Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam war masterpiece Apocalypse Now was eventually released in 1979 to great acclaim after a notorious production that began in 1976.
It was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, which told of a colonial steamer voyage up the Congo in search of a rogue ivory trader. Coppola and writer John Milius transposed this to the Vietnam war, so Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is sent downriver to terminate with extreme prejudice Marlon Brando’s crazy Colonel Kurtz.
The production was beset by problems from the off, as Coppola ignored mentor Roger Corman’s advice not to film in the Philippines in the rainy season. Typhoons destroyed sets and the shoot ran wildly overtime and overbudget. Over a twelve month period Coppola and members of the crew became increasingly deranged, fuelled by excessive drug-taking and debauchery, the chaos of the set seeming to mirror the madness of the story they were obsessively recreating.
In the final stages of the movie Willard finds Kurtz in a jungle temple, worshipped as a God by his murderous native army, surrounded by hundreds of their slaughtered victims. For these scenes the crew needed to source a lot of corpses. There was a limited number of prop dummies available in the jungle, but Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos was only too happy to help the prestigious Hollywood production.
Soon stories began to surface of graves being emptied across the land, and then a wave of disappearances from neighbouring villages, as the bodies began to be delivered to the set. Nothing was proven, and such stories were rife in the 70s under the brutal Marcos regime, but it was clear that the corpses were too fresh not to be suspect.
The movie stands as an experience never to be repeated, which makes the journey into the heart of darkness, both on and off screen, even more compelling today.