Apocalypse Now

On the opening day of the 41st Telluride Film Festival, it was possible to spend several hours immersed in "Apocalypse Now", which received a special tribute, 35 years after its initial release in 1979.  

The 650-seat Werner Herzog Theatre was sold out. So many were turned away that a request I'd never heard before was made, and obeyed, for City Lights passholders (a special program for high school students and teachers) to vacate their seats, leading one of my seatmates to observe that there went the most likely candidates in the audience who had never seen "Apocalypse Now" on the big screen.  I said I'd probably have hidden my pass and scrunched down in my seat.  Luckily another screening was already scheduled in the 500-seat Chuck Jones Cinema for the following morning at 8:30 a.m.

The movie has never looked better -- nor sounded better, thanks to the amazing Meyer Sound system -- than it did on the Herzog's huge screen.  The Telluride Film Festival's co-founder and director Tom Luddy had said in his introduction that it was singularly appropriate to screen it there, because when he had brought Werner Herzog to the Pacific Film Archive and screened "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" there, Francis Coppola had been so impressed with the movie that he had filmed two homages to it in "Apocalypse": a scene of a boat mysteriously stuck high up in a tree, and another when a spear is thrown threw a conquistador.  Then moderator Scott Foundas introduced the film: "one of the true masterpieces of contemporary world cinema."

The most striking thing about the movie today: made long before CGI, if there are 11 helicopters hovering in the frame, there ARE 11 helicopters hovering in the frame.  The famous slow-motion shot of exposing napalm that both opens the film and is used later in the famous Colonel Kilgore ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning… smelled like victory") sequence was the largest single special effects explosion ever made.

Afterwards an all-too-brief onstage colloquy was held, among director Francis Ford Coppola; producer and casting director Fred Roos; editor Walter Murch; cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; and the semi-surprise appearance of screenwriter John Milius, teased as "unannounced" before the screening by Foundas, but not a surprise to those of us who'd read the essay written by James Gray that was handed out to the audience upon entry. (I therefore assumed that Martin Sheen was going to show up, or perhaps Laurence Fishburne, then billed as "Larry" and 14 years old at the time of filming.)  

Milius, still recovering from a massive stroke suffered 3 years ago, has only partially recovered his powers of speech, but seemed overjoyed to be there and beamed at the audience.  Francis generously gave him credit for creating the script, written for American Zoetrope on Warner Brothers' dime, and intended for George Lucas to direct ("in 16mm, in Northern California").  But in any event, Lucas was off directing "Star Wars" and Milius working on "Dillinger."  So Francis took the reins, hoping to make, he said, a "Guns of Navarone"-like action film that would make lots of money and enable him and his Zoetrope colleagues to make small, personal, art films influenced by the European directors they revered, since Warner Bros. had not only pulled the plug on Zoetrope's projects, but also forced Coppola to repay the money they'd spent on developing his slate of films.

Roos related how he, along with producer Gray Frederickson and production designer Dean Tavoularis, did location scouting all over Asia "on Paramount's dime when they sent us to Hawaii, Vietnam, Australia…" on a press junket for "The Godfather."  "Australia would have been the best, but Australian SAG insisted that all the actors would be Australian." The many disasters -- Martin Sheen's heart attack, a typhoon that destroyed expensive sets, the Philippine Air Force pulling out their fleet of helicopters without notice -- unfolded gradually.  "This was the most expensive military film made without the co-operation of the American government."  

Coppola said they met with Marcos early on, and he gave it his blessing.  Guilelessly, Coppola continued, "I don't remember bribes or anything…they were fighting a guerrilla insurrection, so very so often the helicopters would just disappear.  Not to fight, just because they were all in the same place and easy to hurt."