While metaphorical battles often occur during the act of creation, the making of Apocalypse Now was about as close to a real war as any movie should ever get. The film examines the horrors and mental damage brought on by the Vietnam War, and was released to critical acclaim in 1979. At the time, few were likely aware that the violence and insanity on the screen eerily mirrored the stories from behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now.
When filming began in the Philippines in 1976, Francis Ford Coppola was hot off the success of The Godfather. Apocalypse Now was his passion project, and he fully intended to maintain complete creative control. However, a myriad of production problems caused the cast and crew to feel like they really were camping behind enemy lines. As the six week shoot turned into 68, the budget exploded, and not even Marlon Brando was above the madness. The set of Apocalypse Now felt so much like surviving a literal war that an entire documentary was made about the experience. From typhoons, to dysentery, to a heap of stolen corpses, the horrors of the Apocalypse Now shoot are realer than anything Hollywood could dream up.
The lines between reality, movie fantasy, and outright insanity became increasingly blurred as production designers strived to make the horrors of war as real as possible. At one point, the crew killed a water buffalo on-screen, an act which was later condemned by the American Humane Association. To make Kurtz's compound appear horribly realistic, designers decided to use real human bodies as set decorations, so they littered the ground with corpses. When one of the producers discovered a row of cadavers carefully laid out behind the mess tent, he was appalled, and demanded that extras be used instead.
To make the situation worse, the designer who obtained the bodies thought they were from a the medical examiner's office, but they had actually come from a grave robber. The police shut down the production to examine everyone's passports before deciding that the crew hadn't murdered anyone. While the filmmakers were out of hot water, the most abject horror was yet to come; since the bodies were unidentified, and no one was willing to pay for a proper burial, the corpses were taken away in a truck, and no one knows what happened to them.
While filming in the Philippines, the alcohol, drugs, and stress of the production seemingly caught up with Martin Sheen, as he suffered a heart attack. At the time of the incident, he was alone in a cabin, with no one around to help him. Desperate, Sheen struggled down the road, limping and crawling for nearly a mile before he found another person.
Francis Ford Coppola reportedly suffered an epileptic seizure after he heard the news of Sheen's brush with death, and since the production was already massively behind schedule, he refused to tell anyone who wasn't directly involved what really happened. He told the studio, "Even if he dies, he's not dead until I say so," and a body double was used for the six weeks Sheen took off. During this time, Sheen wasn't sure he wanted to return, telling friends, "I don't know if I'm going to live through this."
As filming dragged on, it became clear that Francis Ford Coppola was completely lost. He had decided to work without the script for the most part, and often wrote scenes the same day they were shot. It was common for actors to be told that they were shooting "Scene unknown," and Coppola expected everyone to improvise along with him.
When Brando arrived on-set having not memorized or prepared anything, things were thrown into even more disarray. Halting production to discuss the characters and how the film should end, 900 people waited around for the director and actor while they worked out a plan. Brando eventually decided to improvise his monologue, and rambled on for 18 minutes while the cameras ran. Only two minutes of his speech ended up in the movie.
When filming began, Martin Sheen was struggling with alcoholism, which helped put him in the mindset of his character. Capitalizing on his weakness, Francis Ford Coppola decided to film Sheen's opening breakdown scene when the actor was completely drunk. In Sheen's defense, it was his birthday, so he did have a good excuse to drink. Even so, everything in the scene is completely real, from his staggering, to his weeping, to the mirror he smashes with his fist.
To incite a more authentic performance, Coppola prodded Sheen about vanity, and told his crew to keep filming despite their fear that Sheen would turn his drunken anger on them. When Coppola told Sheen that he was beautiful, Sheen lashed out at his own reflection, destroying the mirror in front of him and cutting his hand. At the time, he was so out of it that he didn't realize how badly his hand was bleeding, and Coppola decided to let him finish the scene before he called a medic.