“Charlie Don’t Surf!”: ‘Apocalypse Now’ and What Surfing Means to America

How Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius used the Vietnam War and surf culture to showcase dying American exceptionalism

There isn’t a more harrowing film about filmmaking than Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. All of the legends about the production of Apocalypse Now center on Francis Ford Coppola, who during the course of a year-long shoot in the Philippines mutated from the most promising young director of the New Hollywood to a cautionary tale before his time—from Willard to Kurtz. Of all the ways to read Coppola’s film, a painful allegory about the perils of operating outside of studio marching orders isn’t the worst way to go. Hearts of Darkness is an unbearably intimate behind-the-scenes account of the various catastrophes—natural and man-made, and most beyond even Coppola’s maestro-like control—that beset the crew from the moment they touched down in Manila. That the movie was ever completed, much less wrestled into something like a masterpiece by a team of four editors, is a testament to true disaster artistry. Wild, ambitious, uncompromised, and ultimately as imperfect as the Godfather films were scrupulously controlled, Apocalypse Now is, for better and for worse, its director’s defining work: How do you live up to something like that? Or live it down?

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