“I’m not going to kill an animal for a movie”: Francis Ford Coppola Refused Animal Cruelty for One Apocalypse Now Scene But What He Did May Be Far Worse

The scene was one of the most important sequences and added a new layer to the darkness of the film.

Francis Ford Coopla and Apocalypse now

SUMMARY

  • Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is often considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.
  • The film reportedly had a tumultuous production which included multiple health scares and destroyed sets.
  • Coppola reportedly allowed to film the slaying of a water buffalo despite being animal cruelty.
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Francis Ford Coppola has fought many battles in his filmmaking career, but none is probably as intense as his production of the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the filmmaker reportedly faced a chaotic shoot that involved lead actor Martin Sheen having a heart attack and built sets being destroyed.

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Many behind-the-scenes stories have been shared about the movie in the past and it was also the subject of a documentary Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. One interesting but sad trivia about the film was the butchering of a water buffalo at the climax of the film. The buffalo was reportedly slaughtered for real and was part of the local tribes’ custom, though Coppola refused to slay an animal for a movie.

Francis Ford Coppola Initially Refused To Harm An Animal For Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen as Captain Willard before slaying Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

After crafting one of the greatest films ever made and one of the greatest sequels ever made with The Godfather franchise, Francis Ford Coppola set out to make a Vietnam War film that perfectly encapsulated the horror of the event. Apocalypse Now was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, changing the setting from the Congo to the Vietnam War.

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The film was a deep dive into the psyche of a soldier, played by Martin Sheen, who is tasked with investigating the whereabouts of a celebrated soldier Colonel Walter Kurtz who has gone rogue. The film depicts the horrors of war and is known for showing many real aspects of the Vietnam War. Coppola famously said that the film was not about Vietnam but it was what the place was like(via Washington Post).

One disturbing aspect of Apocalypse Now’s behind-the-scenes was the climactic scene where the tribe Kurtz is presiding over goes on to slaughter a water buffalo as part of the ritual. While the tribe slays the animal, Martin Sheen’s Benjamin Willard slays Marlon Brando’s Kurtz and both the scenes are juxtaposed. 

Captain Willard after slaying Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
A still from Apocalypse Now

According to USA Today, the water buffalo shown in the film is reportedly a real one and was part of a ritual from a local tribe. Francis Ford Coppola mentioned that they had promised pigs, chickens, and two water buffaloes as part of a deal with the locals to shoot on their land. While they were performing their ritual, he was convinced to shoot it,

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That was a big part of their compensation…I did not direct it or anything, that was the way they do it. I’m not going to kill an animal for a movie; I’m not going to kill anything for any reason.

Francis Ford Coppola mentioned that his wife Elanor Coppola, who was also filming the documentary Hearts of Darkness shot the scene. He revealed that he had also refused to keep another water buffalo on standby in case the shot did not come out well.

Production of Apocalypse Now Was Extremely Dangerous

Robert Duvall in a still from Apocalypse Now
A still from Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has often been listed among the greatest films ever made. The film received multiple nominations at the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and ultimately won the awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. The film has received multiple re-releases, including a ‘final cut’ from the filmmaker in 2019.

However, Apocalypse Now was noted for its troubled production, which was captured in the accompanying documentary Hearts of Darkness. The filmmaker mentioned that all of the explosions and flares in the film were done in real life and that there were no visual effects. He said to USA Today,

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We were up in the air when flares were hitting us. One of the things I’m so proud of is we did not lose one person. One person was lost on a construction crew … which is one too many. But it was extraordinary that we did all that we did with all this flying around and the explosions.

Despite its troubled production, Francis Ford Coppola managed to deliver one of the greatest films ever made. It won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was also selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

Apocalypse Now is available for rent on Apple TV.

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Written by Nishanth A

Articles Published: 977

Nishanth A is a Media, English and Psychology graduate from Bangalore. He is an avid DC fanboy and loves the films of Christopher Nolan. He has published over 400 articles on FandomWire. When he's not fixating on the entire filmography of a director, he tries to write and direct films.