we go any further, it’s worth asking the question, whose face are we looking at here? Captain Willard is the character, Martin Sheen is the actor; but at some level, more so than in most movies, they are one and the same. At one point in Hearts of Darkness, Sheen says:
I said to (Francis Ford Coppola), “I don’t know who this guy is. Who is this Willard?” And Francis just looked me square in the eye and he said, “He’s you. Whoever you are. Whatever we’re filming at the time. You are that character.”
Willard is an odd character in that he is clearly the movie’s protagonist — its journey is his journey, and he is in every scene — but he is in some ways a cipher. An ex-wife is mentioned in this opening scene, and a photo of her is glimpsed briefly before being burned with a cigarette. Much later it is mentioned that he’s from Toledo, but we never find out much about him; does he have passions, education, kids, political or religious beliefs, etc.?
But there is a reason for this, I think — because for the duration of the movie, Willard is us, the audience. He is intentionally left blank in many respects so we can project ourselves onto him, experience things through him. With the voiceover, it’s like we’re living in his head. Especially in this opening scene, where he is alone in his room, surrounded by the detritus of his life, a lost soul. “Waiting,” as he says, “for a mission.”
This sensation is a familiar one to those of us who have spent periods of our lives adrift, looking for a direction. Willard is an extreme case, no doubt; a man who has seen and done unspeakable things, who no longer has a home to go to, no longer has an identity outside of whatever his superiors have in mind for him. But still — I can relate.
Willard is a soldier and needs a battle to fight, so left alone with his thoughts, he ends up at war with himself. The closing minutes of this sequence — showing him drunk and naked, prancing, howling, smashing a mirror, bleeding, and weeping — are difficult to watch, especially after you see Hearts of Darkness and learn that this is not “acting” as we generally understand the term. That blood you see is not movie blood.
“I was in a chaotic spiritual state,” Sheen says, and Coppola took advantage of this by getting him drunk and pointing the camera at him without telling him what to do. In HoD we see the parts that didn’t make it into Apocalypse Now, where Sheen lays back across the bed, crying and dripping blood, and moans “My heart is broken.” Then he turns angry and looks ready to attack the camera and/or director, who could with some justification be accused of exploiting his personal pain for the sake of the movie. But, says Sheen,
Francis tried to stop it. And he called for a doctor, there was a nurse standing by. And I said no, let it go. I want to have this out right here and now. It had to do with facing my worst enemy: myself.
An interesting sidenote here is that the man Sheen replaced in the part of Willard, Harvey Keitel, would later appear in a very similar scene in Bad Lieutenant that became notorious in its own right. In retrospect, it seems like Sheen was destined to play Willard, but it truth Coppola had a very difficult time casting the part. Initially he wanted to use a bankable star, perhaps thinking that this would help him raise money. The role of Willard was offered to Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson, all of whom turned it down. There were even rumors Clint Eastwood was interested (think about that one for a minute — imagine what a different movie Apocalypse Now would have been with Clint Eastwood — or any of those guys for that matter). In the end Keitel got the part, but after a week of shooting Coppola decided that he wasn’t cutting it and opted to start over with a new lead actor.
This is one of many parallels between Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which Jason Robards was replaced by Klaus Kinski (in this case because he was unable to withstand the physical rigors of the shoot). Fitzcarraldo is also the subject of a great making-of documentary, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. But that is a whole other tangle of thread, and I have enough to deal with here, so I think that’s planty for today.