The Making of Apocalypse Now

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By Mike Benge, POW, VVFH Founding Member

The only similarity between Francis Ford Coppola’s film set-in South-East Asia and Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” set in Africa is that both had rivers winding through them and both had major characters named Kurtz. And, oh yes, Coppola copied Conrad’s style of telling stories within a story. Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” makes a mockery of the geography of Vietnam and Cambodia by depicting the Mekong River as running through the jungles of Northwest Cambodia. Captain Benjamin L. Willard’s, played by Martin Sheen, odyssey portrays him powering up one river and drifting down another in his relentless quest to find the reclusive Colonel Kurtz (Marlin Brando) in the heart of Cambodia and assassinate him. (Senator John Kerry would have been a great advisor for this portion of the movie, given his claimed expertise and fantasy in navigating this area in Cambodia – A figment of his imagination. What Coppola produced was an epic messy abortion regurgitated from the hallucinatory nightmare in his mind – the Vietnam War. 

Anthropologist Dr. Gerald Cannon Hickey – Gerry to his friends – was the most knowledgeable scholar on the Montagnards of the Central Highlands in Vietnam. One day Gerry received a phone call from Francis Ford Coppola’s production manager, who wanted to hire him as a consultant on that portion of his film pertaining to Montagnards. Gerry had no patience for the likes of Coppola and wanted nothing to do with his brand of movie madness; besides that, he was in the middle of writing yet another book on the Montagnards. He knew that I was on sabbatical from USAID, which had broken its contract to fund my Master’s Degree at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, and suggested they contact me for the job, adding, “Mike knows more about the Montagnards than you’ll ever need to know.”  

They took Gerry’s suggestion and offered me the job at a salary much higher than what I was making with USAID, and sweetened the pot by providing a Crown Toyota and a chauffeur to drive me to and from the set each day. I lived near the University only a few miles away from the shooting location. I decided this would be a good break from my intense Master’s research. At first, I was intrigued by what was going on, but I soon realized it was more make-believe than any semblance of the reality of the Vietnam War, and many of the film’s so-called expert advisors were as phony as a $3 bill. 

My first encounter with this was at a humongous evening outdoor picnic-style buffet with lighted lanterns given in honor of Martin Sheen, who decided not to come to the party. I was following Coppola through the line as he described one scene involving the Montagnards. As Captain Willard is floating down a river in a boat, as, he drifts around a bend and looking through field glasses a scene evolves with a group of Montagnard men dancing around a woman giving birth. As they circle around, each, in turn, pushes on her abdomen in a ritualistic aid to help force the baby out. I asked Coppola, “Where in the hell did you get this idea? The birth of a Montagnard child is a private affair attended only by women.” He replied that his personal pilot had seen this when he was a helicopter pilot stationed in the Central Highlands. “Bullshit!” I retorted. He then told me to turn around and ask the pilot, who was standing right behind me. He was pretty impressive, a big guy, standing at least 6 foot 3 or 4, buff, and didn’t seem all that pleased with my comment. I thought to myself,” Holy shit!” Not backing down one iota, I quickly asked, “Where were you stationed?” He replied, “Pleiku.” I then asked, “What were you doing?” He replied, “I was an Army helicopter pilot.” By then Coppola was standing beside me, when I said, “I’ve three questions for you.” Coppola was listening intensely, either to what I was asking, or perhaps just waiting for a clue to what would provoke his pilot to take a poke at me. I then asked, “What was the name of the base you flew out of and what aviation company was stationed there? He hemmed and hawed, and finally said, “I can’t, a don’t, remember.” To which I emphatically said, “Strike one!” I then turned to Coppola and said, “Everyone who was there knew the name, Camp Holloway – about 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) west of Pleiku – for it was named after Chief Warrant Officer Charles E. Holloway, who in December 1962 became the first helicopter pilot killed in action. Camp Holloway was the home of the U.S. Army’s 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion.” I turned back to the pilot and asked, “If you flew out of Pleiku, what was the most distinctive visual landmark from the air?” He couldn’t seem to remember that either. I then forcefully said, “Strike two!” Again, I turned back to Coppola and told him, “The landmark was Pussy Peak. Every pilot who ever flew in Vietnam knew that. The Vietnamese called it “Dragon Mountain” (a contraction of Dragon’s Mouth MountainNúi Hàm Rồng in Vietnamese) and the Montagnards called it Chu H’Drung. The American name came from the fact that it was shaped like a woman’s torso, with two ridges coming down taking the shape of legs cut off at the knees, with a triangle patch of trees nestled in the crotch of the mountain. It was the major landmark for the dogleg flight pattern from Saigon to Hue. I then addressed the pilot once more, “I have one last question, remember it’s ‘three strikes and you’re out.” “What was the name of the Montagnard tribe in Pleiku that was supposedly conducting this ritual?” Again, he seemed not to remember, so I prompted him with, “Was it the Cao Đài, the Hòa Hảo, or the Nung?” (None of which were Montagnard tribes in South Viet Nam, the later was a tribe for North Vietnam.)  He thought for a while and then with a stammer he emphatically replied, “The Hoa Hao, that’s it, they were called the Hoa Hao.” I ardently told the pilot, “Strike three, you’re out of here!”  Turning my back on him, I said to Coppola, “Your pilot is a liar. The Hoa Hao is a religious sect, not a Montagnard tribe, and I doubt if he was ever in Vietnam. If so, he was a REMF and got his story out of a gin bottle in some bar in Saigon.” The crowd at the buffet had grown quiet, listening to our conversation and waiting for Coppola to explode; but for some reason, he didn’t. Surprisingly, giving the devil his due, Coppola dropped the scene from the movie, nor did the pilot deck me and he kept flying for Coppola. This was my introduction to Coppola’s delusional world.  

The whole shoot was screwed up. The movie sets were awash with phony Vietnam Vets and drugs, coke, marijuana, and whatever, were prevalent everywhere.  It wasn’t long before Martin Sheen had to be med-evaced to a hospital in the U.S. The press release claimed he had a heart attack, but the word on the set was that Sheen had overdosed on coke at a private party. Notwithstanding, he probably did, for I understand that a coke overdose can give one a heart attack, so the press release wasn’t completely dishonest. 

There wasn’t much to my job other than critiquing the asininities that were taking place, advising and/or negotiating with the Montagnard stand-ins, (i.e., from the Bontoc tribe in the Philippines), and selecting cloth samples for costumes. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I spent a lot of it scoping out the sub-sets of the production, as well as hanging out at a small cantina on location with the actors and others and enjoying the ice-cold San Miguel beer on the hot/humid days that are most common in the Philippines.

There, I met the French actors who were playing the role of a family of rubber planters, on a specular set that was a work of art. They had it down to the red clay found throughout the main region where rubber was grown in Vietnam. Coppola was big on family scenes, and the stage was set to recreate a French family’s eating a Thanksgiving dinner. They had been shooting the scene over and over again for several days in an attempt to create a picture to the perfectionist Coppola’s liking. After several takes one day, and after the French actors consumed parts of several turkeys, one of them projectile-vomited a mouth full of reheated turkey all over the table. He yelled “Cut!” Coppola was known for his volatile temper, and most everyone walked on eggs when around him, as I had learned after my encounter with him that few dared to correct the maestro if something was wrong. He shut down the scene for three or four days, perhaps because Coppola had his pilot fly in cooked turkeys prepared in LA. Afterward, I bought the actors a few cold beers and asked them why didn’t they tell Coppola that the French don’t celebrate Thanksgiving? They replied, “Hey, we’re working and getting paid, why ruin a good thing?” I don’t know how long this farce continued, but someone finally clued in Coppola, who then sent his pilot to LA to buy a Christmas tree, some decorations, and another turkey. His pilot was sure earning his pay.

They had a lot of Vietnamese sitting around watching the filming of the action on the sets. I assumed they had been brought in from the large Vietnamese refugee camp on Palawan Island to play the roles of VC and villagers. To my great surprise, among them was a Vietnamese Captain who had been the aide-de-camp to Col. Thanh, the Province Chief and my counterpart during my assignment to Darlac Province, Viet Nam. The Captain was the last “friendly” I had talked with just prior to my capture. The “Chief’s” house and office and my office were in the same compound. I had brought a message from Col. Thanh for him to immediately evacuate his family and anyone else there and take them to his military headquarters – just a short distance up the road toward the center of Ban Me Thuot. The last I saw of him and the others was as he drove out the gate, the children waved to me as they passed and headed toward the Chief’s headquarters. I then went the opposite way and proceeded south down the road toward the missionary compound and my capture by the NVA. I invited the Captain to go to the cantina with me and have a cold beer and we talked through the afternoon. He told me that in ’72 during the NVA Easter Offensive most of the Province Chief’s family had been killed in a mortar attack on their home in Dalat in which Col. Thanh lost his arm.

Another set on location was a mockup of a U.S. Special Forces (SF) camp set up at the bottom of a hill in the middle of a coconut grove. Anyone with a lick of military sense would know not to establish a camp where enemy forces can approach unseen and set up a firing zone from a hill above, let alone one in the middle of a surrounding coconut grove with no clear field of fire. I asked around for the American advisor for the set and found a laid-back zoned out guy in green fatigues. He seemed to be passing the time getting stoned from the readily available marijuana or other drugs and contemplating his navel. Having worked closely at times with various Special Forces units/camps in Vietnam, I knew enough about them to be dangerous. I attempted to carry on a coherent conversation with the mellowed-out “advisor,” asking what unit he had been with, what camps he had been in, and what were their locations. His responses were so general that I could only assume he was never in Special Forces, and if he ever was in Viet Nam he was probably a REMF who spent his time in the bars and drug alleys in Saigon. The only thing he seemed to know for sure was that the SF training center was in Fort Bragg, North Carolina which was common knowledge to most everyone.

One might assume that many of Coppola’s military advisors were recruited from the pool of deserters and druggies who crawled from beneath the rocks and appeared out of the back-alley drug havens in the cities of Vietnam as the communists began cleansing the country of this pestilence. After President Ford’s September 1974 conditional amnesty grant to draft dodgers and deserters, like rats to a ship they sought passage on freighters or other craft to descend as a scourge on Manila. They were commonly seen panhandling throughout Manila. At that time, it was the U.S. Embassy’s policy to let sleeping dogs lie, and no matter how bad they acted, unless they broke Philippine law and were arrested and jailed, a blind eye was turned to them.

Marlon Brando, who was to play the part of Colonel Kurtz arrived at the shoot looking like Sidney Greenstreet clocking in well over 300 lbs. He was a no-show for the “grand buffet” given in his honor; luckily, I was too, for some reason my chauffeur forgot to pick me up. Nevertheless, everyone who did attend came down with ptomaine poisoning and filming was shut down for a week or more. If Brando had attended, perhaps he would have shed a few pounds from diarrhea. He had originally been written into the script as a Special Forces Captain (the common rank of Special Forces A-camp commanders in Vietnam), but because of his obesity they did a re-write, promoted him to a Colonel, and shot all his scenes in opaque light showing him only from the waist up to mask his blubber. Although Brando was known by many for his sensitivity and beating the drum while advocating for the rights of the Native American movement, he had hardly been on-site a week in the Philippines before in a press conference he made an uncouth insult about Filipinos. It was something like they were decedents of a bunch of monkeys who just a few generations ago had come down from the trees. I thought it a bit strange and wondered if some Native American had given him a bag of dried peyote to chew on while on the plane on his way over. All of the Filipinos working on the film, including the Philippine Army with their helicopters, went out on strike to protest his remarks. I assumed Coppola gave them a considerable pay raise to go back to work after a week or so.

One day I brought two Cambodian artists, a man-and-wife team with a very young daughter, to see the huge, very well-done, four-faced Bayon that one of the set designers had created for the Col. Kurtz set. For the mythical A-Camp set, Coppola had geographically moved part of the World Heritage Site of Anchor Wat from the west side of Cambodia to the east side of the country. Sam and his wife Moly were refugees and staying at my house since the American stipend for their university studies had been cut off. The four-faced Bayon with a slight smile adorns numerous temple ruins and is a world-recognized symbol of Cambodia including one on its flag. The set even had simulated roots of a Banyan tree gripping the head of the Bayon as if it was actually in the jungle. The Cambodian artists were astounded and loved his creation; however, they told the artist that the bridges of the noses weren’t right; that instead of being straight they should be dish-shaped. The designer was ecstatic that the Cambodians admired his work and promised to recreate the noses; asking them to come back to make certain he got it right. I brought them back to see it, and they told him it was perfect, and that seeing it made them homesick.

The French and Americans’ collective term for the hill tribespeople in Viet Nam was Montagnards, while the Vietnamese often referred to them with the pejorative term “moi” – meaning savage in Vietnamese. In the Philippines, the collective name for the Austronesian ethnic hill tribespeople was Igorots in the national language Tagalog; however, it was often used in a pejorative way by the lowlander Filipinos meaning savages or sometimes headhunters. The Montagnards of Vietnam and the Igorots of the Philippines are related – genetically, linguistically, and culturally. Some thought that many generations ago, one tribe – the Bontoc from the region of Binguet Province in Northern Luzon– once practiced headhunting. However, I have been an avid reader of anthropological studies on these people and have found no creditable evidence of this in modern history that confirmed this headhunter myth; with perhaps one exception.  

During WWII, U.S. Army Captain Charles T.R. Bohannon (aka “Bo”), an anthropologist by education, parachuted into the Cordillera Mountains in the Philippines with the assigned task of organizing and training the tribal people in guerrilla warfare to kill Japanese occupiers. In my mid-‘70s conversations with my friend Bo, he told me that at first, he paid these guerrillas a bonus for each head of a Japanese soldier; however, he quickly realized that it had been a mistake for he soon had an overpowering environmental problem of disposing of a pile of heads brought to him in rice bags. Thus, he put out the word that “He would no longer pay for heads, just bring in their ears.” Later Bo became part of Col. Ed Lansdale counterinsurgency team that defeated the communist Huk insurgents in the 1950s. He later retired as a Colonel in the Philippines.  Bo was one of the characters in Lederer and Burdick’s iconic book “The Ugly American.”  

The younger generation of the hill tribespeople in the Philippines was awakening to the desire for self-identity and with a passion disliked being referred to as Igorots. They knew nothing of the above “earie” tale; nevertheless, they were trying keen on dispelling the age-old myth of being decedents of headhunters. The production manager for the film had hired a couple-hundred Bontoc for the shoot. Their spokesperson, Bugan, was a very outgoing, intelligent young matriarchal firebrand whom I first met over dinner at my friend Tom Hargrove’s house. Bugan and the other Bontoc were very upset after learning that they were to be portrayed as headhunters in the movie. Tom was a research scientist and information officer at IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) located on the campus of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos. I met Tom at a beer garden just off campus while studying for my Master’s Degree. Bugan worked at the university’s bats, birds, and rats institute and was a good friend of Tom’s wife who was interested in ethnic artesian weaving. After several dinners at their place, we became good friends. Tom had been an Army Captain assigned to USAID/CORDS in the Delta of Vietnam as an agriculture advisor to work with the newly introduced IRRI high-yielding rice program. After dinner, Tom and I often swapped stories of our experiences in Vietnam, and he was especially interested in how I had survived as a POW.* Bugan was interested in my work with the Montagnards, and the fact that I had stimulated the import and introduction of new-improved weaving looms from the arts and crafts center in the City of Baguio in Binguet region for use by the Montagnards in Vietnam.

When the Bontoc learned that Coppola wanted to portray them as headhunters in the movie they found it repugnant and offensive and became very agitated and wanted to walk off the set and return to the mountains. I explained to Bugan and the others that no one would identify them as such, for, after all, they were portraying Montagnards in Vietnam not Bontoc in the Philippines. I was also pissed at Coppola for this portrayal. To quell their anger, I suggested to Bugan that they go on strike in protest and negotiate a doubling in salary before allowing filming. They followed my advice — Coppola caved and doubled their salary — and the filming proceeded. Of course, after it was all over no one knew the difference.

The mockup camp was supposedly located somewhere in Cambodia where there were never any U.S. Special Forces camps and nor were there ever any near a temple. The set with the camp and temple was set for demolition in a simulated arc-light bombing intended to obliterate the rogue Special Forces officer, Col. Kurtz, whose descent into madness had caused his renegade band of Montagnards to morph into headhunters. Willard was sent to pinpoint Kurtz’s location that would then be arc-lighted. To simulate the arc-light, prop men had tied 50-gallon drums of JP-4 (kerosene) to the tops of the coconut trees, which were to be set off in sequence. The set was right at the entrance to Pagsanjan Falls, one of the Philippines ’ most famous waterfalls and a major tourist attraction, especially so for the Japanese.

One portion of my Master’s research focused on a very fast-growing leguminous tree referred to as Giant Leucaena that I had come across in my work with the Montagnards in Viet Nam. A shorter bushy-type called Ipil-ipil was common throughout the Philippines. Part of my research was the introduction of this new giant-type, and in doing so, I had published considerable information on the attributes of this amazing tree. Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines, became very interested in it so she launched a beautification Program in Manila planting trees along all the boulevards and streets in Manila (perhaps thinking to hide some of the squalors along the way) in preparation for an upcoming Donors’ summit. It went well and before long there were these beautiful trees all over. In the process, I got to know Imelda’s environmental assistant quite well and told her what Coppola was going to do — blow up the coconut grove that would ruin their Japanese tourist attraction. As a result, a Philippine Constabulary unit was deployed to surround the set of the Special Forces Camp and stopped production on that portion of Coppola’s film for several weeks.

The impasse went on for several weeks until one morning I picked up a copy of the major English language newspaper The Manila Times and spread across the width of the front page in large numbers was 7,777,777.77 The article read; Francis Ford Coppola donates seven million Pesos (seven Pesos to the dollar) to Imelda’s favorite charity a Home for Retired Movie Actors. Most everyone had serious doubts that one really existed. The Philippine Constabulary was withdrawn, the model SF camp arc-lighted, Col. Kurtz and his not so merry band of headhunters were obliterated (metaphorically speaking), and the ecosystem at the entrance to Pagsanjan Falls was turned into an environmental disaster.

The good side to all this was Coppola had to also pay for the cleanup and the replanting of coconut trees to make the site pretty again; the tourist attraction was eventually reopened for the Japanese tourists; Imelda had a pile of money to buy lots more fancy red shoes to quell her obsession for quite some time; Bugan and the rest of her Bontoc crew returned to the mountains with pockets bulging with Pesos, and Cappola’s pilot still had his job. 

After that, I could no longer in good conscience continue to accept Coppola’s large gratuity and his mis-portrayal of reality, so I decided to return to my research at the University. I penned Coppola a letter saying, “I quit! However, I look forward to seeing your finished fairy tale movie, and expect to see in one of the segments Martin Sheen, aka Captain Benjamin L. Willard, drifting down your make-believe Mekong River, rounding a bend while looking through binoculars seeing a scene evolve with Tarzan and Cheetah swinging through the trees and wondering how the hell they got into a film about Vietnam – A sensational Francis Ford Coppola production of another make-believe B-grade movie.” I couldn’t find Coppola so I handed the letter of resignation to one of Coppola’s production assistants. I then walked over to the Crown Toyota and told the chauffeur that I had quit so he needn’t pick me up in the morning. I walked off the set to the main road and caught one of those open-air busses with no sides to take me back to my house.

I knew the letter would piss off Coppola; hitting him below the belt right in his ego. He responded with a three-page defensive diatribe, yada, yada, yada, citing his artistic license and ending in, “If I wanted authenticity and reality, I would have filmed the movie in Vietnam.” I thought to myself, “Yea sure, you arrogant nihilistic putz; it’s been some three years since the barbaric North Vietnamese communists’ takeover of South Viet Nam and filled their gulags with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, murdered countless others, and forced a million and a half or so out to sea in leaky boats resulting in one-third of them drowning on the high-seas.” His comment made no sense at all; but then, neither did his movie Apocalypse Now. I sent a note back saying “I wished you had tried filming it in Vietnam, perhaps the communists would have put you in one of their camps to re-educate you on what realism really is.”

Later when flying back to the States, I happened to be sitting next to Tony Chiu, a movie critic for the New York Times, and shared with him my experiences with Coppola and the making of Apocalypse Now. He asked if I could send him copies of my letters to Coppola, so I agreed, conditioned on his promise to send me a copy of his review. I did, but he didn’t, which is par-for-the-course among the news media.

Since I worked in D.C., I settled down in Falls Church, Virginia. One afternoon I dropped by Ba Ly’s bakery and snack bar for a glass of Vietnamese Cà Phê Sữa đá (Ice coffee made from strong French-roast coffee with sweetened condensed milk). As I left to walk to my car, I heard a Vietnamese behind me shout, “Mr. Mike Benge!” I turned and saw the Vietnamese Captain from Ban Me Thuot, an extra in Coppola’s film. It goes to prove that “It’s a small world.”

******

Afterword

* This would later serve Tom well for after transferring to CIAT (Center for Tropical Agriculture) in Cali, Colombia, he was taken hostage by the narco-guerillas – FARC — in 1994 and held captive for 11 months. After Tom’s wealthy Texas oil tycoon father-in-law paid an unknown amount of ransom, he was released. Tom attributed his survival to what he had learned from our conversations over lots of San Miguel and his wife’s good food. (FARC — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo, i.e. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army). Long March To Freedom: Tom Hargrove’s Own Story of His Kidnapping by Colombian Narco-Guerrillas. Authorhouse Pub. 11.14.95. Tom has since passed from this world.

I still have Coppola’s letter somewhere packed away in the piles of crap I have accumulated over the years. This is one of my after-war stories as I recall and I’m sticking to it.