Posted on November 5, 2019
by Steve Janowick

In 1976 the acclaimed director, Francis Ford Coppola, was forced to confront his demons.  

He, along with a renegade group of actors and filmmakers, left for the Philippine jungles to take on a script (and vision) so audacious, so grand in scale and so problematic that it would ultimately test the limits of their collective sanity. 

On the surface, Apocalypse Now is a film about the madness of the Vietnam War, but peel back the layers and it’s also a brutal allegory about man’s nightmarish journey into the self, and in a classic case of art imitating life, many making this picture unwittingly took that same journey during its production – and almost didn’t come back.  

It must be difficult for anyone under forty to imagine a time when a filmmaker was so invested in his art, so unwilling to compromise in it yet so willing to suffer for it, that he would actually risk slipping into an abyss of insanity, or even death, to see it through.   

But that was the reality for the auteur in the 1970’s.  The decade that saw authenticity, realism, and truth converge in the heart of the American zeitgeist to help create some of the most honest, gritty (and spectacular) movies of any era – before or since. 

There were no blue screens or fancy CGI special effects for filmmakers to utilize back then.  No cell phones for expedient communication to the crew or studios. No streamlined camera rigs.  No editing software suites in post-production. No digital shortcuts or technological conveniences of any kind!  

The seventies were still very much in the analog age.  When the filmmakers couldn’t be mentally lazy. When they used actual, tangible 35mm film – and the yielded images were grainy and raw and deep.  When they blew things up with real (and very dangerous) explosives. When entire sets were constructed in the middle of the wilderness. When real indigenous tribes were boated in and used as extras.  When the Philippine helicopters you bartered to use postponed the entire production because they were needed to fight in a real war ten miles up the coast.  When a typhoon washed away half of your locations – delaying the shoot for over a month and ballooning the budget. And when your lead actor was brought back from the brink of death after a major cardiac arrest due to exhaustion.  

But diamonds aren’t made overnight in pillowy flower beds.  Either are great movies! And just like the diamond, Apocalypse Now was created under extremes of pressure, stress and time to become one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever put to celluloid; some arguing that it’s the greatest movie of all time about the madness of war.   

But one thing is for certain.  The days of directors (and the Hollywood machine in general) going to such lengths (or through such extremes) for the sake of making great art are long over.  Those wild-eyed renegades and trailblazers from the seventies have either passed away, folded up their chairs, or worse, capitulated to the sanitized, benign, safe and boring way of making movies today.  Bent at the knee before the corporate conglomerates who run Hollywood and the fickle, dumbed-down, attention-deficient movie-going public they answer to. 

But all is not lost.  

I’m hedging my bets that it’ll all come full circle one day soon.  That somewhere in Middle America today there’s an artistic type with his grandfather’s old 8mm camera, a head full of ideas, a rebellious attitude and a willingness to risk it all for the chance to tell stories…

the way the renegades used to.

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