When I read three years ago that Vittorio Storaro had been chosen as the cinematographer for Apocalypse Now, I was shocked. Storaro, the lush Vogue-style photographer of Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, for a picture that was being billed as the definitive epic about Vietnam!
Though inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic tale Heart of Darkness, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is the kind of film we don’t ordinarily think of as an adaptation. And not simply because of its change of tide. It doesn’t acknowledge its literary source in its credits—they simply read: “Screenplay by John Milius and Francis Coppola; Narration by Michael Herr.”
In The Power of Adaptation in "Apocalypse Now" Marsha Kinder critically compares and contrasts the film and the novel. In this article, Kinder states that "Coppola rarely hesitates to change Conrad's story-setting, events, characters-whenever the revision is required by the Vietnam context."
What does Apocalypse Now mean—the film as we have it, considering the minimal difference between the 35mm version with the title sequence and the 70mm version without, but ignoring all the prerelease stories and versions, preliminary scripts, and encrusted commentary?
Coppola’s "heart of darkness," like Conrad’s, is a triumph of style over story. Or rather, the description—words for Conrad, mise-en-scène for Coppola—is the story’s raison d'être.
Apocalypse Now achieved its highest aspiration: Not only was it immersed in the historical period and place - Vietnam - but it was an allegory of people facing reality and truth.
Vittorio Storaro recalls the photographic challenges he confronted during the tumultuous production of Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory Vietnam War epic 'Apocalypse Now'
"The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. "
Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now lives up to its grand title, disclosing not only the various faces of war but also the contradictions between excitement and boredom, terror and pity, brutality and beauty.
Viewed as a conventional updating of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now looks like not much more than a cannibalization.