Brando v. Coppola: Debunking the Myth of Apocalypse Now

By Susan Mizruchi

It was the late 1970s and one of Hollywood’s hottest directors had undertaken an incredible challenge: to make cinematic sense of America’s devastating war in Vietnam. The film shoot was wildly out of control: typhoons and cost overruns, a death from an accident on set, and a heart attack suffered by lead actor Martin Sheen. As some tell it, the biggest of all the problems on the terribly vexed set of Apocalypse Now was Marlon Brando.

According to director Francis Ford Coppola, Brando showed up entirely unprepared: he was grossly overweight, had not read Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (the novel upon which the film was based), and was eager to stall the production to increase his already inflated salary.

Except this is not what happened. Letters between Brando and Coppola, audios of the two discussing the film’s conception on a houseboat while filming was suspended, and Brando’s personal script, notes, and the many books he read and annotated for the film — reveal that Brando not only was well prepared for the production, but also contributed ideas and script revisions that shaped the entire film.

Marlon Brando died on July 1, 2004. Now in the aftermath of the tenth anniversary of his death, it is time to acknowledge what has been overlooked: that our foremost American actor had a mind. His curiosity about the world around him was even greater than his more legendary appetites for women and food.

Contrary to Coppola’s claim, Brando read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (his 4,000 book library contained multiple editions of the novel). He shaved his head, deliberately, to suit Conrad’s description of Colonel Kurtz, Brando’s character, as “impressively bald.”

Brando’s reading to prepare for the film included numerous other books and materials: The Pentagon Papers, writings by anthropologist James Frazer and philosopher Hannah Arendt, T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” first-person accounts of the U.S. Vietnam mission, and more.

Coppola recognized how crucial Brando’s knowledge was to his film. Writing the actor just before he arrived on set, Coppola admitted that directing the film had become a “nightmare” that he would rely on Brando to get through. “Together we can accomplish anything,” he wrote — “even make a movie about Vietnam.”

In fact, Coppola relied on Brando so much that Brando himself — who had famously remarked that the only people who could write better acting lines were Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare — became uncomfortable with the authority he was granted. As he wrote to Coppola in a letter, “It’s not really my job to be involved in the overall concept of the script.”

Regardless of Brando’s discomfort, audiotapes of discussions between the two confirm that Coppola drew heavily on Brando’s vision of Kurtz, and of the whole film.

Michael Herr, the Vietnam War novelist who revised the screenplay on set, recalled that Brando “wrote a stream of brilliant lines for his character.” Even Coppola’s biographer, Peter Cowie, notes that Kurtz’s domain “houses the core of the film’s meaning, and Kurtz’s scenes alight unerringly on the reasons for the American predicament in Vietnam.”

If Coppola in fact relied heavily on Brando, then why have we been told otherwise? Coppola needed a scapegoat. By then a world-famous director who had won two Academy Awards, Coppola this time was in over his head. As the director later admitted, the film production was akin to its subject — Vietnam. Instead of focusing on his inability to control the fiasco, Coppola turned on Brando.

The actor was an easy target: deeply idiosyncratic and ambivalent toward fame, he made a point of rejecting his celebrity and exploiting it on behalf of causes he believed in. In 1973, just after Coppola had won an Academy Award for the adapted screenplay of The Godfather, Brando had refused to accept the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the same film. Instead, he sent an Indian emissary — Apache tribe member Sacheen Littlefeather — to decline the award to protest Hollywood’s denigration of American Indians in film. It was an act that won him praise among activists and aroused contempt in Hollywood.

What better way for Coppola to absolve himself, then, than to focus on Brando? He knew that Hollywood, with its resentments toward Brando, would jump on the story, and he also knew that Brando would not offer a counterargument. In typical fashion, Brando avoided a public slugfest and instead wrote to Coppola privately to express his dismay about the betrayal.

This is not to say that Brando was perfect: as he himself acknowledged, he had many flaws. He did not weigh 300 pounds in Apocalypse Now as some rumors suggested, but at 210 pounds he was still 30 pounds overweight, the result of an overeating habit akin to his family’s propensity for alcoholism (his parents and sisters were all alcoholics). More generally, his self-indulgent lifestyle harmed his children and created untold misery for himself and the many women in his life.

But these personal qualities should not detract from Brando’s legacy. His success was due not only to looks and talent, but to his extensive preparations for his roles. He was a genius in the minds of those who directed him (Elia Kazan), those who wrote for him (Tennessee Williams), and those in a position to know (Laurence Olivier).

With Brando’s 4000-book library, his personal film scripts, his letters, his audio archive — all available since his death — we now have the documents to debunk the myths surrounding him, and give America’s greatest actor credit for his contribution to the history of film.


Susan L. Mizruchi is Professor of English Literature at Boston University and the author of Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work.


This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post: