Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Script review – “Apocalypse Now” (1969) by John Milius (first draft)

This was the first draft of what became a legendary film. Milius nails his colours to the mast with an opening story about some paratroopers waiting to go to Vietnam; a hippy tries to talk them out of it and a soldier smashes him in the head. When asked who did it all the paratroopers reply, “I did.” Imagine reading that in a script in 1969!
It opens with the ambush of some Vietnamese soldiers by some American irregulars – shirtless, covered in paint. They return to their base, run by Kurtz, who wears a beret, sunglasses and a loincloth, and has his arm around a native girl in a loin cloth – he orders “Sunshine of Your Love” played over loudspeakers to celebrate. Full on! Years before Platoon you’ve got Milius – who never served in Vietnam – evoking the craziness of that war.
Cut to China Beach, where Willard is chilling out, rather than having a nervous breakdown. Some soldiers arrive to collect him for his mission to kill Kurtz. (“Terminate with extreme prejudice” is here.) It’s made clear that Kurtz has been attacking the South Vietnamese as well as the Viet Cong. He gets on the boat, meets Chief, Clean, Chef and Lance then goes up river. During the trip characters do monologues about their past which didn’t make the final film: Clean talks about his history as a chef, Lance about his love for a girl from school driving him to join the army.
There’s still the attack by the cavalry division – only Kilgore here is called "Kharnage". He puts cards on Vietnamese corpses and admires Lance’s surfing (“Charlie don’t surf” is here), then launches an attack the next day, hoping to drop off Willard and get a good surf break, and the loudspeakers playing Wagner is already here. So too is the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” – and the colonel wanting to retrieve his surf board.
Then there’s finding the tiger in the jungle, visiting the massive base where they have a playboy bunny show. Kurtz gets a letter from his wife who talks about their kids. They’re attacked on the river by unseen assailants, fight them off, then arrive ata French plantation., where Willard sleeps with a French lady, and the French take half their ammo. Then they reach another outpost where the playboy bunnies and their agent are stranded – Willard gets the women to sleep with his men in exchange for help getting back (Milius was never one to create three-dimensional female characters - the bunnies and the French are whores). They arrive at another base, this one under even more attack – this is where the superhuman soldier Roach manages to blow up VC soldiers in the distance.
They reach Kurtz’s compound – a horrific place, with skulls and native warriors, and Americans who’ve gone native. He’s met with Kurtz, who is clearly mad – scarier and more believable that a fat, bald Marlon Brando. Kurtz has concubine slaves and servants; he feeds prisoners to his men, who are also supplied with abundant amounts of drugs. He’s still smart enough to clock Willard as an assassin but doesn’t kill him; instead, he shows him around, perhaps trying to convert him. Then the VC attack – we intercut between Kurtz whipping up his troops and a VC officer whipping up his. (It isn’t much but it’s more humanising of the enemy than in the final film or Platoon). The final attack takes place in which Clean, Lance and Kurtz die (the latter like Davy Crockett, swinging his rifle as he goes down) but the others survive. When the helicopters arrive to pick up Willard, he fires a gun at them.
It's overwritten in places with perhaps too much dialogue, but even after all these years, this is a remarkable script - bold, passionate, insane. It's a masterpiece and Milius has never been given enough credit for it.

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