History, Legacy & Showmanship

Still Loving the Smell of Napalm in the Morning: Remembering “Apocalypse Now” on its 35th Anniversary

August 15, 2014 - 2:01 am   |   by
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Jon Lewis is the author of Whom God Wishes to Destroy…Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood (1995, Duke University Press). He teaches film and cultural studies at Oregon State University. His other books include The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture (Routledge, 1992), Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry (NYU Press, 2000), The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties (NYU Press, 2001), and BFI Film Classics: The Godfather (British Film Institute, 2010). Lewis has also appeared in the documentary films Inside Deep Throat (2005) and This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006).

Jon Lewis

Lee Pfeiffer is the founder (with Dave Worrall) and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.” He also is the author (with Philip Lisa) of The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and (with Dave Worrall) The Essential Bond (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999). He also wrote (with Michael Lewis) The Films of Harrison Ford (Citadel, 2002) and (with Dave Worrall) The Great Fox War Movies (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006).


Lee Pfeiffer

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” format:

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Apocalypse Now worthy of celebration on its 35th anniversary?

Jon Lewis: “Worthy” is a difficult word, I think—it was, in 1979, an important film for a number of reasons. It marked the beginning of the end of the auteur era (UA’s freak-out as the budget and Coppola seemed to spin out of control, showed how anxious execs were about indulging auteur directors). It marked the end of a run of artistic and commercial success for its director that remains unequaled: Godfather I and II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now in just seven years, and it is a terrific film—with iconic scenes, memorable performances, and a point-of-view on Vietnam at a time when Hollywood was still reluctant to look at that war.

Lee Pfeiffer: Apocalypse Now represented the kind of mad, obsessive dream project that directors used to be driven by but which are sadly lacking in today’s film industry. Francis Ford Coppola threw his body, mind and soul into his most personal films and none was more of a personal ambition than Apocalypse Now. Coppola, in this respect, was like John Wayne when he oversaw a decade-long plan to bring The Alamo to the screen. Both men’s obsessions led to them violating the first rule of movie producing: don’t sink your own money into any film project, even if you are convinced it will be a masterpiece. Coppola, like Wayne, succeeded artistically but saw the potential for major profits evaporate into a sea of soaring budget overruns. It was Coppola’s well-publicized personal woes in making the film that took on an addictive soap opera aspect in the pre-Internet age when movie geeks had to follow every mishap through the trade papers. By the time the epic movie was screened in an incomplete status at Cannes, the knives were out, as critics anticipated an artistic disaster. What Coppola delivered was the kind of crazy, bold, esoteric product that seemed destined to be even more revered in the years to come, a fate the film has indeed enjoyed. 

Director Francis Ford Coppola on set; Mixing the filmCoate: Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw Apocalypse Now?

Lewis: Yes, I thought it was a unique movie event—and it confirmed my sense of Vietnam as an insane waste.

Pfeiffer: I saw Apocalypse Now at its New York opening engagement. The anticipation was so great that you had to order tickets in advance through the mail to ensure you had a seat. I went with a bunch of fellow early twenty-somethings. We stopped at a few bars beforehand and some of the gang had smoked some weed. Some of them claimed that it enhanced the mystical experience of the film’s ending, much as 2001 had done for the previous generation. I can’t answer as to the validity of that. I had been so eager to see the film that I didn’t want any artificial substance detracting from the experience. I was mesmerized by that first screening, although—like many critics—I felt the ending was very bizarre and somewhat disappointing because the much-anticipated assault sequence on Kurtz’s compound never materialized. I later realized how ballsy this was on Coppola’s part. It took far more courage to end the film on a whimper instead of a clichéd “bang.” Coppola was so unconventional that the film was originally shown in its roadshow engagements sans any opening or closing credits. Instead—as with a Broadway play—you received a printed program that provided all the technical credits as well as cast and crew. This was too much for local theater owners who feared their local patrons were too unsophisticated to understand a movie without final credits. In response to their objections, Coppola had to tack on final credits which were imposed over images of Kurtz’s compound being bombed. It was probably the only artistic compromise he made in relation to the marketing of the film. 

Coate: What did Apocalypse Now contribute to 1970s Cinema?

Lewis: As previously mentioned: It marked the beginning of the end of the auteur era (UA’s freak-out as the budget and Coppola seemed to spin out of control, showed how anxious execs were about indulging auteur directors). It marked the end of a run of artistic and commercial success for its director that remains unequaled: Godfather I and II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now in just seven years.

Pfeiffer: When someone commented a few years ago that you can’t make that kind of movie today, Coppola replied that you couldn’t make it then, either—that’s why he had to sink his own personal fortune into it. Nevertheless, the film symbolized what will probably remain the most diverse, exciting period in Hollywood history, when studios did back wildly ambitious, epic films that may have had dubious commercial appeal. If it were done today, it would be a star-driven action movie in the mode of The Expendables.

Coate: How is Apocalypse Now significant within the war film genre?

Lewis: For my generation (I was the last Vietnam draft birth year, 1955) it insisted that Vietnam was a different sort of war (than WWII) and required a different sort of film. Coppola said he wanted to make the ultimate anti-war film…then confessed that he probably made war look like too much fun. The film evinced a fundamental problematic for the war film—that a successful (interesting, exciting, memorable) war film inevitably makes war look and sound and feel exciting.

Pfeiffer: Apocalypse Now isn’t a war movie in the traditional sense any more than Paths of Glory was. Yes, it had major battle sequences, but it was a character-driven film that had surrealistic qualities to it. I don’t think it did influence the war movie genre, per se, because there has never been a film quite like it. 

Coate: What did Apocalypse Now do well? What were the negative or disappointing aspects, if any, to the film?

Lewis: It was an amazing, beautiful spectacle…a great film.

PT BoatPfeiffer: The film was a thinking man’s epic odyssey filled with ambiguous meanings that meant different things to different people in the way that the classic TV series The Prisoner did. It’s hard to find anything “wrong” with it, although some people still think Brando was sleep-walking through his performance, while others believe he delivered brilliantly.

Coate: Where does Apocalypse Now rank among Francis Ford Coppola’s films?

Lewis: I’m reluctant to give films grades (like reviewers do). It’s a terrific film—one of the four great films Coppola made in the 1970s.

Pfeiffer: I think The Godfather Part II is Coppola’s ultimate masterpiece, but Apocalypse Now certainly ranks near it in terms of its artistic merits.

Coate: Where does Apocalypse Now rank among war-themed films?

Lewis: Tough question again, because I don’t like to rank films. What makes it significant, even brilliant, for me is how the film immerses you in the conflict—it’s unrelenting in its visual and aural re-imagining of war (which is what I like about Black Hawk Down and Platoon—two other war films I really admire).

Pfeiffer: As I don’t think it is a “war” movie in the traditional sense, it’s pointless to compare it to The Dirty Dozen or The Longest Day

Coate: What was the benefit of Apocalypse Now initially playing exclusive engagements with higher-than-normal admission pricing and in 70mm format before playing regular engagements?

Lewis: I was lucky enough to go to one of these—it was the last real showcase engagement I ever went to—ushers, playbills, etc. —the 70mm, as I recall, was just dazzling. A real event.

Pfeiffer: In those days, films were shown as “roadshow” releases, playing with great hype for many months in only very limited engagements in key cities. Hollywood no longer does that. They open a film “wide” in as many theaters as possible. Therefore, you can see a blockbuster film in some cases where the theater is half empty because it is playing in so many venues. Roadshow movies were genuine “events.” If you scored a ticket to one, it gave you bragging rights around the water cooler the next morning at the office. 

Coate: What is the legacy of Apocalypse Now?

Lewis: It is the last great auteur film.

Pfeiffer: Apocalypse Now has only grown in stature in our era of computer-generated “epics.” This was the real deal—no blue screen, no phony effects. Its power continues to grow among younger moviegoers. The best compliment I can give is that my daughter saw the Redux version when she was in college. She still maintains it’s one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. It will probably remain so because it retains an emotional impact that will never dissipate. 


The Kurtz Compound



  • Colonel Kurtz – Marlon Brando
  • Lt. Colonel Kilgore – Robert Duvall
  • Captain Willard – Martin Sheen
  • Chef – Frederic Forrest
  • Chief – Albert Hall
  • Lance – Sam Bottoms
  • Clean – Larry Fishburne
  • Photo Journalist – Dennis Hopper
  • Director – Francis Coppola
  • Producer – Francis Coppola
  • Screenplay – John Milius and Francis Coppola
  • Narration – Michael Herr
  • Co-Producers – Fred Roos, Gray Frederickson, Tom Sternberg
  • Photography – Vittorio Storaro, AIC
  • Production Designer – Dean Tavoularis
  • Supervising Editor – Richard Marks
  • Music – Carmine Coppola and Francis Coppola
  • Sound Montage and Design – Walter Murch
  • Production Recordist – Nathan Boxer
  • Supervising Sound Editor – Richard Cirincione
  • Re-Recordists – Walter Murch, Mark Berger, Richard Beggs, Dale Strumpell, Thomas Scott
  • Distributor – United Artists
  • Production Company – Omni Zoetrope
  • Release Date – August 15, 1979
  • Running Time – 141 minutes (70mm) 153 minutes (35mm) / 202 minutes (Redux)
  • Projection Format – Scope / Dolby Stereo
  • MPAA Rating – R



Numerous newspaper articles, film reviews and theater advertisements; the periodicals The Hollywood Reporter and Variety; the website Boxofficemojo, the books 5.1 Surround Sound: Up and Running (Tomlinson Holman, Focal Press, 2000), The Apocalypse Now Book (Peter Cowie, Da Capo Press, 2001), Beyond Dolby (Stereo): Cinema in the Digital Sound Age (Mark Kerins, Indiana University Press, 2011), Coppola (James Clarke, Virgin Books, 2003), Coppola: A Biography (Peter Cowie, Scribners, 1989), The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood (Gianluca Sergi, Manchester University Press, 2004), Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Peter Biskind, Simon & Schuster, 1998), Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (Sheldon Hall & Steve Neale, Wayne State University Press, 2010), Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life (Michael Schumacher, Crown, 1999), George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success (Alex Ben Block, editor; George Lucas Books/Harper Collins; 2010), The Great Movies (Roger Ebert, Broadway Books, 2003), How Movies Work (Bruce F. Kawin, University of California Press, 1992), In the Blink of an Eye (Walter Murch, Silman-James Press, 1995), The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood (Michael Pye and Lynda Myles; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1979), Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (Eleanor Coppola, 1995), Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas (Dale Pollack, Harmony, 1983), Whom God Wishes to Destroy…Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood (Jon Lewis, Duke University Press, 1995); and the motion picture Apocalypse Now (1979, Omni Zoetrope/United Artists).

Apocalypse Now (Laserdisc & VHS)



Ioan Allen; Raymond Caple; Dolby Laboratories, Inc.; Laura Kerepesi; Bill Kretzel; Roberto Landazuri; Jon Lewis; Tim O’Neill; Lee Pfeiffer; Brian Whitish.



Copyright 1979 Omni Zoetrope

Apocalypse Now (Blu-ray Disc & DVD)


  • Carmine Coppola (Composer), 1910-1991
  • Bob Peak (promotional material illustrator), 1927-1992
  • Marlon Brando (“Colonel Kurtz”), 1924-2004
  • Sam Bottoms (“Lance”), 1955-2008
  • Nathan Boxer (Production Sound Recordist), 1925-2009
  • Dennis Hopper (“Photo Journalist”), 1936-2010
  • G.D. Spradlin (“General”), 1920-2011

- Michael Coate


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