We will never get past Viet Nam if we sweep it under the carpet

Mid-1976, during what would become one of the most troubled shoots in the history of cinema, Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola wrote the following apology to Marlon Brando as a result of his recent elusiveness; the reason being, he explained, further re-writes of the script — in particular with regard to Brando’s character, Colonel Leighley (later Kurtz). In what is a truly insightful letter, Coppola’s frustrations are palpable as he first details the reasoning behind the evolution of Leighley/Kurtz; then speaks of the public’s need to face the horror of Vietnam “head on”; and finally makes known his desire to finish this “nightmare” of a movie so as to “move people, and to help put this war in perspective”.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of Christie’s.



Dear Marlon,

I got a note from Debbie saying that she brought you the retyped script and spent a little time with you. I am sorry that I was so elusive those few weeks I was in California. That time was like a dream to me, and I was so anxious to get the script done, and solve all its problems, that I kept putting off sending it and meeting with you, thinking I would break its back any day. Before I knew it, I had run out of time, and the whole enormous machinery started up again. Essentially, what I tried to do, and am still working on was to rethink the character of Leighley from a doped-up madman, to a sincere, rational — maybe even great officer who finds himself totally at odds with the Generals in command, and gives way to his own instincts about the way to wage this war. The reason he is in the field, commanding is by his own choice — he was called in to settle a Montagnard revolt, and chooses to ‘revolt’ with them, to go off, across the border, where he can follow his own inclinations. He believes the war must be fought with everything, that it cannot be limited war insofar as the V.C. are not fighting a limited war. Consequently, he gives way to his irrational parts, the ‘savage’ parts in all of us — sort of like opening a Pandora’s box — like teaching innocent natives how to kill with modern weapons, and reawaking almost forgotten lusts for killing and savagery. But in doing that, he is also kindling those near forgotten lusts in himself as well. Leighley is an extraordinary man, because he always tells the truth — but he goes too far, and he is consumed by it. I guess that’s what this movie is really about. About facing the truth, and then rising beyond it. We will never get past Viet Nam if we sweep it under the carpet — we must face it, head on, as ugly and horryible as it will seem out in the open. And then by facing it, we can put it behind us. We do not have to feel guilty — guilt is a destructive emotion — we have only to judge ourselves, and go on. And we can’t beat ourselves to death about those contradictory parts of us: the fact that we want things the way we want them, the fact that we lust after things, and enjoy satisfying those lusts — even the lust to kill. The truth is that those things do exist — but in balance with instincts of tenderness, compassion, charity — The interesting thing about this character is that he is whole, he is irrational and rational all in one, and that is what people are like.

I’m writing this note to you to let you know that I am still working on this thing, and will continue to work. I have new pages, maybe they have progressed, maybe not. But, as you know, I have an open mind and a hunger to make this be good, and to move people, and to help put this war in perspective. Naturally, I welcome your collaboration. When you come here, I know — we will relax and take it one step at a time, and find the way to make the scenes work. The things I have shot already — especially the briefing scene, I think work very well, and are much more complex than indicated in the script — I will show it to you if you think it helpful.

This movie has been a nightmare for me, but I am trying to take it slowly, one step at a time, letting my intuitions guide me.

I really think you’re help at this point, will push me where I want to go. Please don’t worry about anything, nothing is impossible, and together we can accomplish anything, even make a movie about Viet Nam.

Sincerely, FRANCIS