Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Is Apocalypse Now Redux Based On A True Story?

A burnt-out soldier. An impossible mission. A reluctant crew. A power-mad commanding officer. The individual pieces of "Apocalypse Now Redux" –– the longer, recut version of director Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 war epic "Apocalypse Now" –– are timeless. These are the building blocks of a thousand stories, from "The Iliad" to "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." The combination, in whatever way they're put together, is classic and elemental, ringing so true in a human sense that we can't help but wonder whether the narrative constructed around it has a basis in the real world.

There's plenty of true-to-life detail reflected in the story of Willard (Martin Sheen) and his pursuit of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) through Vietnam and Cambodia. There was, as you may have heard, a war involving American forces in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, and plenty of truths that have come out of that conflict still seem far stranger than fiction. But the specific story of a voyage to assassinate a rogue American Special Forces colonel who's being treated as a messianic figure both by the locals and the few Westerners he's come into contact with? That has a different origin story.

Apocalypse Now Redux is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

"Apocalypse Now Redux" screenwriter John Milius –– who would go on to write and direct "Conan the Barbarian" and "Red Dawn" –– admits that the inspiration for the project originally came out of his attempt to write a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella and high school English class staple "Heart of Darkness."

In an interview with IGN, Milius credited a screenwriting professor he had at the University of Southern California, Erwin Blacker, with planting the idea. "He was going on about 'Heart of Darkness,' how no one had ever licked 'Heart of Darkness.' Nobody could ever beat Conrad." Milius would eventually take up the challenge, but he wasn't interested in creating a straight adaptation or merely transposing the events of the book directly to its Southeast Asian setting. And so, when he set out to write the script, he didn't use Conrad's story as a guide. "I decided not to read it again," Milius told IGN. "I wanted to sort of have 'Heart of Darkness' as if I'd dreamed it ... I wanted my original interpretations of it. I didn't want them to be exact, I wanted to make a reference to it, sort of an allegorical reference."

Even going out one layer to the source material doesn't get you closer to a story based on the truth. According to Britannica, "Heart of Darkness" is based on Conrad's own experiences as the captain of a riverboat in the Belgian Congo. But the actual plot of the book — the quest for Colonel Kurtz and the circumstances of his mysterious sway over both Africans and Europeans in the jungle — is purely fictional.

What true-life elements might have been borrowed for Apocalypse Now Redux?

So the core of the "Apocalypse Now Redux" story was drawn from Joseph Conrad, with the American war machine replacing European colonial exploitation. But the details were filled in from a variety of other sources, including Dante's Inferno and liberal quotations from the poetry of T.S. Eliot. And, yes, some true-to-life elements as well.

The history of the Vietnam War had no shortage of memorable characters, and so John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, and the various actors involved would draw on some of these for their portrayals of characters such as Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore or Dennis Hopper's photojournalist acolyte of Colonel Kurtz. In fact, obituaries for the CIA operative Tony Poshepny, including one in the Bangkok Post, sometimes claimed him to be the inspiration for "Apocalypse Now Redux's" Kurtz because of his experience running secret campaigns and resorting to gruesome tactics to terrify the opposition. But a profile of Poshepny in SF Weekly cites an interview with Coppola where he says more was drawn from Green Beret Col. Robert Rheault.

If you really are a dedicated "truth is stranger than fiction" person, then luckily for you, the "Apocalpyse New Redux" itself plays its part in a heck of a true story that has been documented on film. The 1991 documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" details the absolute nightmare of a time Coppola, his cast, and his crew had trying to get the film made, which included casting changes, damage from Typhoon Olga that wrecked sets and delayed filming, and the difficulties of working with Marlon Brando — all as Coppola wrestled with delays and budget overruns.