John Baumgartner


APOCALYPSE NOW (1979, Coppola)

I just watched this film again last night on the big screen. What an experience. It really is a vividly realized descent.  In the gut-wrenching documentary on the film’s creation, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (man, do I dig what Coppola has to say here), we learn that Francis Ford Coppola and most everyone involved went a bit out of their minds in the jungle, what with the sprawling story, never-ending production, and insane conditions like the Philippine Army’s helicopters leaving whenever they were called, Marlon Brando’s obstinance, storms destroying whole sets and Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack.

Today’s shot, like the movie itself, is about discovery in the face of the overwhelming. All in all, 230 hours of footage were captured for the movie, which puts the shooting ratio at 95-to-1. For every minute in the movie, there are 95 ‘unseen’ minutes.  No wonder it took over 21 months to edit the picture and another year to create the film’s rich and unsettling soundscape.  This also explains, to an extent, why it’s such a poetic and rich visual experience. There are so many shots that seem to be the most abstract yet perfect comment or detail to a scene.  (I think of the squatting girl in Kurtz’s bunker, when Sheen finally arrives, as a prime example.)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Accidental Discovery

Today’s shot is one of those inspired moments that come from a year and nine months of experimenting with a deluge of footage. Coppola admits freely what an accident its creation was, and it’s a true testament both to Coppola’s genius and to the magic possibilities of discovery. Coppola explains in the commentary track that he was visiting the editing room about 9 months into post when he saw a barrel full of discarded film. He asked what the shots were and they explained it was “fill,” that is, parts of shots before the real action started.

Coppola pulled out, completely at random, what would be the opening shot – fill from the napalm bombing sequence. The camera had rolled quite a while in advance, as not to miss the explosions. Coppola immediately felt the footage was unusual, beautiful and thematically interesting. And then he reached over to the music bin and grabbed a song, saying “wouldn’t it be funny to start a movie with a song called ‘The End?'” (The Doors, incidentally, were Coppola’s film school buddies at UCLA).

Well, the rest is more or less history. Walter Murch went to cutting the opening montage and a dark and evocative glimpse into Sheen’s character’s psyche emerged from the depths. Amazingly, the connection of the ceiling fan and the helicopter blades was only discovered while Murch was cutting the sequence. Then, a year or more later, they would tie it all together with the final design and mix of the amazing chopper sounds.

So enjoy this incredible sequence, which kicks off with a shot that was never even intended to be seen. It’s just these honest and unpretentious moments, captured more or less by accident, that can sometimes provide us with the most honest, interesting and poetically rewarding glimpses into the world of the film.


  • June 24, 2011

    Thank god for happy accidents, because lord knows no one would write a sequence like this into a script. And yet, it’s so perfect. Without the process of trying to turn a whole mess of chaos into coherence, moments like this wouldn’t exist in many films. Coppola’s fear that this might all be a big piece of shit was apparently a necessary part of the process. It’s a good lesson to remember in film-making that getting a little lost along the way is not necessarily a bad thing, I guess.

  • November 18, 2011
    Jeremy Cole

    I remember the exact moment I fell in love with this movie. I was in a video store on Sunset Blvd. with a friend and we looked up to see it playing on the screen. We were just going to watch ’til the end of that scene but we never really found a point where there was a lull. Watched almost the whole thing standing right there.

    This was also the first movie I showed my wife back when she was my new girlfriend. She pretended to like it, so we got married (there may have been other variables at play). Anyway, she’s never forgiven me, and I’ve never gotten over how great this film is.

    As I watched this it made me think of how terrible a lot of montages are but how fabulous a great montage can be — when it’s poetic, and let’s you put the pieces together and fill in the gaps, like the jarring way Sheen is shown upside down, and contrasted yin-yang-style with the Buddha head. The way the choppers buzz around him like flies, the fan over his brain; his eyes, the pervasive sound of the blades shifting sources PTSD style. You can feel your brain assembling the bits of it into a meaningful whole that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s magic.


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