The Legacy of ‘Apocalypse Now’

After 40 years, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War movie is more than just remembered as a classic.
Apocalypse Now
By  · Published on May 25th, 2019

After cementing his place in the filmmaking hall of fame with two parts of The Godfather and the brilliant surveillance thriller The Conversation, not to mention his decade-starting first Oscar win for writing Patton, director Francis Ford Coppola closed out the 1970s with a mix of New Hollywood auteurism and blockbuster ambition in the intimately epic war movie Apocalypse Now.

Not unlike Star Wars, which was made by almost Apocalypse Now helmer George Lucas, the Vietnam War-set odyssey is a mashup of influences — including its core basis in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, plus the poetry of T.S. Eliot, James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God — yet is also itself one of the most influential movies of all time.

Not only did it help shape the depiction of the Vietnam War in cinema, despite not really dealing with much of the main conflict and despite being barely sourced in authenticity, but on its own terms, Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of drama and iconography. And its legacy stems primarily from the latter, all its perfect shots (DP Vittorio Storaro won the Oscar for his cinematography) and set pieces and quotable dialogue, as a movie that presents war as both awful and awesome, a Hell for humanity but heaven for cinephiles.

Here are some things we have to thank Apocalypse Now for:

The Making Of

Documentaries showing the behind the scenes of moviemaking have been around as long as Hollywood, and even feature-length making-of docs detailing difficult shoots existed previously (see Burden of Dreams, The Making of Fanny and Alexander, and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, for starters), but when Eleanor Coppola was filming the making of her husband’s Apocalypse Now, the latter sort of demonstration of troubled productions was not common. So nothing was done with the footage — showcasing the bad weather and flooded sets and sick and uncooperative actors and so many more issues — for almost 15 years. She turned it over to George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr in 1990 and new interviews were shot for the resulting documentary, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

First, it premiered at Cannes and was received more positively by the press there than had the movie that it’s about 12 years prior. Then, unlike most behind-the-scenes features, Hearts of Darkness went out to theaters in limited release and grossed $1.3 million, which was a very good haul for a nonfiction film at the time. To this day, it’s still the highest-grossing (adjusted for inflation) doc of its kind — or about the film industry in general.

Apocalypse Now has had a special legacy through the doc, which has a legacy of its own. In addition to being a model for other making-of docs, about problem-ridden productions or not, (including many that have looked back at problemed or failed shoots in retrospect now that it’s normal to reveal that stuff), it has inspired filmmakers (namely McG) as a must-watch before they begin their own movies and has been parodied in episodes of Community and Animaniacs and for fake making-of docs for such Apocalypse Now-inspired comedies as Hot Shots! Part Deux (titled Hearts of Hot Shots! Part Deux—A Filmmaker’s Apology) and Tropic Thunder (titled Rains of Madness).

The Homage, Parody, and Straight Imitation

There are few movies that have become so iconic as Apocalypse Now that certain scenes and lines of dialogue have just become common in the cinematic lexicon. That is to say, so many movies and TV shows and other works of art just copy moments, sometimes not even with any alteration, as something beyond and outside of typical homage or parody. For instance, having bats (Rango) or flies (The Smurfs) or ghosts (Casper) or toys (Small Soldiers) attack from the sky to the tune of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” that’s a fun tribute to Coppola’s movie, even if done silly and as a minor spoof.

But there are countless movies and shows in which the opera piece is used as the soundtrack for actual helicopters in a formation as if it’s an obligatory trope. Sometimes it’s because the characters within the story are diegetically referencing Apocalypse Now themselves, but often it’s just mimicry as standard practice (see Crazy Rich Asians for a recent example). Screenwriter John Milius has noted that it’s not just in the movies, either. At Scraps from the Loft, he wrote:

The Marine Corps invited me to Camp Pendleton to watch a demonstration of an aerial assault combined with an amphibious landing. As the helicopters came in, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ was playing over the loudspeakers. It’s become an anthem! I don’t think the United States can go to war without it.

And sometimes in the movies, it’s intentional overkill:

Related is the image from the Apocalypse Now poster of helicopters in silhouette in front of a setting sun. There’s a brief shot ahead of the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence actually in the film, too, and the combination has influenced everyone and everything from Michael Bay in most of his movies, a bit with TIE fighters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the poster for Kong: Skull Island along with its connected sequence in the film.

The whole dropping of napalm sequence in the beginning of Apocalypse Now that follows the helicopter sequence has also been quite influential. Game of Thrones director Matt Shakman said the scene with the Napalm attack was a major influence on the dragon attack in the “loot train battle” from the Season 7 episode “The Spoils of War.” As told to Gold Derby:

“I felt like this was the first time we have a chance to see what it would be like to be on the other side of a dragon attack. To realize how horrific it is. To see what war is like when it changes forever, like when a new weapon is produced. A dragon comes into it and then all of a sudden everything changes forever. I looked a lot at ‘Apocalypse Now,’ where you are down on the ground with these poor villagers as this fire and napalm takes over.”

If there’s one piece of dialogue from Apocalypse Now that’s so famous even those who haven’t watched it know it, it’s “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.” Uttered by Robert Duvall as the Union-hat-wearing Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore, the line is one of the many pieces of the movie where its iconic coolness has long overshadowed its gruesome and devastating meaning. Therefore, despite Napalm being a violently unpleasant weapon used to kill tons of people, the line has been quoted, often with a memetic change made to what’s being smelled (but again, often just repeated, like the helicopter bit), for tons and tons of jokey nods and throwaway references. Here’s a lengthy supercut of only a fraction of them:

Surfing Charlie’s Point

Another famous homage to Apocalypse Now occurs in Back to the Future Part II, in which a billboard seen in the 2015 of the future advertises Vietnam as a vacation destination for surfing enthusiasts. Even if it weren’t for the surf scene in Coppola’s movie, the joke still worked as just being about the war-torn country eventually becoming a tourist spot. In reality, the location where that scene was filmed did, in fact, become an immediate site for the sport. Only the spot is in the Philippines instead of Vietnam.

Specifically, it’s on the shore of Baler, a once-tiny fishing village that in the last 40 years has grown and sprouted hotels to attract visitors. As reported by the BBC, a number of Baler locals became inspired back then and taught themselves how to surf after the production left, and the Apocalypse Now shooting location has become known as Charlie’s Point, for the line “Charlie don’t surf” from the film (inspired by something said by former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon during the Six-Day War of 1967, according to Milius), and there’s also a surf shop called Charlie Does.

The Vietnam War Movie Soundtracks and Fan Bands

Some people credit Apocalypse Now with introducing the “soundtrack to Vietnam” with its prominent use of popular songs by The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Creedence Clearwater Revival (albeit through the non-CCR cover of “Suzie Q” by Flash Cadillac), along with the Wagner, of course. Vietnam War movies have become jukebox musicals (or just movies of that era with Vietnam sequences, such as Forrest Gump), and others have similarly used classical and opera music for big moments, too (Platoon, for instance). But that’s not the only way the movie has had an influence on music.

Fitting in with the Baler beach surfing legacy, British punk band The Clash quickly put out a song called “Charlie Don’t Surf,” which was released just over a year after the movie as part of the triple album Sandinista! of late 1980 but was first played earlier, in May. The lyrics also include the noticeably inspired line “Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star.”

In 1995, Iron Maiden put out their own Apocalypse Now-inspired song called “The Edge of Darkness,” off their album The X Factor. More directly linked, the lyrics almost make it an unofficial plot song for the movie, tracking Martin Sheen‘s character from his room in Saigon, as he’s brought his new mission “just like room service,” to his confrontation with Colonel Kurtz “acting like a God, an insane lunatic.”

Three years later, Stereophonics came out with a song called “The Bartender and the Thief” that has nothing to do with Apocalypse Now on its own, but the music video is blatantly inspired by the movie. Directed by Pinko, the video follows the band down a river in Thailand, past some trees being napalmed, to play a concert at a spot reminiscent of the Playboy Playmates scene.

Marilyn Manson‘s 2014 song “Killing Strangers” (originally on the John Wick soundtrack) isn’t about Apocalypse Now nor does it directly reference the movie, but its origin story does involve the title specifically. The eponymous singer told Classic Rock magazine that it’s about his father’s PTSD suffered after serving in Vietnam, and he shared this story involving his father visiting while he was watching Coppola’s film:

“I was at the scene where Robert Duvall’s on the beach, where Charlie doesn’t surf. Bombs are going off, and he doesn’t even react to it. And I pressed pause, and my father walked in. And my father said: ‘This is the most accurate portrayal of Vietnam.’ And he said that it was very difficult to be someone who would kill people and then come home and be expected to live a normal life. And I’d never had an explanation from my father about that…He told me things that I had never heard before, in my whole childhood. And I said: ‘Dad, you’re going to like the record.’ So while a song on it like Killing Strangers is not to do with him, the record became so much about my father and my mother.”

The Video Game

Not all of the Apocalypse Now legacy has worked out as planned. Actually, none of the above was intentional on the part of Coppola and his collaborators. But there’s one thing the filmmaker did have a hand in that was supposed to happen but didn’t. Two years ago, Coppola and his American Zoetrope production company announced partnership in a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund an Apocalypse Now video game in which you’re Sheen’s character following his mission from the movie. The filmmaker made this statement at the time:

“Forty years ago, I set out to make a personal art picture that could hopefully influence generations of viewers for years to come. Today, I’m joined by new daredevils, a team who want to make an interactive version of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ where you are Captain Benjamin Willard amidst the harsh backdrop of the Vietnam War. I’ve been watching videogames grow into a meaningful way to tell stories, and I’m excited to explore the possibilities for ‘Apocalypse Now’ for a new platform and a new generation.”

Even as violent gangster movies have been adapted to the interactive media, including Scarface and Coppola’s own Godfather franchise, perhaps making play out of this real, complicated war, even if in a fictional context, is a bad idea. Perhaps that’s why the Kickstarter was underperforming so much that the campaign was canceled after a few weeks. But attempts were begun more than a decade ago to get the project going. Developers aiming to keep the game independent moved the crowdfunding efforts to their own site, which no longer seems to exist. The troubled history of the adaptation only seems fitting for a movie that had its own problemed production.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.