Psychedelic soldiers
and tragic surfers: John Milius’ “Apocalypse Now” (1969)

by Jeeshan Gazi

 In November 1969, Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Warner Bros. to invest $600,000 in his production company, American Zoetrope, to develop movies for “the youth market”—an audience that the Hollywood studios had managed to lose across the decade but that had recently returned to cinemas for the independently produced Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper 1969).[1] [open endnotes in new window] A year later, and much to the chagrin of the Warner executives who would demand their money back, Coppola would present them with George Lucas’ THX-1138, and two screenplays: Coppola’s “The Conversation” and John Milius’ “Apocalypse Now.” The latter was submitted to American Zoetrope on December 5th 1969, having already been in gestation for at least a year, though the film would not reach cinemas until a decade later.

Here I examine this first draft screenplay of Apocalypse Now and find that, like Easy Rider, its themes very much speak to nineteen-sixties U.S. youth in its providing a cinematic recognition of their counterculture. Dennis Hopper’s film sought to reject the United States’ genocidal movement across the “frontier” by reversing the direction of its motorcycle riding contemporary cowboys, Wyatt (Earp) and Billy (the Kid), from West to East and from capital to commune, in line with countercultural thinking. In contrast, Milius superimposes an internal conflict within Californian youth culture onto the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, in order to critique such thinking.

As indicated, Milius’ 1969 draft of Apocalypse Now differs in substance from the movie(s) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, of which there are currently four authorized versions in circulation: two 1979 versions (one featuring the destruction of Kurtz’s compound during the end credits sequence, which the other—more widely distributed–version lacks), the 2001 Redux version that extended the movie by 37 minutes, and the 2019 Final Cut which reduces the running time of the Redux but includes alternate footage. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902, in book form), both the original screenplay and the filmed versions of Apocalypse Now follow the protagonist, Captain Willard, on his episodic journey up river towards his target of assassination: Colonel Kurtz, who has gone insane and founded an armed cult amidst the chaos of the Vietnam War. In this connection, Coppola is keen to emphasize that “everything memorable of Apocalypse Now was invented by John Milius.”[2] Coppola is referring here to all of the movie’s key set-piece sequences, which constitute the various stops along Willard’s journey.

Pre-production location map for Willard’s episodic journey through Vietnam and into Cambodia. Image taken from “Full Disclosure: Collector’s Edition Booklet” of Apocalypse Now: Collectors Edition, Universal Studios, 2011, Blu-Ray.

These set pieces also feature in the 1969 version of the screenplay:

Yet the key structural points of the filmed movies’ shared narrative arc—its beginning, middle, and end—were largely re-written and improvised during filming, while the voice-over narration which weaves the various episodes together and provides significant insight into Willard’s character was written by the journalist Michael Herr, author of the excellent Dispatches (1977), late into the film’s two year editing process.[3] It is through this process that the filmed versions of Apocalypse Now came to shift thematically from Milius’ original 1969 screenplay, rendering the latter a unique object of study that stands apart from Coppola’s movies in the originality of its themes.[4]

The Vietnam War, Milius reminds us, “was fought by teenagers, who hopped up their helicopters and put flame jobs on the gun pods.” In his estimation,

“[i]t became this sort of East-meets-West thing, an ancient Asian culture being assaulted by this teenage California culture.”[5]

The writer-director’s first draft screenplay, “Apocalypse Now” (1969) is committed to this theme. A close, contextualized reading of this unpublished work highlights a clash between his generation of “radicals,” whom Milius aligns with surfers, and the counterculture of the late sixties—long-haired hippies whom he characterizes as psychedelic soldiers. My analysis finds that the conflict and dichotomy Milius presents between these two tribes of Californian youth culture relates to his coming of age within an early sixties surf scene that exhibited a sense of rebellion far different from that of the hippies that would emerge in the second half of the decade. The former exulted in thrills yet respected the norms of post-war U.S. society, where the latter sought to actively destroy them.

Further, Milius’ characterization of the hippies in his original vision for Apocalypse Now communicates a fear of the counterculture that would develop more broadly within California across 1969. It is a fear that was born from the darker elements of such a scene, which were brought into harsh light via the Manson murders and the disaster at Altamont but that had been steadily intensifying within the shadows of the Californian youth culture.

With respect to scholarship in this area of film-studies, I believe this analysis of “Apocalypse Now” (1969) demonstrates the value of studying screenplays as textual objects in their own right, and I close with a broader critical reflection on the study of screenplays as autonomous works of art in light of the particular examination undertaken here.

Surfing the South China Sea

The most famous sequence of Apocalypse Now is one in which Colonel Kilgore launches a helicopter bombardment upon a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) stronghold to the soundtrack of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, all in the service of clearing the area for surfing. This sequence features in the 1969 screenplay and largely unfolds in the same manner in the 1979, Redux, and Final Cut versions of the film. However, upon the troops’ landing on the beach, Milius foregrounds surfing in his writing of the scene where Coppola does not. Quite literally—Coppola shoots this aspect as a sight gag, with the surfers of Kilgore’s squadron, Mike and Johnny, rushing off into the background of the mise-en-scène upon their orders from the Colonel to strip and surf. The latter continues to dominate the foreground as he talks shop with Lance Johnson—a famous surfer among the boat crew that is escorting Willard up river.

Surfers Mike and Johnny are relegated to a sight gag while Kilgore talks shop with Lance. Image from Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979).

Milius instead focalizes the scene through the hapless Mike and Johnny, the scripted direction finding the camera following them as:

They walk through the shallows carrying brightly colored boards. They look very scared—Jets scream overhead firing cannons. […] They edge into the water and paddle through the mild shorebreak.

They paddle up to the point in the calm channel—the beautiful waves breaking beyond them.

They paddle on their stomachs keeping lower—breathing hard and constantly looking around scared out of their minds.[6]

Meanwhile Colonel Kharnage—the original name of the character who would be given the equally silly moniker of “Kilgore” by the time of filming—barks directions at them from the beach as Lance watches anxiously: “Maybe he’ll get tubed. […] Maybe he’ll get inside the tube—where—where they can’t see him.”[7] After two explosions are heard in the water, Lance “looks up and out towards the point in horror” while Kharnage is infuriated: “They ain’t dead—they just missed a good set—the chicken shits.”[8] He commands them through his megaphone to “Try it again you little bastards,” as the surfers “come up near their boards and climb on—smoke hangs over the water.”[9]

The narrative arc of this episode begins with Kharnage’s self-characterization as “a goofy foot” and ends with Lance stealing “his Yater,”[10] imbuing the screenplay with surf terminology, such that the episode encapsulates Milius’ conception of the Vietnam War as “an ancient Asian culture being assaulted by this teenage California culture.”[11] The colonial appropriation of the beach demonstrates the forceful imposition of Californian culture upon the Vietnamese, while the story of the Vietnam War is rendered an exclusively American one in its telling.

Multiple facets of the surf culture of the young U.S. soldiers that were stationed in Vietnam are explored in Ty Ponder and Scott Bass’ documentary Between the Lines: Surfers During the Vietnam War (2008), which charts how the war impacted upon two surfers—Pat Farley, who proactively enlisted, and Brant Page, who attempted to dodge the draft. This content is described by Milius, who is the documentary’s narrator, as “the soil from which APOCALYPSE NOW grew out of.”[12] As such, Ponder and Bass’ film provides us with an insight into the context in which the screenwriter developed the theme of surfing within his 1969 draft of Apocalypse Now.
A number of the Rest and Relaxation (R&R) Centers—temporary refuge points provided by the military—were sited at beaches with “rideable waves,” and surfing gathered pace with the introduction of lifeguards who managed to convince Special Services to provide more surfboards “for lifesaving purposes.”[13] At one R&R Center, the China Beach Surf Club was established, requiring potential surfers to prove themselves in the waves in order to ensure the limited boards available were put to good use.[14] This Club was founded in November 1967 by Navy storekeeper Larry Martin, and by the end of his deployment, in early 1969, he had issued membership cards to around 180 servicemen.[15]
In the 1969 draft of Apocalypse Now, it is on China Beach (properly named Bãi biển Mỹ Khê, or My Khe Beach) that Willard first appears and is picked up for his mission. Milius’ writing about that beach is littered with signifiers of Californian beach life, and yet is imbued with an unsettling melancholy:

a long stretch of white beach—dotted with hundreds of pale men in black Marine issue swim trunks. They lie on their backs in groups—there are no women—nobody moves very fast—occasionally we SEE TWO MEN throw a football laconically. The day is grey and overcast but hot. The water reflects the sky and there seems to be no horizon. A SMALL GROUP sit on surfboards off the end of a rock jetty as there are no waves, just an endless sheet of grey glass. The men are quiet and seem held in suspended animation or move in SLOW MOTION—held in limbo.[16]

The milieu is subjectivized so as to give us the soldiers’ state of mind, which relates to this beach being located, as specified by the scene heading, in “DANANG, I CORPS”—meaning a Tactical Zone for the allied Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). This is to say that these zones of refuge that became popular surf spots for U.S. soldiers—the R&R Centers at China Beach, Chu Lai, Cam Rahn Bay, and Buhn Thuan—were never far from combat. As Rick Thomas, a veteran of the River Assault Group, U.S. Navy, recalls:

“I’m out surfing at China Beach, you know, just having a great time, and, uh, the next thing I know, the war comes back. It’s right up, a click down the beach. A Huey gunship is, you know, just firing—lighting up the beach. And it was, you know, the most incredible moment because here I am surfing, just feeling the joy, feeling, you know, the goodness of life again, and, you know, death and destruction lies a mile down the beach.”[17]

Further, there were occasions when the teenage soldiers would make excursions further into enemy territory in pursuit of the best waves. Tom Luker, who was with the U.S. Marine Corps, recounts heading into “a Free Fire zone,” in order to surf what he was told was “this idyllic place, he said it comes in at A-frame, it goes right and left.”[18] Luker recalls handing over his M-16 for his turn on the board:

“I’m nervous as hell, I’m paddling out there, I’m thinking, all these thoughts are going through my head about, you know, is this dangerous, is this wrong—and a set just looms right up in front of me and without even thinking about it, just swung the board around, laid it down, two or three strokes into this bottom turn, beautiful wave… What war? What problems?”[19]

As Luker would state elsewhere in the documentary:  “It’s the real Apocalypse Now shot [laughs] and we did it, we did it.[20]