The film has been noted for the problems encountered while making it, chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991). These problems included Brando arriving on the set overweight and completely unprepared, expensive sets being destroyed by severe weather, and its lead actor (Sheen) having a breakdown, and suffering a near-fatal heart attack, while on location. Problems continued after production as the release was postponed several times while Coppola edited thousands of feet of film.
In 1969, during the Vietnam War, United States Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has gone insane and now commands his own Montagnard troops, inside neutral Cambodia, as a demi-god. Colonel Lucas and General Corman, increasingly concerned with Kurtz's vigilante operations, assign MACV-SOG Captain Benjamin L. Willard to "terminate" Kurtz "with extreme prejudice".
Willard, initially ambivalent, joins a USN PBR commanded by Chief, with crewmen Lance, "Chef", and "(Mr.) Clean" to head upriver. They rendezvous with surfing enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, 1st Cavalry commander, to discuss going up the Nùng. Kilgore scoffs, but befriends Lance after discovering his surfing experience and agrees to escort them through the Nùng's Viet Cong–held coastal mouth. They successfully raid at dawn, with Kilgore ordering a napalm sortie on the local cadres. Willard gathers his men to the PBR and journeys upriver.
Tension arises as Willard believes himself in command of the PBR while Chief prioritizes other objectives over Willard's. Slowly making their way upriver, Willard reveals his mission partially to the Chief to assuage his concerns about why his mission should precede. As night falls, the PBR reaches the American Do Lung Bridge outpost on the Nùng River. Willard and Lance enter seeking information for what is upriver. Unable to find the commander, Willard orders the Chief to continue as an unseen enemy launches a strike on the bridge.
The next day, Willard learns from dispatch that another MACV-SOG operative, Captain Colby, who was sent on an earlier mission identical to Willard's, had joined Kurtz. Meanwhile, as the crew read letters from home, Lance activates a smoke grenade, attracting the attention of a camouflaged enemy, and Mr. Clean is killed. Further upriver, Chief is impaled by a spear thrown by the natives and attempts to kill Willard by impaling him. Willard suffocates him and Lance buries Chief in the river. Willard reveals his mission to Chef but despite his anger towards the mission, he rejects Willard's offer for him to continue alone and insists that they complete the mission together.
The PBR arrives at Kurtz's outpost and the surviving crew are met by an American freelance photojournalist, who manically praises Kurtz's genius. As they wander through they come across a near-catatonic Colby, along with other US servicemen now in Kurtz's renegade army. Returning to the PBR, Willard later takes Lance with him, leaving Chef behind with orders to call in an airstrike on Kurtz's compound if they do not return. Chef is later killed by Kurtz.
In the camp, Willard is subdued, bound, and brought before Kurtz in a darkened temple. Tortured and imprisoned for several days, Willard is released and given the freedom of the compound. Kurtz lectures him on his theories of war, the human condition, and civilization while praising the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong. Kurtz discusses his family, and asks that Willard tell his son about him after his death.
That night, as the Montagnards ceremonially slaughter a water buffalo, Willard stealthily enters Kurtz's chamber, as he is making a recording, and attacks him with a machete. Mortally wounded, Kurtz, whispers "...The horror... the horror..." and dies. All in the compound see Willard departing, carrying a collection of Kurtz's writings, and bow down to him. Willard then leads Lance to the boat and the duo motor away. Kurtz's final words echo eerily as everything fades to black.Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a veteran U.S. Army special operations officer who has been serving in Vietnam for three years. The soldier who escorts him at the start of the film recites that Willard is from 505th Battalion, of the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade, assigned to MACV-SOG. It is later stated in the briefing scene that he worked intelligence/counterintelligence for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, carrying out secret operations and assassinations. Both scenes also establish he worked COMSEC. An attempt to re-integrate into home-front society had apparently failed prior to the time at which the film is set (in 1969), and so he returns to the war-torn jungles of Vietnam, where he seems to feel more at home.
Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces officer with the 5th Special Forces Group who goes rogue. He runs his own military unit out of Cambodia and is feared by the US military as much as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore, 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry Regiment commander and surfing fanatic. Kilgore is a strong-willed leader who loves his men but has methods that appear out-of-tune with the setting of the war. His character is a composite of several characters including Colonel John B. Stockton, General James F. Hollingsworth (featured in The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong by Nicholas Tomalin), and George Patton IV, also a West Point officer whom Robert Duvall knew.
Frederic Forrest as Engineman 3rd Class Jay "Chef" Hicks, a tightly wound former chef from New Orleans who is horrified by his surroundings.
Albert Hall as Chief Petty Officer George Phillips. The Chief runs a tight ship and frequently clashes with Willard over authority. Has a father-son relationship with Clean.
Sam Bottoms as Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson, a former professional surfer from California. He is known to drop acid. He becomes entranced by the Montagnard tribe, even participating in the sacrifice ritual.
Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne) as Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Tyrone "Mr. Clean/Clean" Miller, the seventeen-year-old cocky South Bronx-born crewmember.
Dennis Hopper as an American photojournalist, a manic disciple of Kurtz who greets Willard. According to the DVD commentary of Redux, the character is based on Sean Flynn, a famed news correspondent who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. His dialogue follows that of the Russian "harlequin" in Conrad's story.
G. D. Spradlin as Lieutenant General Corman, military intelligence (G-2), an authoritarian officer who fears Kurtz and wants him removed. The character is named after filmmaker Roger Corman.
Jerry Ziesmer as a mysterious man (who is coincidentally addressed by General Corman as 'Jerry'; document visible on the Blu-ray version mentions a C.I.A. officer named R.E. Moore) in civilian attire who sits in on Willard's initial briefing. His only line in the film is the famous "Terminate with extreme prejudice". Ziesmer also served as the film's assistant director.
Harrison Ford as Colonel G. Lucas, aide to Corman and a general information specialist who gives Willard his orders. The character's name is a reference to George Lucas, who was involved in the script's early development with Milius and was the original director intended to direct the film. Ford also portrayed Han Solo in Lucas's Star Wars, and prior to that had appeared in Lucas's American Graffiti (1973, produced by Coppola and Gary Kurtz) and Coppola's The Conversation (1974).
Scott Glenn as Captain Richard M. Colby, previously assigned Willard's current mission before he defected to Kurtz's private army and sent a message to his wife, intercepted by the army, telling her he was never coming back and to sell everything they owned, including their children.
Bill Graham as Agent (announcer and in charge of the Playmates' show)
Cynthia Wood (Playmate of the Year)
Linda (Beatty) Carpenter (August 1976 Playmate) as Playmate "Miss August"
Colleen Camp as Playmate "Miss May"
R. Lee Ermey as Helicopter Pilot
Francis Ford Coppola (cameo) as a TV news director filming beach combat; he shouts "Don't look at the camera, keep on fighting!" Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro plays the cameraman by Coppola's side.
Charlie Sheen (uncredited) as Extra
Several actors who were, or later became, prominent stars have minor roles in the film including Harrison Ford, G. D. Spradlin, Scott Glenn, R. Lee Ermey, and Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne was only fourteen years old when shooting began in March 1976, and he lied about his age in order to get cast in his role. Apocalypse Now took so long to finish that Fishburne was seventeen (the same age as his character) by the time of its release.
Although inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the film deviates extensively from its source material. The novella, based on Conrad's experience as a steamboat captain in Africa, is set in the Congo Free State during the 19th century. Kurtz and Marlow (whose corresponding character in the movie is Capt. Willard) work for a Belgian trading company that brutally exploits its native African workers.
After arriving at Kurtz's outpost, Marlow concludes that Kurtz has gone insane and is lording over a small tribe as a god. The novella ends with Kurtz dying on the trip back and the narrator musing about the darkness of the human psyche: "the heart of an immense darkness".
In the novella, Marlow is the pilot of a river boat sent to collect ivory from Kurtz's outpost, only gradually becoming infatuated with Kurtz. In fact, when he discovers Kurtz in terrible health, Marlow makes an effort to bring him home safely. In the movie, Willard is an assassin dispatched to kill Kurtz. Nevertheless, the depiction of Kurtz as a god-like leader of a tribe of natives and his malarial fever, Kurtz's written exclamation "Exterminate all the brutes!" (which appears in the film as "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them All!") and his last words "The horror! The horror!" are taken from Conrad's novella.
Coppola argues that many episodes in the film—the spear and arrow attack on the boat, for example—respect the spirit of the novella and in particular its critique of the concepts of civilization and progress. Other episodes adapted by Coppola, the Playboy Playmates' (Sirens) exit, the lost souls, "take me home" attempting to reach the boat and Kurtz's tribe of (white-faced) natives parting the canoes (gates of Hell) for Willard, (with Chef and Lance) to enter the camp are likened to Virgil and "The Inferno" (Divine Comedy) by Dante. While Coppola replaced European colonialism with American interventionism, the message of Conrad's book is still clear.
Coppola's interpretation of the Kurtz character is often speculated to have been modeled after Tony Poe, a highly decorated Vietnam-era paramilitary officer from the CIA's Special Activities Division. Poe's actions in Vietnam and in the 'Secret War' in neighbouring Laos, in particular his highly unorthodox and often savage methods of waging war, show many similarities to those of the fictional Kurtz; for example, Poe was known to drop severed heads into enemy-controlled villages as a form of psychological warfare and use human ears to record the number of enemies his indigenous troops had killed. He would send these ears back to his superiors as proof of the efficacy of his operations deep inside Laos. Coppola denies that Poe was a primary influence and says the character was loosely based on Special Forces Colonel Robert B. Rheault, who was the actual head of 5th Special Forces Group (May to July 1969), and whose 1969 arrest over the murder of suspected double agent Thai Khac Chuyen in Nha Trang generated substantial contemporary news coverage, in the Green Beret Affair, including making public the phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice", which was used prominently in the movie.
In the film, shortly before Colonel Kurtz dies, he recites part of T. S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men". The poem is preceded in printed editions by the epigraph "Mistah Kurtz – he dead", a quotation from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Two books seen opened on Kurtz's desk in the film are From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, the two books that Eliot cited as the chief sources and inspiration for his poem "The Waste Land". Eliot's original epigraph for "The Waste Land" was this passage from Heart of Darkness, which ends with Kurtz's final words:
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –
When Willard is first introduced to Dennis Hopper's character, the photojournalist describes his own worth in relation to that of Kurtz with: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas", from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".
While working as an assistant for Francis Ford Coppola on The Rain People, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg encouraged their friend and filmmaker John Milius to write a Vietnam War film. Milius had wanted to volunteer for the war, and was disappointed when he was rejected for having asthma. Milius came up with the idea for adapting the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War setting. He had read the novel when he was a teenager and was reminded about it by one of his college lecturers who had mentioned the several unsuccessful attempts to adapt it into a movie.
Coppola gave Milius $15,000 to write the screenplay with the promise of an additional $10,000 if it were green-lit. Milius claims that he wrote the screenplay in 1969 and originally called it The Psychedelic Soldier. He wanted to use Conrad's novel as "a sort of allegory. It would have been too simple to have followed the book completely."
Milius based the character of Willard and some of Kurtz's on a friend of his, Fred Rexer. Rexer claimed to have experienced, first-hand, the scene related by Brando's character wherein the arms of villagers are hacked off by the Viet Cong. Kurtz was based on Robert B. Rheault, head of special forces in Vietnam. Scholars have never found any evidence to corroborate Rexer's claim, nor any similar Viet Cong behavior, and consider it an urban legend.
At one point, Coppola told Milius, "Write every scene you ever wanted to go into that movie", and he wrote ten drafts, amounting to over a thousand pages. Milius changed the film's title to Apocalypse Now after being inspired by a button badge popular with hippies during the 1960s that said "Nirvana Now". He was influenced by an article written by Michael Herr titled, "The Battle for Khe Sanh", which referred to drugs, rock 'n' roll, and people calling airstrikes down on themselves. He was also inspired by such films as Dr Strangelove.
Milius says the classic line "Charlie don't surf" was inspired by a comment Ariel Sharon made during the Six Day War, when he went skin diving after capturing enemy territory and announced "We're eating their fish". He says the line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" just came to him.
Milius had no desire to direct the film himself and felt that Lucas was the right person for the job. Lucas worked with Milius for four years developing the film, alongside his work on other films, including his script for Star Wars. He approached Apocalypse Now as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after making THX 1138, with principal photography to start in 1971. Lucas's friend and producer Gary Kurtz traveled to the Philippines, scouting suitable locations. They intended to shoot the film in both the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, California and on-location in Vietnam, on a $2 million budget, cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on. However, due to the studios' safety concerns and Lucas's involvement with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas decided to shelve the project for the time being.
Coppola was drawn to Milius's script, which he described as "a comedy and a terrifying psychological horror story". In the spring of 1974, Coppola discussed with friends and co-producers Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson the idea of producing the film. He asked Lucas and then Milius to direct Apocalypse Now, but both men were involved with other projects; in Lucas's case, he got the go-ahead to make Star Wars, and declined the offer to direct Apocalypse Now. Coppola was determined to make the film and pressed ahead himself. He envisioned the film as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. The director said that he wanted to take the audience "through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war".
In 1975, while promoting The Godfather Part II in Australia, Coppola and his producers scouted possible locations for Apocalypse Now in Cairns in northern Queensland, that had jungle resembling Vietnam. He decided to make his film in the Philippines for its access to American equipment and cheap labor. Production coordinator Fred Roos had already made two low-budget films there for Monte Hellman, and had friends and contacts in the country. Coppola spent the last few months of 1975 revising Milius's script and negotiating with United Artists to secure financing for the production. According to Frederickson, the budget was estimated between $12 and 14 million. Coppola's American Zoetrope assembled $8 million from distributors outside the United States and $7.5 million from United Artists who assumed that the film would star Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Gene Hackman. Frederickson went to the Philippines and had dinner with President Ferdinand Marcos to formalize support for the production and to allow them to use some of the country's military equipment.
Steve McQueen was Coppola's first choice to play Willard, but the actor did not accept because he did not want to leave America for 17 weeks. Al Pacino was also offered the role but he too did not want to be away for that long a period of time and was afraid of falling ill in the jungle as he had done in the Dominican Republic during the shooting of The Godfather Part II. Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and James Caan were approached to play either Kurtz or Willard. Tommy Lee Jones, Keith Carradine, Nick Nolte, and Frederic Forrest were also considered for the role of Willard.
Coppola and Roos had been impressed by Martin Sheen's screen test for Michael in The Godfather and he became their top choice to play Willard, but the actor had already accepted another project and Harvey Keitel was cast in the role based on his work in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Principal photography began three weeks later. Within a few days, Coppola was unhappy with Harvey Keitel's take on Willard, saying that the actor "found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker". After viewing early footage, the director took a plane back to Los Angeles and replaced Keitel with Martin Sheen. By early 1976, Coppola had persuaded Marlon Brando to play Kurtz for an enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month's work on location in September 1976. Dennis Hopper was cast as a war correspondent and observer of Kurtz; when Coppola heard Hopper talking nonstop on location, he remembered putting "the cameras and the Montagnard shirt on him, and [shooting] the scene where he greets them on the boat". James Caan was the first choice to play Colonel Lucas. Caan wanted too much money for what was considered a minor part in the movie, and Harrison Ford was eventually cast instead.
On March 1, 1976, Coppola and his family flew to Manila and rented a large house there for the five-month shoot. Sound and photographic equipment had been coming in from California since late 1975.
Typhoon Olga wrecked the sets at Iba and on May 26, 1976, production was closed down. Dean Tavoularis remembers that it "started raining harder and harder until finally it was literally white outside, and all the trees were bent at forty-five degrees". One part of the crew was stranded in a hotel and the others were in small houses that were immobilized by the storm. The Playboy Playmate set had been destroyed, ruining a month's shooting that had been scheduled. Most of the cast and crew went back to the United States for six to eight weeks. Tavoularis and his team stayed on to scout new locations and rebuild the Playmate set in a different place. Also, the production had bodyguards watching constantly at night and one day the entire payroll was stolen. According to Coppola's wife, Eleanor, the film was six weeks behind schedule and $2 million over budget; he had to offer his car, house, and The Godfather profits as security to finish the film.
Coppola flew back to the U.S. in June 1976. He read a book about Genghis Khan to get a better handle on the character of Kurtz. After filming commenced, Marlon Brando arrived in Manila very overweight and began working with Coppola to rewrite the ending. The director downplayed Brando's weight by dressing him in black, photographing only his face, and having another, taller actor double for him in an attempt to portray Kurtz as an almost mythical character.
After Christmas 1976, Coppola viewed a rough assembly of the footage but still needed to improvise an ending. He returned to the Philippines in early 1977 and resumed filming. On March 5, 1977, Sheen had a heart attack and struggled for a quarter of a mile to reach help. He was back on the set on April 19. A major sequence in a French plantation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but was cut from the final film. Rumors began to circulate that Apocalypse Now had several endings but Richard Beggs, who worked on the sound elements, said, "There were never five endings, but just the one, even if there were differently edited versions". These rumors came from Coppola departing frequently from the original screenplay. Coppola admitted that he had no ending because Brando was too fat to play the scenes as written in the original script. With the help of Dennis Jakob, Coppola decided that the ending could be "the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king – it's the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough".
A water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete for the climactic scene. The scene was inspired by a ritual performed by a local Ifugao tribe which Coppola had witnessed along with his wife (who filmed the ritual later shown in the documentary Hearts of Darkness) and film crew. Although this was an American production subject to American animal cruelty laws, scenes like this filmed in the Philippines were not policed or monitored and the American Humane Association gave the film an "unacceptable" rating. The budget remained a problem; after Star Wars became a gigantic hit, Coppola sent a telegram to George Lucas asking for money. Principal photography ended on May 21, 1977.
Japanese composer Isao Tomita was scheduled to provide an original score, with Coppola desiring the film's soundtrack to sound like Tomita's electronic adaptation of The Planets by Gustav Holst. Tomita went as far as to accompany the film crew in the Philippines, but label contracts ultimately prevented his involvement. In the summer of 1977, Coppola told Walter Murch that he had four months to assemble the sound. Murch realized that the script had been narrated but Coppola abandoned the idea during filming. Murch thought that there was a way to assemble the film without narration but it would take ten months and decided to give it another try. He put it back in, recording it all himself. By September, Coppola told his wife that he felt "there is only about a 20% chance [I] can pull the film off". He convinced United Artists executives to delay the premiere from May to October 1978. Author Michael Herr received a call from Zoetrope in January 1978 and was asked to work on the film's narration based on his well-received book about Vietnam, Dispatches. Herr said that the narration already written was "totally useless" and spent a year writing various narrations with Coppola giving him very definite guidelines.
Murch had problems trying to make a stereo soundtrack for Apocalypse Now because sound libraries had no stereo recordings of weapons. The sound material brought back from the Philippines was inadequate, because the small location crew lacked the time and resources to record jungle sounds and ambient noises. Murch and his crew fabricated the mood of the jungle on the soundtrack. Apocalypse Now had novel sound techniques for a movie, as Murch insisted on recording the most up-to-date gunfire and employed the Dolby Stereo 70 mm Six Track system for the 70mm release. This used two channels of sound from behind the audience as well as three channels of sound from behind the movie screen. The 35mm release used the new Dolby Stereo optical stereo system, but due to the limitations of the technology at the time, this 35mm release that played in the majority of theaters did not include any surround sound.
In May 1978, Coppola postponed the opening until spring of 1979 and screened a "work in progress" for 900 people in April 1979 that was not well received. That same year, he was invited to screen Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival. United Artists were not keen on showing an unfinished version in front of so many members of the press. Since his 1974 film The Conversation won the Palme d'Or, Coppola agreed to screen Apocalypse Now with only a month before the festival. The week prior to Cannes, Coppola arranged three sneak previews of slightly different versions. He allowed critics to attend the screenings and believed that they would honor the embargo placed on reviews. On 14 May, Rona Barrett reviewed the film on television and called it "a disappointing failure". At Cannes, Zoetrope technicians worked during the night before the screening to install additional speakers on the theater walls, to achieve Murch's 5.1 soundtrack. On August 15, 1979 Apocalypse Now was released in the U.S. in only 15 theaters equipped to play the Dolby Stereo 70mm prints with stereo surround sound.
At the time of its release, discussion and rumors circulated about the supposed various endings for Apocalypse Now. Coppola stated the original ending was written in haste, where Kurtz convinced Willard to join forces and together they repelled the air strike on the compound. Coppola said he never fully agreed with the Kurtz and Willard dying in fatalistic explosive intensity, preferring to end the film in a more encouraging manner.
When Coppola originally organized the ending, he considered two significantly different ends to the movie. One involved Willard leading Lance by the hand as everyone in Kurtz's base throws down their weapons, and ends with images of Willard's Swift boat slowly pulling away from Kurtz's compound, this final scene superimposed over the face of a stone idol, which then fades into black. The other option showed an air strike being called and the base being blown to bits in a spectacular display, consequently killing everyone left within it.
The original 1979 70mm exclusive theatrical release ended with Willard's boat, the stone statue, then fade to black with no credits, save for '"Copyright 1979 Omni Zoetrope"' right after the film ends. This mirrors the lack of any opening titles and supposedly stems from Coppola's original intention to "tour" the film as one would a play: the credits would have appeared on printed programs provided before the screening began.
There have been, to date, many variations of the end credit sequence, beginning with the 35mm general release version, where Coppola elected to show the credits superimposed over shots of the jungle exploding into flames. Rental prints circulated with this ending, and can be found in the hands of a few collectors. Some versions of this had the subtitle "A United Artists release", while others had "An Omni Zoetrope release". The network television version of the credits ended with "...from MGM/UA Entertainment Company" (the film made its network debut shortly after the merger of MGM and UA). One variation of the end credits can be seen on both YouTube and as a supplement on the current Lionsgate Blu-ray.
Later when Coppola heard that audiences interpreted this as an air strike called by Willard, Coppola pulled the film from its 35 mm run and put credits on a black screen. However, the "air strike" footage continued to circulate in "repertory" theaters well into the 1980s, and it was included in the 1980s LaserDisc release. In the DVD commentary, Coppola explains that the images of explosions had not been intended to be part of the story; they were intended to be seen as completely separate from the film. He had added the explosions to the credits as a graphic background to the credits.
Coppola explained he had captured the now-iconic footage during demolition of the sets (set destruction and removal was required by the Philippine government). Coppola filmed the demolition with multiple cameras fitted with different film stocks and lenses to capture the explosions at different speeds. He wanted to do something with the dramatic footage and decided to add them to the credits.
In 2001, Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux in cinemas and subsequently on DVD. This is an extended version that restores 49 minutes of scenes cut from the original film. Coppola has continued to circulate the original version as well: the two versions are packaged together in the Complete Dossier DVD, released on August 15, 2006 and in the Blu-ray edition released on October 19, 2010.
The longest section of added footage in the Redux version is a chapter involving the de Marais family's rubber plantation, a holdover from the colonization of French Indochina, featuring Coppola's two sons Gian-Carlo and Roman as children of the family. Around the dinner table, a young French child recites a poem by Charles Baudelaire entitled L'Albatros. The French family patriarch is not satisfied with the child's recitation. The child is sent away. These scenes were removed from the 1979 cut, which premiered at Cannes. In behind-the-scenes footage in Hearts of Darkness, Coppola expresses his anger, on the set, at the technical limitations of the shot scenes, the result of tight allocation of resources. At the time of the Redux version, it was possible to digitally enhance the footage to accomplish Coppola's vision. In the scenes, the French family patriarchs argue about the positive side of colonialism in Indochina and denounce the betrayal of the military men in the First Indochina War. Hubert de Marais argues that French politicians sacrificed entire battalions at Điện Biên Phủ, and tells Willard that the US created the Viet Cong (as the Viet Minh) to fend off Japanese invaders.
Other added material includes extra combat footage before Willard meets Kilgore, a humorous scene in which Willard's team steals Kilgore's surfboard (which sheds some light on the hunt for the mangoes), a follow-up scene to the dance of the Playboy Playmates, in which Willard's team finds the Playmates awaiting evacuation after their helicopter has run out of fuel (trading two barrels of fuel for two hours with the Bunnies), and a scene of Kurtz reading from a Time magazine article about the war, surrounded by Cambodian children.
A deleted scene titled "Monkey Sampan" shows Willard and the PBR crew suspiciously eyeing an approaching sampan juxtaposed to Montagnard villagers joyfully singing "Light My Fire" by The Doors. As the sampan gets closer, Willard realizes there are monkeys on it and no helmsman. Finally, just as the two boats pass, the wind turns the sail and exposes a naked dead civilian tied to the sail boom. His body is mutilated and looks as though the man had been whipped. The singing stops. It is assumed the man was tortured by the Viet Cong. As they pass on by, Chief notes out loud, "That's comin' from where we're going, Captain." The boat then slowly passes the giant tail of a shot down B-52 bomber as the noise of engines way up in the sky is heard. Coppola said that he made up for cutting this scene by having the PBR pass under an airplane tail in the final cut.
A 289-minute workprint circulates as a video bootleg, containing extra material not included in either the original theatrical release or the "redux" version.
A three-hour version of Apocalypse Now was screened as a "work in progress" at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and met with prolonged applause. At the subsequent press conference, Coppola criticized the media for attacking him and the production during their problems filming in the Philippines and said, "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane", and "My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam". The filmmaker upset newspaper critic Rex Reed who reportedly stormed out of the conference. Apocalypse Now won the Palme d'Or for best film along with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum – a decision that was reportedly greeted with "some boos and jeers from the audience".
Apocalypse Now performed well at the box office when it opened in August 1979. The film initially opened in one theater in New York City, Toronto, and Hollywood, grossing USD $322,489 in the first five days. It ran exclusively in these three locations for four weeks before opening in an additional 12 theaters on October 3, 1979 and then several hundred the following week. The film grossed over $78 million domestically with a worldwide total of approximately $150 million.
The film was re-released on August 28, 1987 in six cities to capitalize on the success of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and other Vietnam War movies. New 70mm prints were shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, and Cincinnati – cities where the film did financially well in 1979. The film was given the same kind of release as the exclusive engagement in 1979, with no logo or credits and audiences were given a printed program.
Upon its release, Apocalypse Now received mixed reviews. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin wrote, "as a noble use of the medium and as a tireless expression of national anguish, it towers over everything that has been attempted by an American filmmaker in a very long time".
Other reviews were less positive; Frank Rich in Time said: "While much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty". Vincent Canby argued, "Mr. Coppola himself describes it as "operatic," but [...] Apocalypse Now is neither a tone poem nor an opera. It's an adventure yarn with delusions of grandeur, a movie that ends—in the all-too-familiar words of the poet Mr. Coppola drags in by the bootstraps—not with a bang, but a whimper." The film is bitterly parodied in The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The novelist describes a movie where local people remain voiceless scenery for a Caucasian morality farce. A character's final words are "The whore! The whore!" a takeoff on Marlon Brando's line, "the horror, the horror."
Ebert added Coppola's film to his list of The Great Movies, stating: "Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover".
Various commentators have debated whether Apocalypse Now is an anti-war or pro-war film. Some commentators' evidence of the film's anti-war message include the purposeless brutality of the war, the absence of military leadership, and the imagery of machinery destroying nature. Advocates of the film's pro-war stance, however, view these same elements as a glorification of war and the assertion of American supremacy. According to Frank Tomasulo, "the U.S. foisting its culture on Vietnam," including the destruction of a village so that soldiers could surf, affirms the film's pro-war message. Additionally, the author Anthony Swofford recounted how his marine platoon watched Apocalypse Now before being sent to Iraq in 1990 in order to get excited for war. Nidesh Lawtoo illustrates the pro-war/anti-war tendencies of the film by focusing on the contradictory responses the movie in general and the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in particular triggered in a university classroom. According to Coppola, the film may be considered anti-war, but is even more anti-lie: "...the fact that a culture can lie about what's really going on in warfare, that people are being brutalized, tortured, maimed, and killed, and somehow present this as moral is what horrifies me, and perpetuates the possibility of war".
In May 2011, a newly restored digital print of Apocalypse Now was released in UK cinemas, distributed by Optimum Releasing. Total Film magazine gave the film a five-star review, stating: "This is the original cut rather than the 2001 ‘Redux’ (be gone, jarring French plantation interlude!), digitally restored to such heights you can, indeed, get a nose full of the napalm."
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 97%, "Certified Fresh" based on 79 reviews. It has an average critics' rating of 8.9/10. Its consensus states that "Francis Ford Coppola's haunting, hallucinatory Vietnam war epic is cinema at its most audacious and visionary".
Today, the movie is regarded by many as a masterpiece of the New Hollywood era. Roger Ebert considered it to be the finest film on the Vietnam war and included it on his list for the 2002 Sight & Sound poll for the greatest movie of all time. It is on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies list at number 28, but it dropped two spots to number 30 on their 10th anniversary list. Kilgore's quote, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," written by Milius, was number 12 on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes list and was also voted the greatest movie speech of all time in a 2004 poll. It is listed at number 7 on Empire's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Entertainment Weekly ranked Apocalypse Now as having one of the "10 Best Surfing Scenes" in cinema.
In 2002, Sight and Sound magazine polled several critics to name the best film of the last 25 years and Apocalypse Now was named number one. It was also listed as the second best war film by viewers on Channel 4's 100 Greatest War Films and was the second rated war movie of all time based on the Movifone list (after Schindler's List) and the IMDb War movie list (after The Longest Day). It is ranked number 1 on Channel 4's 50 Films to See Before You Die. In a 2004 poll of UK film fans, Blockbuster listed Kilgore's eulogy to napalm as the best movie speech. The helicopter attack scene with the Ride of the Valkyries soundtrack was chosen as the most memorable film scene ever by Empire magazine (this same piece of music was also used in 1915 to similar effect to accompany The Birth of a Nation). This scene is recalled in one of the last acts of the 2012 video game Far Cry 3 as the song is played while the character shoots from a helicopter.
In 2009, the London Film Critics' Circle voted Apocalypse Now the best movie of the last 30 years.
In August 2009, the head of the German Financial Regulator told the Bundestag Finance Committee that the failure of the "terrible" Depfa Bank, which was completely supervised by its Irish equivalent, led to the collapse of its German parent which forced Berlin to bail it out at a cost of €102 billion. The committee was told that the alternative was a run on German banks and the eventual collapse of the European finance system and "You would have woken up on Monday morning in the film Apocalypse Now"
In 2011, actor Charlie Sheen, son of Martin Sheen, started playing clips from the film on his live tour and played the film in its entirety during post-show parties. One of Charlie Sheen's films, the 1993 comedy Hot Shots! Part Deux, includes a brief scene in which Charlie is riding a boat up a river in Iraq while on a rescue mission and passes Martin, as Captain Willard, going the other way. As they pass, each man shouts to the other "I loved you in Wall Street!", referring to the 1987 film that had featured both of them. Additionally, the promotional material for Hot Shots! Part Deux included a mockumentary that aired on HBO titled Hearts of Hot Shots! Part Deux—A Filmmaker's Apology, in parody of the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, about the making of Apocalypse Now.
On January 25, 2017, Coppola announced that he was seeking funding through Kickstarter for a horror role-playing video game based on Apocalypse Now.American Film Institute lists
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – No. 28
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." – No. 12
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – No. 30
The first home video releases of Apocalypse Now were pan-and-scan versions of the original 35 mm Technovision anamorphic 2.35:1 print, and the closing credits, white on black background, were presented in compressed 1.33:1 full-frame format to allow all credit information to be seen on standard televisions. The first letterboxed appearance, on Laserdisc on December 29, 1991, cropped the film to a 2:1 aspect ratio (conforming to the Univisium spec created by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), and included a small degree of pan-and-scan processing at the insistence of Coppola and Storaro. The end credits, from a videotape source rather than a film print, were still crushed for 1.33:1 and zoomed to fit the anamorphic video frame. All DVD releases have maintained this aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen, but present the film without the end credits, which were treated as a separate feature. The Blu-ray releases of Apocalypse Now restore the film to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making it the first home video release to display the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
As a DVD extra, the footage of the explosion of the Kurtz compound was featured without text credits but included commentary by Coppola, explaining the various endings based on how the film was screened.
On the cover of the Redux DVD, Willard is erroneously listed as "Lieutenant Willard".
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (American Zoetrope/Cineplex Odeon Films) (1991) Directed by Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper, and Fax Bahr
Apocalypse Now – The Complete Dossier DVD (Paramount Home Entertainment) (2006). Disc 2 extras include:The Post Production of Apocalypse Now: Documentary (four featurettes covering the editing, music, and sound of the film through Coppola and his team)
"A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of Apocalypse Now" (18 minutes). Written and directed by Kim Aubry.
"The Music of Apocalypse Now" (15 minutes)
"Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now" (15 minutes)
"The Final Mix" (3 minutes)