When it comes to rolling over in response to demands from the world’s most powerful military, many film makers are like puppies in front of a warm fire. Not so Francis Ford Coppola, who engaged in a two years-long battle with the Pentagon over his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Like other producers who were attempting to offer the audience something other than a retread of Green Berets, Coppola ran into trouble even before he asked for support, such was the DOD’s opposition to the story he was telling.
The DOD’s copy of the file on Apocalypse Now has disappeared but, fortunately, Larry Suid is dead so Roger Stahl was able to make a copy from the Suid archive. It details a difficult and at times hostile relationship between the film’s makers – primarily Francis Ford Coppola and producer Fred Roos – and various officials in the Department of Defense.
The relationship began innocently enough – in May 1975 Roos called up the Pentagon and told them a film called Apocalypse Now was being made, and they wished to meet to have a preliminary discussion about possible military assistance. This meeting took place on May 29th, with a chronology summarising:
Meeting held with Mr Laitin, Mr Hatch, Mr Baruch, Mr Coppola, Mr Roos and Mr Tavoularis. Discussion was broad ranging. Coppola described his film as a surrealistic interpretation of the issues surrounding the war in Vietnam. We gave him our policy directives on assistance. Told him we would provide research and arrange visits to military installations to obtain ideas. Any assistance would depend on official submission of script for review. Coppola stated script he was leaving with us was six years old and he did not want to deal with us officially at this time because he was not sure that he even wanted DoD assistance. He was interested in an unofficial viewpoint from us on the script.
This contrast – between the surreal tone of the film and the very real setting of the Vietnam War, proved difficult for the Pentagon to wrap their heads around. While I understand both John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola’s decisions to shift the Heart of Darkness setting to Vietnam, making its exploration of the depths of the human psyche more relevant to audiences, it put the story in the DOD’s ballpark. And that’s never somewhere you want to find yourself.
The Military’s Reaction to the Apocalypse Now Script
A few days after this meeting the script made its way to the Army Chief of Information. Two weeks of due consideration later and the response came back from General L Gordon Hill Jr, sent to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (the ASD/PA, i.e. Baruch’s boss). Gordon Jr was evidently not at all happy with the script, describing what he saw as its ‘sick humour’ and ‘satirical philosophy’, observing:
The main plot situation of the film seems to be that the CIA is sending a US Army officer to “terminate” the mad commander of a Special Forces “A” Team, who is leading his men and their Montagnards in various savage and barbarous activities against both sides in the VN war, encouraging them to take drugs, etc. If such a commander did go mad, it would probably not be a CIA problem, but would more reasonably be handled within Special Forces Command channels.
50 Shades of the Phoenix Program. Naturally, the metaphor was lost on a bureaucratic mind like Hill’s, who saw this tale only in terms of its portrait of the war in Vietnam. He went on to list what he saw as the particularly objectionable episodes in the script, namely:
US soldiers scalping the enemy
The US Army Captain who is the protagonist has “executed” a VC tax collector for the CIA
The instructions to “terminate” the mad commander are pretty strong. In the real world, he would be sent away for medical treatment
The incident of the Air Cav Col Kharnage (note name) leaving playing cards on the VC bodies is repellent and uncivilized
The incident with Col Kharnage organizing a surfing display in the midst of combat is ridiculous and in effect shows another Army officer as a madman
Cpt Willard obtains sexual favors for his men and later shares a marijuana smoke with them
The Army is seen sacrificing troops so “the Generals” can say that they are keeping a particular road open
Hill summed up his feelings bluntly:
The entire episode of the “A” Team and its commander going insane, taking drugs, fighting both sides, committing various savageries and cannibalism and engaging in sexual license can only be viewed as a parody on the sickness and brutality of war. For the Army to assist in any way in the production would imply agreement with either the fact or the philosophy of the film.
If some fast-buck artist wants to try to make a bundle with this type of garbage, so be it. But he will do it without the slightest assistance from the Army.
To be sure, Apocalypse Now was never intended as parody – much of the seemingly hyperbolic dialogue and the attitudes of the characters saying them originated in stories veterans told to Milius. But compared to the clean, bloodless MPAA-friendly war films the Pentagon had become accustomed to, both in terms of watching them and helping to make them, the Milius script was a bucket of napalm to the face.
The day after receiving this memo, Baruch’s office reached out to Hill:
By phone we endeavored to see if Gen Hill would meet with Coppola to discuss the areas he was most concerned about. Response was negative.
Complicating this inauspicious beginning to the negotiations, in the midst of the Pentagon deciding what to do about Hill’s abject refusal to allow Army support to Apocalypse Now, an article came out in Parade offering a lurid depiction of the script and declaring that Coppola wanted 85 helicopters to help make his movie. Over the following months:
There were approximately 114 letters to DoD, Congress, and the White House complaining about possible assistance being given to Coppola because of the context of the film outlined in the PARADE article. We advised them all that we had not given nor promised any assistance other than research and Coppola had not asked for anything. In 20 years here, we have never seen such an outpouring of feeling concerning a film not yet made and recommending that we not assist in the production.
Coppola hadn’t even finished his script yet, let alone submitted any formal request for support. Indeed, at this point even a courtesy research trip to Fort Bragg to learn about the real-life Green Berets hadn’t taken place. And yet, such was the potency of the rumours swirling around Apocalypse Now that the controversy had already begun. Lines were drawn, allegiances formed.
Apocalypse Now moves to the Philippines
As Coppola and others scouted locations in Malaysia, Australia and the Philippines, including NavBase Subic in Zambales, word got back to the US and into the trades. In November of ’75 Norman Hatch wrote to Roos to confirm their previous conversation, ‘there was little or no possibility of Defense assistance’ to Apocalypse Now. At the end of December, Roos forwarded a copy of Coppola’s rewritten script, acknowledging, ‘Quite honestly, I doubt that this rewritten version can change the Defense Department’s stand regarding formal assistance to us, but I want to keep the communications between us open.’ The Pentagon’s chronology records:
After reading the script and finding it little changed from the first one, we did not respond to Roos on this subject.
It seems this failure to respond (if only to reiterate their displeasure with the script) was the origin of the perception among the crew that there was an ‘Anti-Apocalypse Now’ attitude within the DOD.
So Coppola tried the side door – he attempted to hire US military personnel as extras in an off-duty capacity, hence not requiring formal Pentagon support. The problem was that the status of forces agreement with the Philippines, allowing US troops to be stationed there, said that they could not take on this sort of freelance employment in the local economy. There was also an issue of a curfew between midnight and 4 a.m. which meant the troops couldn’t do full night shooting, which Coppola required. In early ’76, memos and cables between the Apocalypse Now crew and Baruch’s office at the DOD argued about this, but to no avail – Francis didn’t get his extras.
Despite this, Coppola settled on the Philippines as the production base, and in March ’76 shooting began, with helicopters and hardware provided by the Philippine military. It wasn’t long before the notorious production problems began rearing up – Harvey Keitel wasn’t giving the sort of performance the director anticipated, they got into arguments, so Keitel quit. He was replaced by Martin Sheen, who had auditioned for Michael in The Godfather and was well known to the Apocalypse Now gang.
In April, Roos tried a different approach – he wrote to William Greener, the ASD/PA – trying to go over Baruch’s head. Roos drafted a pleading letter to Greener including a fresh copy of the script with the latest rewrites, and formally requesting consideration for military support. A couple of weeks later, having not heard back from Greener, Roos went higher up the chain – he wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and copied in a pair of senators.
This caused a bit of a stir, and resulted in Baruch’s office putting together a chronology of their contact with the Apocalypse Now crew to try to show their superiors that they’d done nothing wrong. Baruch also wrote a memo to Greener, expressing that ‘In our opinion, Mr. Coppola will never agree to rewrite the script.’ Greener then responded to Roos and Coppola’s antics in a telegram:
Upon review of the script forwarded on 9 April, only the change concerning Col. Kilgore and the surfing episode is satisfactory. The other three changes do not correct our objections. Those four story points were listed in our message as examples only.
In short, the premise of the film remained the same – a Phoenix Program-style assassination mission – the bridge kept getting rebuilt for insane reasons and, at least in the DOD’s view, the script still didn’t ‘Give the Kurtz sequence some basis other than surrealism.’ Rummy wrote back to Coppola saying much the same as Greener.
Francis responded to Rumsfeld in typical fashion, sending a four-page cable message outlining the full excruciating experience of trying to work with the DOD. He also made an offer of script changes:
1. I will make it an unspecified civilian who sends Willard on his assignment rather than an Army officer, and I will present the situation in such a way that it will be obvious that there is no alternative but to terminate Kurtz if he does not comply.
2. I will make it clear that Col Kilgore’s desire to secure a surfing beach is secondary to some bonafide military mission, and that he asks his man to surf only after the area has been secured.
3. I will eliminate the aspect that Kurtz is a user of drugs, I will make this character much less surreal and much more sympathetic – A man only intent on implementing his country’s oft-stated policies.
4. The incident in the script regarding the purpose of building the bridge is factual, this type of thing happened often and I will back it up with documentation, however, I agree to not overly stress it.
In exchange for all of this, Coppola was only asking for one day’s rental of one Chinook helicopter, though he couldn’t resist adding:
We know that the motion picture “The Green Berets” received cooperation from the DOD to the extent of 94 helicopters and extensive use of army personnel and weapons. Since “The Green Berets” was certainly not factual, your denial to us of even one helicopter is rather ridiculous.
Helicopters and Phantoms
The struggle with the military continued – in May Coppola asked for a helicopter capable of lifting the ‘small PBR boat’ that carries Willard (Sheen) up the river in search of Col Kurtz and his men. According to a cable sent from Manila, they had tried to lift the boat with a Philippine Air Force Huey, but ‘the helicopter almost crashed and dropped our boat, there could have been injuries’. Coppola also wanted four F-4 Phantoms for an unspecified scene, and asked that the DOD send a representative out to the Philippines to talk about the script, as he was busy filming six days a week and couldn’t make it to D.C. for a meeting.
A memo from Norman Hatch (the action officer on Apocalypse Now) to the higher-ups in military public affairs outlined the problems they had with Roos and Coppola’s requests:
We consider it pointless to have the meeting without some prior indication from Coppola that he will make some significant changes in the script. So far the only possible assistance we might lend would be the use of four Phantom jets for two days at company expense. Whether Coppola will feel that our requested changes are worth the trade for the jets is unknown at this time.
A decision has to be made at this point in time whether we will offer assistance, even if Coppola accepts the idea of changes. I raise the question because there was strong service objection to the whole concept of the story and Gen. Hill was adamant to the point that he would not even agree to meet Coppola. In addition, there was a strong public outcry against our providing assistance based on a story about the film in Parade Magazine. When I say strong, I refer to about 140 letters and congressional interest. That is not a lot compared to other major problem complaints but it was extremely high for a film not yet made and described in only a paragraph or two.
Evidently, there was an ‘anti’ attitude developing at the DOD – without even ascertaining whether Coppola was willing to rewrite elements of his movie, and apparently unaware of Coppola’s offer to Rumsfeld, Hatch was leaning towards turning down all requests for support. The DOD wrote back to Roos and denied that they had any helicopters in the region capable of lifting an 8-ton PBR boat, but dangled the possibility of making the Phantoms available, if they agreed to some key script changes:
However, before any consideration can be given to military assistance or script discussions in the Philippines by a Defense Department representative: agreement by Mr Coppola to the following specific revisions will be required: A) Sending Willard to “Investigate” repeat “Investigate” without reference to “Terminating command with prejudice” B) Willard not shown or encouraging the smoking of pot C) Higher command having some reason other than “Just not wanting to admit being surrounded” for the daily rebuilding of the bridge; D) Some explanation why the other members of the Green Beret team remain with Kurtz and E) revisions in final sequences to dovetail with Willard’s new mission. Also suggest for your consideration that included in screen titles be a statement honoring these who served in Vietnam.
Typhoon Olga Stops Apocalypse Now (and the Cubi Point Incident)
At the end of May, Typhoon Olga struck the Philippines, causing chaos for the local population. It also wrecked several major Apocalypse Now sets, including the Playboy Bunny set that was required for around a month of shooting. Transport links were cut off, basic fuel and energy supplies became sparse – they had to shut down. The film’s crew escaped from the island via Cubi Point – a Naval Air Station on the edge of Subic Bay, part of the base that Coppola and others had toured during their research. The crew chartered a plane out of Manila and had it come pick them up from Cubi Point.
In early June, at the start of this enforced break in filming, Roos wrote to Greener to ask for reconsideration of military support, and said that due to the production shut-down that now was a good time for a script conference. He added:
To be frank, Mr Greener, we are not only seeking some beginning of co-operation, but also trying to defuse what appears to be an aggressive attitude of hostility and persona non grata directed towards us from every military office and person that we encounter in the Philippines, even in emergency situations such as our company faced during the recent typhoon, our requests for humanitarian aid were treated in the same hostile way by the Subic Navy people.
We both know that this attitude must stem from the DOD.
Roos included a written account from Hunt Downs, one of 56 members of the Apocalypse Now crew who were rescued via Cubi Point. This document details how their entry to the base was delayed, then allowed, then disallowed, then finally given approval, leaving them stranded for well over an hour. When they finally gained access, hoping simply to board the plane via one of the Navy’s runways, producer Gray Frederickson was approached by a Navy officer, who said:
I do not like you, I do not like your freaky people. I do not like your movie. I do not like you here. But you are here. You conned your way on the base. If I ever catch you or any one of these people on my base again, I’ll have you in jail, and you’ll never get out.
They were also delayed on the tarmac – the Navy giving the weather conditions as their excuse for holding up the departure by an hour and 40 minutes. According to the account of Hunt Downs, another plane landed and another took off during this time.
The complaint led to an internal Navy investigation, which quite unsurprisingly disputed much of Downs’ account and attributed any delays to the confusing situation of having a civilian aircraft hired by a film crew land and take off from their Navy base. The Navy’s version of the exchange between Frederickson and the Navy officer is quite different:
CO asked Mr Frederickson who had specifically approved his use of Cubi facilities. Frederickson replied “Nobody”, and added that he “assumed” it was permitted. CO informed him that he did not did not like the way he and his company had maneuvered to secure the use of the facilities, that they did not have official sanction, but that he would permit the use for humanitarian reasons. He further told Mr Frederickson that he had placed CO in an embarrassing position and that the use of Cubi Point was not to be construed as official support for himself, his crew, his film or his company. Mr Fredrickson stated that he understood, thanked CO for allowing the use of NAS facilities and apologized for any false assumptions on his part.
Once he received the Navy’s version of events, Greener wrote back to Roos, saying:
I am not in a position to discount or discredit either of the two versions of the incident that have reached me. I deeply regret that there was an incident. Please be assured that there is no “anti-Apocalypse” attitude here and that such an attitude will find no sanction from this office. I have so advised the Navy.
Around the same time, the DOD’s Hollywood office wrote to Roos regarding script negotiations, offering ‘to meet his rep in Washington or the Philippines, if he could assure positive and constructive consideration of script changes.’ This, it appears, was the end of the discussion over the Apocalypse Now script, as neither Roos nor Coppola replied, and no such meeting ever took place.
Weird Scenes in the Apocalypse Now Production History
It was during this same period – the summer of ’76, that Hickam Air Force Base sent a message to the Air Force entertainment liaison office, referencing an article in Daily Variety:
Article on page 28 (pix, people, pickups) of 25 May “Daily Variety” (Los Angeles edition) states that actor in film “Apocalypse Now” is portraying “Theatrical agent escorting three USO girls to Vietnam outpost”.
Possibility exists that sequence is inspired by 1968 incident in which open mess entertainers on unauthorized trip were ambushed resulting in death of teenage female performer. Many Americans misinterpreted incident as military negligence in handling USO performers.
Suggest contact with production authorities (Coppola, Cinema Seven productions, Los Angeles area) to preclude repeat of inaccurate impression of USO/DOD operations and policy.
Exactly why Hickam picked up on this article is unclear – the film was being covered regularly in the entertainment industry media but there’s no indication of a concerted DOD effort to monitor this coverage. It seems that someone at Hickam simply noticed the story, and it set off alarm bells about the incident in July 1968. Whether this is sensitivity about the controversial death of teenage USO performers, or sensitivity about Apocalypse Now, or a mix of both, is hard to say.
Also that summer, Variety reported that the CIA had planted someone within the film crew in the Philippines to harass and disrupt the production. Bruce Berman of Swank magazine called up Don Baruch asking about this, and about the DOD’s long-time refusal to cooperate on the movie. According to a memo, Baruch told Berman:
I know nothing about any CIA agent and we had no inquiries or indication of complaint from producer on this score.
Smoke Grenades and Jimmy Carter
Once Coppola had rewritten the script for the 100th time and typhoon season was over, the gang got back to work in the Philippines. They still didn’t have an ending, most of the cast were going insane and/or getting high on the job, but at least the cameras were rolling.
In early 1977, with a new president in the White House, Francis hit upon a bright idea – reaching out to Jimmy Carter to try to arrange for support (this time trying to go over the DOD’s head entirely). On February 12th he cabled Jimmy from Manila, referring to Apocalypse Now and saying:
[The film] is honest, mythical, pro-human and therefore pro-American. Dept of Defense has done everything to stop me because of misunderstanding original script which was only starting point for me. Film almost done. However, I need some modicum of cooperation or entire government will appear ridiculous to American and world public. Will arrange screening of excerpts for anyone you designate, but not DOD. Need CH-46 Chinook helicopter for one day, will pay all costs as per DOD guidelines. All out cooperation was granted John Wayne’s film Green Beret. We were given none, and were harassed by DOD. Also, need immediate approval to purchase 10 cases each smoke incinerary units of all colors (smoke markers). This request has been denied us along with all others. This film tries its best to help America put Vietnam behind us, which we must do so we can go on to a positive future.
This was stuck in the pneumatic tube and sent to the new ASD/PA at the Pentagon, and their response referred Coppola and Roos to a private company where they could buy the smoke units. Similarly, when in June the DOD were approached a final time, this time by a lawyer requesting audio recordings of weapons and vehicles for use on the soundtrack, they were again referred to a private company who specialised in stock audio.
And there ended the two year long battle between Coppola and Roos on the side of film, and Baruch, Greener, Rumsfeld, Hatch, Hill and the rest on the side of the military. Much like the war that inspired Apocalypse Now, it is difficult to say who won. Maybe no one.