A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Apocalypse Now” 40 Years Of Smelling Napalm

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I Love The Smell Of Napalm In The Morning”. A 40th Anniversary Celebration Of Francis Ford Coppola’s Magnum Opus “Apocalypse Now”. With Four Versions Of The Film Available, Coppola Defied The Endless Troubled Production By Having Created The Evolution Of 5.1 Surround Sound. Along With Giving Us A Towering Masterpiece In Movie Making, That Still Has The Power To Completely Floor You. 

“My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam”.

-Francis Ford Coppola-


“Apocalypse Now” was one of the first projects developed by American Zoetrope, the production company director Francis Ford Coppola founded in 1969 with the objective of being able to make films outside of the Hollywood studio system. At the time “Apocalypse Now” was impossible to make without any of the studio’s support, and none of the studios were willing to invest in it, so Coppola had to wait until 1975, after the success of “The Godfather 1 & 2”, to finally be able to turn “Apocalypse Now” into the defining masterpiece that it is. “Apocalypse Now” is Coppola’s magnum opus and along with “The Godfather”, they are true cinematic masterpieces from one of the greatest filmmakers. 

In terms of sheer drama, no film’s production and post-production holds a candle to Coppola’s troubled production of “Apocalypse Now”. From the changing of the lead actor one month into shooting, to sets being destroyed by a typhoon two months after that, to the heart attack of his final casted lead actor Martin Sheen. To also having principal photography dragged on in it’s main shooting location in the Philippines (which Roger Corman advised that Coppola not do), as they spent 238 days over 14 months. It wasn’t finished by any stretch, with post-production lasting a still-record 26 months. Can’t forget to mention that Coppola was personally responsible for more than half of the $30 million budget. Thankfully when all was said and done, the film that was released on August 15, 1979 was well-received by the filmgoing public, but received mixed reactions by critics. 

Long time friend and collaborator of Coppola’s, director George Lucas was originally set to direct “Apocalypse Now” with a screenplay by John Milius, of which Lucas had a hand in the early development of the script. Lucas’ initial plan was to shoot the movie as a fake documentary on-location in South Vietnam while the war was still in progress. Francis Ford Coppola, who was scheduled to be the Executive Producer, tried to get the film made as part of a production deal with Warner Brothers. The deal fell through, and Coppola went on to direct “The Godfather” in 1972. 

By the time both men had become powerful enough in Hollywood to get the film made, Saigon had fallen and Lucas was off busy making “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” in 1977. In the meantime Milius was pitched the idea to direct “Apocalypse Now” but he had no interest in directing it. Lucas gave his blessing and said that Coppola should be the one to direct the film. However, Coppola and Lucas’s friendship was strained for a number of years over the fact Lucas was unable to direct the film and get it off the ground. 

“Apocalypse Now” is based off the Joseph Conrad book “Hearts Of Darkness”. Orson Welles was said to have wanted his first feature film to be an adaptation of the book. In 1939, he presented RKO with his one hundred seventy-four page script for the film, but the studio turned it down, feeling it would be too expensive. They asked Welles for a more conventional script, so Welles gave them his script for Oscar winner “Citizen Kane” in 1941. 

John Milius has explained how he had come up with the title “Apocalypse Now”. He says it was derived from a very popular tattoo among the hippie community of a peace sign that said “Nirvana Now”. Milius, by adding just a couple of extra lines, edited the peace symbol to make it look like a circle with a B52 bomber in the middle, and changed the slogan to “Apocalypse Now”.

During the shoot, which took place entirely in the Philippines, there was a communist revolution going on in the southern part of the country; a typhoon destroyed most of the sets; Martin Sheen, the lead actor, had a heart attack; and  Marlon Brando almost refused to take up his role as Colonel Kurtz and was overweight when he finally appeared on set. Production of “Apocalypse Now”  ended on May 21, 1977. For the actors and production crew, that was the end of a lengthy and painful process, but for Francis Ford Coppola and his post production crew, a long, difficult road still laid ahead.

It took Francis Ford Coppola nearly three years to edit the footage. Most of the dialogue was added in post-production. While working on his final edit, it became apparent extraneous noise, such as helicopters, left many scenes with unusable audio. Because of this Martin Sheen would be needed to tape several additional narrative voice-overs. Sheen ended up becoming busy and unable to perform his voice-overs, so Coppola called in Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez, whose voice sounded nearly identical, to perform the new narrative tracks. Joe was also used as a stand-in when Sheen suffered a heart attack during the shoot in 1976. His brother Joe was not credited for his work as a stand-in, nor for his voice-over work. In total Coppola shot nearly over 200 hours of footage.

Coppola had to also invest several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his house and Napa Valley winery to finish the film.

For Marlon Brando’s dialogue he improvised a lot of Kurtz’s dialogue, including an 18-minute speech, in which only two minutes survived the final cut. For those who heard the entire monologue, said that while some of it was incoherent, most of it was brilliant. At the end of the speech, Brando reportedly said to Francis Ford Coppola, “Francis, I’ve gone as far as I can go. If you need more, you can get another actor”. 

Brando was paid $1 million in advance. During filming Brando threatened to quit and keep the advance. Coppola had told his agent that he didn’t care, and if they couldn’t get Brando, they would try Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, or Al Pacino. Coppola in fact did ask Al Pacino to play Willard (the role that went to Martin Sheen), Pacino turned him down, saying, “I know what this is going to be like. You’re going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I’m gonna be down there in a swamp for five months”. The shoot ended up lasting 16 months.

Brando would turn up late, drunk, and was 88 pounds overweight. He admitted that he hadn’t read the script or Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness”, he had read Coppola’s script, and refused to initially do it. After several days of arguments over single lines of dialogue, Coppola agreed to do an ad-lib style script, with Brando while he was filmed mostly in shadows. Coppola had first originally approached Lee Marvin to play Colonel Kurtz.

According to Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando yelled at him over a simple misunderstanding. He then decided to deliberately antagonize Brando whenever he could. This resulted in Brando refusing to share the set with him, and the one scene they share together being shot on separate nights. So when Kurtz throws the book at Hopper’s photojournalist character and calls him a “mutt”, one can only assume that was Brando’s genuine feelings about him.

In one of the films earlier scenes where Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is alone in his hotel room was completely unscripted. Martin Sheen told the camera crew to just let the cameras roll. Sheen who was really drunk during the sequence punched the mirror which was real glass causing him to cut his thumb. Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Francis Ford Coppola. The crew was so disturbed that they wanted to stop shooting, but Sheen wanted to keep the cameras going. 

At the time he was fighting a drinking problem and his own personal issues. He got so caught up in the scene and his own inner struggles that he hit the mirror and went crazy. He believed that continuing the scene would help him face his problems. This was revealed later in a conversation with Coppola and Sheen, and has been shown in the Redux version. Substance abuse was rampant among the cast and crew. Even Dennis Hopper got a teenaged Laurence Fishburne, who was 14 at the time addicted to heroin.

Many actors were considered and wanted for Martin Sheen’s role of Willard. Steve McQueen was the first to turn down the role of Captain Willard. He had initially verbally agreed to play him when Francis Ford Coppola agreed to his salary of three million dollars. But after thinking about the fact the work would require several months of on-location shooting in the Philippine jungle, McQueen told Coppola he would rather play in a role which would require much less location work, as long as he would still be paid his full salary. Coppola, who was essentially self-financing the movie, simply could not afford it, and said no.

Clint Eastwood turned down the role because he felt the film was too dark. Jeff Bridges also auditioned. Harvey Keitel was initially cast as Willard and two weeks into shooting, Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen. According to Coppola, one piece of film with Keitel made it into the final cut; a shot from the distance of the river boat as it is moving through the water. Nick Nolte has said that he had never wanted a role more than that of Captain Willard, and was very disappointed when Francis Ford Coppola picked Harvey Keitel for the part. When Keitel was fired, Nolte thought the role was his, but Martin Sheen eventually won the role.

James Caan, wanted too much money for what was considered a minor part in the movie and Harrison Ford was eventually cast in the role. For Robert Duvall’s iconic character of Lieutenant Kilgore, his performance amounts to just eleven minutes. He ended up being the only Oscar-nominated performance in the film. 

Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez hung out on the set of the movie in the Phillipines with his father, during the filming of the movie. When casting for “The Outsiders” in 1983, Francis Ford Coppola remembered Estevez hanging out on set and wanted to cast him in “The Outsiders”. 

The famously opening tracking shot of the film was originally a discarded trim from the footage of the village napalm attack. While going through the trims, Francis Ford Coppola accidentally stumbled upon it and added it. He later said that having that trim complemented well with the The Doors song “The End” and the accompanying montage.

While the production was a troubled one, it’s a miracle it even got finished at all. As film buffs we should all be celebratory in the masterpiece that “Apocalypse Now” turned out to be, no matter which version Francis Ford Coppola has made available. After 40 years later it’s a revelation in filmmaking. 


Not only was “Apocalypse Now”, a landmark in movie making, it also gave birth to the creation of 5.1 surround sound. Surround sound is a technique for enriching the fidelity and depth of sound reproduction by using multiple audio channels from speakers that surround the listener, known as surround channels. 

Prior to surround sound, theater sound systems commonly had three “screen channels” of sound, from loudspeakers located in front of the audience at the left, center, and right. Surround sound adds one or more channels from loudspeakers behind the listener, able to create the sensation of sound coming from any horizontal direction (360° around the listener). Surround sound formats vary in reproduction and recording methods along with the number and positioning of additional channels. 

The most common surround sound specification, which was created for the release of “Apocalypse Now” is the 5.1 surround sound. It calls for 6 speakers: Center (C) in front of the listener, Left (L) and Right (R) at angles of 60° on either side of the center, and Left Surround (LS) and Right Surround (RS) at angles of 100–120°, plus a subwoofer whose position is not critical, but serves as the bass for the audio tracks. 

One of the greatest challenges was preparing the film for a release in the Dolby Stereo 70mm Six Track system. Long time Coppola collaborator Walter Murch’s previous work in films like “American Graffiti” and the Gene Hackman thriller “The Conversation”, had all been in mono and this was the first time he would be using the stereo format. At the time, Murch didn’t like stereo, he preferred mono and the purity associated with it and it was only due to Coppola’s insistence that the film ended up being mixed in stereo. 

Coming from a generation of filmmakers that was much more aware of the vital role sound could play in augmenting the depth and impact of a film, Coppola knew that “Apocalypse Now’s”  sound would be crucial in giving the movie the epic scope he was aiming for. Murch later agreed and stated: “At the time I looked at the way the film was shot and thought to myself, ‘Does he [Coppola] really need to do this?’ because there was so much else going on. But when I looked at it later, with the big Panavision visuals, I realized that the sound-track we ended up doing was the thing to do”. 

What Copolla was looking for was to complement the visuals with quadraphonic sound, having speakers in all four corners of the theatre. Knowing that wouldn’t be a challenge for large theatres, Murch contacted Dolby to develop a stereo surround system with enhanced super low frequencies. That meant having three front channels (left, centre, right), a subwoofer for the low frequencies and two surround channels (left and right). “Star Wars” was the first film to make use of extra low frequencies, with three screen channels and a surround channel, to better replicate the war in space. Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was the first to add a dedicated subwoofer for the low frequencies, and Richard Donner’s “Superman” was the first to split the surround array into left and right, therefore being the first movie presented to the public in stereo surround. However, “Apocalypse Now” was the first film to have a stereo surround format and it was initially expected to be completed before “Superman”. More importantly, it was the first film to make particularly good artistic use of stereo surround.

To use stereo surround to its full potential, Murch and his team carefully planned how and when to use each of the six channels. It was crucial to determine what kind of sounds to place in the surrounds so that the audience would immerse themselves even further in the movie. The wrong kinds of sounds, such as dialogue, could actually work against the film by reminding the audience that they were in a movie theatre watching a movie. Murch was “terrified of misusing the palette”. Therefore, he created a master chart with graphs of all the six channels, so as to know when the film was supposed to be mono, stereo, or make use of the full surround.

The result was a very dynamic sound experience, with skillful manipulation of the density of sound, a film that was sometimes monophonic, sometimes stereo and sometimes stereo surround. Murch and his team “thought of the surrounds as something that could be pulled over the theatre like a blanket, and then they could melt away like snow”. They made use of this concept frequently, like in the playboy bunny scene, where the sound begins only in the front, but then opens up to the surrounds so we can feel the full impact of the audience; or the famous Do Lung sequence, where the rock music sound gradually shifts from all the speakers to just the front centre speaker, and then disappears along with all the other sounds when “Roach” turns off the transistor radio.

Francis Ford Coppola initially wanted to use Universal Studios-owned Sensurround system, but they would not let him do so. This is why Coppola was forced to create his own version of the surround sound system. He was looking for a soundtrack that was faithful to the sounds of the Vietnam war. This meant that it had to be technically faithful to it, reproducing the weapons and equipment used in the period, but also faithful to the mood of the war, which Coppola saw as a drugs and rock n roll kind of war, with a strong psychedelic dimension. 

The frequent use of helicopters throughout the film serves both purposes. The use of stereo surround was ideal for the helicopters, and made their sound even more unique and spectacular, because they hover around in circles, so their movement perfectly fit the placement of the speakers in the theatre.

Murch’s sound work in “Apocalypse Now” earned him an Oscar for Best Sound, and perhaps even more importantly, it established the term Sound Designer. Murch coined the term when was trying to define exactly what he had done in terms of sound in the film. Because he had had to design the sound for Stereo Surround, he had thought of the sound in a different, three dimensional perspective. 

The meticulous planning made Murch think of a decorator’s work, saying: “…if an interior designer can go into an architectural space and decorate it interestingly, that’s sort of what I am doing in the theater. I’m taking the three-dimensional space of the theater and decorating it with sound”. The term Sound Designer is commonly used to this day to describe the person in charge of all aspects of a film’s audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the final mix.

At Cannes film festival, Zoetrope technicians worked during the night before the screening to install additional speakers on the theater walls, to achieve Murch’s 5.1 soundtrack. On August 15, 1979 “Apocalypse Now” was released in the U.S. in only 15 theaters equipped to play the Dolby Stereo 70mm prints with stereo surround sound.

“Apocalypse Now’s” Dolby Stereo 70mm Six Track system, the Stereo Surround, was also the precursor to today’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Ioan Allen, the vice-president of Dolby, calls “Apocalypse Now”, “the grandfather of 5.1”. The film was a perfect example of how filmmakers and sound designers could use the new system to elevate cinema sound to a whole new level.

Essentially it is now the format and standard for DVD, Blu Ray and theater experiences with three channels in the front and then two channels in the rear and then subwoofers. Although 5.1 channel has found in upgrade in the technology over the years to where we have advanced to 7.1 surround sound. 

Walter Murch said: “I think people were impressed because there was this whole new way of listening to movies and it matched the main aural subjects, which were helicopters. Then you had the fact that the film is told from a particular person’s point of view, that it presents the war as seen by Captain Benjamin Willard. And we establish right from the start that the helicopter sound is part of what makes you identify with Willard it subjectivizes your experience, so it’s not just an impressive technical sound, it’s got a psychic dimension that is very deep. So you have all this working at different levels at the same time. Some of it was deliberately investigated right from the beginning, even when there was a different director, so it was inherent in the script. But a lot of it was also discovered in the process of making the film”.


The word “apocalypse” in Greek means “revelation”, which really is the best way to describe Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. “Apocalypse Now” is a spectacle that’s brilliant up to the last reel, Coppola’s magnum opus remains one of the singular reasons filmmaking was even invented. It’s a masterpiece, a towering achievement of sight and sound, that after forty years later still has the power to floor you with its stunning sounds and gonzo imagery.

Francis Ford Coppola wanted the film to be a special event by having it play in exactly one theater in Kansas in the geographical center of the country. The theater would be built especially for the film with a specially made surround sound system, where the film would run continuously for ten years. 

In May 1979, it became the first film to be awarded the Palme D’Or at The Cannes Film Festival before it had actually been completed. Because the Cannes jury was unable to come to a unanimous vote, the film shared the Best Picture prize with “The Tin Drum”. 

“Apocalypse Now” was released on August 15, 1979 by United Artists. The film performed well at the box office, grossing $78 million domestically and going on to grossing over $150 million worldwide. The initial reviews were mixed; while Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography was highly acclaimed, several critics found Coppola’s handling of the story’s major themes to be anticlimactic and intellectually disappointing. 

“Apocalypse Now” is one of the greatest films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Coppola), and Best Supporting Actor for Robert Duvall, and went on to win for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.


In total there are five cuts of “Apocalypse Now”. In the theatrical, work print, bootleg cut, Redux and Final Cut. It’s not too surprising that so many versions of the film is available, see as how the total length of film printed for the movie was approximately 1,250,000 feet, which equals to about 230 hours of footage.

Editing one of the films biggest sequences, the helicopter napalm attack took one year to complete. Ten percent of the footage shot which is 130,000 feet was from that sequence alone.

The Philippines (where the movie was shot) had no professional film laboratories at the time, meaning the raw camera negatives had to be shipped to the U.S. to be processed. Making the entire movie being shot blind, as Francis Ford Coppola never saw a shot on film until after returning to California.

Cut #1: Theatrical Cut

It became a famous fact that it took almost two years for Coppola and his editors to cut down the million feet of film they had shot, into the two hour and thirty-three minute theatrical version seen in 1979. 

Cut #2: The Redux Version 

In 2001, Coppola released a cut called “Apocalypse Now Redux” in cinemas and on DVD and Blu Ray. Redux is an extended version that restores forty-nine minutes of scenes cut from the original film, bringing the films run time to three hours and twenty-three minutes. Coppola has continued to circulate the original theatrical version as well, including both versions packaged together in all home media releases. 

Since it’s release the Redux version has been the preferred version of the film. 

Cut #3: First Assembly (Work Print Cut)

Rough versions of films or known as the Work Print is a cut of the film before the editing process kicks in and the editor trims out all of unnecessary material. The work print cut are considered priceless memorabilia among film fans. 

Coppola’s work print for “Apocalypse Now” is considered to be the Holy Grail among them. His work print is rumored to be five hours long. There is also rumored to have a 289 minute First Assembly cut, which circulates as a bootleg, that contains extra material not included in the original theatrical release or the “redux” version. 

Cut #4: The Final Cut

In April 2019, Coppola premiered the “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut” for the films 40th anniversary celebration and screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Coppola has said the final cut is the definitive version of “Apocalypse Now” and is his chosen cut of the film. It has a runtime of three hours and two minutes, with Coppola having cut twenty minutes of the added material from “Redux” version. It will also be the first time the film has been restored from the original camera negative into a 4K restoration. It will also get an IMAX release in August 2019.

A 4-disc 40th anniversary definitive edition will be available on August 27, 2019. It will include a 4K Ultra HD disc and 3 standard Blu-ray discs all containing the Theatrical, Redux, and Final cuts all featuring 4K restorations from the original camera negative. Previous extras, including the extensive “Heart of Darkness” documentary, directed by Coppola’s wife Eleanor Coppola will be included with brand new content including a Tribeca Film Festival Q&A with Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Soderbergh and never before seen B-roll. 



About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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