Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Screenwriter

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John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola

War's #1 Fan

John Milius wanted to get his war on.

A young surfer and aspiring screenwriter from St. Louis, he desired nothing more than to fight in Vietnam. He was rejected because of his asthma. Milius commented, "It was totally demoralizing. I missed going to my war. It probably caused me to be obsessed with war ever since" (source).

Making lemons into hard lemonade, he decided to write an epic screenplay about the war, basing it on Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Originally titled "The Psychedelic Soldier," it billowed out to a thousand pages. Eventually, Milius changed the title to "Apocalypse Now," making fun of a hippie button he'd seen that read "Nirvana Now." Instead of peace and bliss, Milius' movie was going to be all about brutality and cataclysmic violence. (Source)

Milius' original screenplay was a celebration of the savagery of war and what it does to the human spirit. Whereas for Conrad, Kurtz symbolized the moral hollowness and madness of imperialism, Milius actually claimed to agree with his own version Kurtz, saying that he was a man who "saw the truth," who recognized the necessity of conducting warfare with maximum ruthlessness and firepower. (Source)

Like his character, Colonel Kilgore, Milius seemed to be the kind of dude who loved "the smell of napalm in the morning." (Here's a typical picture of him, striking a pose with a gun and a cigar.) His Cold War teen movie, Red Dawn—which he both wrote and directed—reinforces this viewpoint. At the time it was made, it had the highest body count in movie history.

Tweaking the Script for Peace

So, why does Apocalypse Now feel so…anti-war? The answer's easy: other people had a hand in writing the script.

Captain Willard's voiceover narration was written by Michael Herr, a journalist best known for his non-fiction head-trip into the nightmare of Vietnam, Dispatches. If you compare those voiceover segments to the dialogue Milius wrote for Colonel Kilgore, you'll see how different in tone they are. Herr senses that something's seriously wrong with Vietnam.

For instance, one of the voiceover parts Herr wrote reads, "It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies."

And while Milius apparently approves of Colonel Kilgore's attitude, Herr's writing says, "If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for

Coppola and Brando wrote most of the dialogue for Kurtz, which, even though it's supposed to be coming from the ultimate pro-war killing machine, starts to sound like hippie talk: "We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'f***' on their airplanes because it's obscene!"

So, if you mix together Milius' tough-guy-warrior shtick with Herr's observations and Brando's improvised rambling, you come up with…a basically anti-war Palme d'Or-winning movie.

You might've thought there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this one. But all the flavors came together in one memorable cinematic meal.

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