By Kevin Dowling
June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

“My film is not a movie,” Francis Coppola bellowed at the stunned and squirming audience before him. “It is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like—it was crazy.” To the people fortunate or persistent enough to have wangled a ticket to a screening of the long-awaited Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival, that extravagant boast seemed uncomfortably true. A roiling, raging, breathtakingly bloody vision of the war, Coppola’s 140-minute epic left its viewers at once in awe, in horror—and in doubt.

No screening at Cannes in recent memory had come so freighted with significance—for the film or its maker. Coppola, 40, has staked everything on Apocalypse Now, mortgaging much of his property—and the unpaid royalties on both Godfathers—for cash to finish the vastly overbudget $30.5 million film. Spanning 10 years from concept to working print, the project became nearly as unstoppable as the war it was meant to portray. It kept Coppola in the Philippine jungles for most of two years—through two typhoons, an earthquake, the heart attack of star Martin Sheen, several cast divorces—and left him 100 pounds lighter and with indeterminate but widely discussed psychic scars. On the day of the screening, he spoke of Apocalypse like a man on the razor’s edge. “I thought I was making a war movie,” he recalled of his days in the Philippines. “Then it struck me—like a diamond bullet in the head—the film was making itself, and all I was there for was to do my best. It was like the jungle took us over. The technicians and the actors and director were going crazy.”

Coppola’s distributors tried to persuade him not to take his still unfinished “work in progress” to Cannes, but he waved them off, ferrying his print, family and entourage of 40 to the Riviera by private jet. Chartering a $4,000-a-day yacht, the Amazone, anchored a quarter mile offshore, Coppola occasionally ventured into Cannes in the days before the screening to stroll the Croisette and have a drink at the Carlton. But, thinner and bedraggled, he went unrecognized—and kept the film under tight wraps.

The secrecy was purposeful: to limit early publicity that could undercut the film’s attention on release (its U.S. premiere is in August). But most of the secrets were already out. Bootleg copies of the script had been circulating in Hollywood for weeks, and Coppola’s San Francisco-based American Zoetrope production company had revealed the premise of the film as early as 1969. It announced that George Lucas had been signed to direct an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in Vietnam. Lucas moved on (to Star Wars, among other things), and the script was reworked and abandoned, but the fulcrum of the plot remained: Young Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent upriver into the Cambodian jungles to track down Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone mad, setting himself up as a demigod among local tribesmen. Coppola himself was the source of many location anecdotes, deliciously circulated in Hollywood, and he could not resist telling additional war stories in Cannes. “It was more dangerous than actually fighting in Vietnam,” he said. “In Vietnam you would have maybe 10 minutes of real terror and danger in 24 hours, then it was back to waiting, boredom. But we were constantly doing dangerous things—hanging from helicopters, setting off bombs. It was a dense experience.”

The only real mystery attending the screening was which version the audience would see and how they would react. There are still at least two possible endings to the film—one upbeat, one down—as well as different versions of the score (one by Coppola and his father, Carmine), the narration (the favored one was written in part by Dispatches author Michael Herr) and the titles. At a sneak preview last month in Los Angeles, Coppola handed out questionnaires to the audience soliciting advice for the final cut. He gave the same questionnaire to President Carter and other Administration topsiders at a White House screening not long after and cannot have been too sanguine about the results. “Horrible,” one member of the Washington audience said. “I think it’s going to be good, someday,” said another. Said a third: “Coppola’s a genius—I hated it.”

Given reactions like that and the film’s maybe/maybe-not stage of development, Coppola might have been wiser had he not entered it in competition. But he seemed determined to damn the torpedoes. “I’m not afraid to lose,” he insisted. “I’m not interested in the prize.”

The morning of the screenings Coppola’s mood seemed to darken like the rain-filled skies over Cannes. “Why should I go looking for publicity?” he demanded of one reporter. “You need me—not the other way around.” At the press screening that afternoon he turned his guns on his audience—”There has never been a truthful thing written about Apocalypse Now.” Later he complained privately, “American genius has been snuffed out by this horrible cancer of marketing—the way the marketing men tried to snuff out my film.” He took particular pains to explain what most members of the audience thought was the film’s most glaring defect: It is the last 20 minutes (as seen in L.A. and at the White House), in which Brando and Sheen discourse interminably on the meaning of life and morals before Willard—finally, messily and shockingly—murders Kurtz. “I like this ambiguous ending,” Coppola insisted. “There are those who want something pleasant, something warm to end the film with. Well, I’ve got that ending too. But that’s a lie. Maybe during the next month I will decide to end the film with a lie anyway, but I don’t think so. Vietnam and America have had all the lies they need already.”

That night paparazzi, reporters and ordinary folks jostled close to the theater entrance to see the celebrities arrive for the screening. Alas, there were few to see; Coppola, who reportedly controlled all the tickets, invited friends and hangers-on and left only about 20 seats for the stars and VIPs who had come to Cannes from all over the globe. Two hours and 20 minutes later the hand-picked audience filed out with the same look of horror and confusion on their faces that earlier audiences had displayed: Some thought they had seen a masterpiece, others a disaster.

“This film is the best I could do,” Coppola told reporters. “You are going to be thinking and talking about it tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.” That much seemed assured. A documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now is in the works by Zoetrope for general release. Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, is publishing a book on the subject this summer. And the film’s moments of high artistic daring are enough to guarantee it due respect and more than respectable receipts. After the press screening Coppola’s public relations man, Pierre Rissient, swept into the Blue Bar next to the festival palace, put his hand on Coppola’s shoulder and told him that everyone loved it. “Those few who hated it,” Rissient said, “it’s almost a compliment to have them hate it—you wouldn’t want them anyway.” Coppola shook off the thought. “Nobody knows what it was like,” he told the reporter drinking with him. “It was like building a $30 million skyscraper, like building the pyramids.”

Whatever the film’s ultimate shape and reception, Coppola has indeed pulled off a project of extraordinary scale, ambition and vision. And if, in the end, it fails to make the $80 million at the box office he is rumored to need to realize a profit, the reason will be a last, ironic echo of the Vietnam war itself. As Coppola described his final dilemma with Apocalypse Now: “I didn’t know how to end it.”