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Inside Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper’s legendary fight on the sets of ‘Apocalypse Now’

Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus. However, it was an extremely demanding film that took a toll on his mental health and fortune as he had to deal with controversies, disasters, unforeseen casualties, unprecedented rows and more — it took three years for the film to end production. Coppola’s major problems came in the form of a highly temperamental cast, especially Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, whose legendary fight nearly ended the film. 

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s acclaimed 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s 1979 epic is set in Vietnam. One of the most ambitious projects of his filmmaking career and inarguably his finest work, Apocalypse Now is one of the most visually stunning, philosophically profound and thought-provoking war films. 

Set during the Vietnam War, the film deconstructs the evils of colonialism, American interference in geopolitical affairs and the moral degradation and hatred plaguing humanity. 

The film stars Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, who ventures into dense forests and meandering rivers to look for the elusive Colonel Kurtz, portrayed by Brando. With the horrors of the Vietnam War driving him to insanity and madness, the cruel and ruthless Kurtz is now a maniac killer who resides in a temple and is worshipped by the locals. 

Despite his sheer brutality and madness, he is worshipped by an American photojournalist, played by Dennis Hopper, who calls him a genius and a poetic warrior. 

The film is a harrowing masterpiece with its mystique images and unforgettable premise; the production was no less difficult when Hopper and Brando’s fight nearly came to blows. 

Hopper was a complex man to shoot with. He was perpetually drunk and high, sported foul body odour as he did not shower etc. This substance abuse helped make his role as the rambling photojournalist even more compelling. 

Apparently, Hopper agreed to be a part of Apocalypse Now on a simple condition where he would get to share the screen with his favourite actor, Brando, but fate had other plans! 

Brando was also extremely difficult to shoot with and, to start things off on the wrong foot, arrived two weeks after the scheduled time of commencement. Overweight and ignorant, Brando had not read Conrad’s novel, a pre-requisite of Coppola’s, and did not know any lines. While Coppola had already chastised him for it, things got out of hand when Brando misinterpreted Hopper’s alleged “joke”. 

Brando was already annoyed by Hooper’s relentless drug use and unhinged behaviour. However, during a cast dinner, Hopper had apparently told Brando, “I bet you haven’t read the book,” leading to Brando’s infamous outburst. 

Brando felt offended, and as Hopper recalled, “He gets up and says ‘I don’t have to listen to this! I don’t have to take this!’ And he is screaming and yelling, ‘Why do I have to hear it from him? I have to hear it from this punk!’ And he storms out of the house.”

Their fight continued throughout the evening, worsening their already strained relationship and almost leading to punches and blows between the two as Hopper egged Brando on. 

Hopper also taunted him during a film theatre excursion. Hopper shared, “We go to see the Seven Samurai in a movie theatre, and I am sitting behind him. And at one point, I get up and say, ‘There’s an actor in here that said of a dead friend of mine (James Dean) that he wore his last year of Levis, drove his last year of motorcycle, and did his last year of bongo drums, and I sure would like [to fight him].’”

While Brando went on a private excursion with Coppola to study the script, the veteran actor refused to shoot with Hopper on the same set. The Godfather actor told the auteur, “I’ll l work with him, but you come in and do your scenes first, and then I’ll come in and listen to you, but we’ll never be on the set together.”

Despite all the tension, the film made history and is considered one of the greatest trailblazing war films in the history of cinema. 

Watch Apocalypse Now on Netflix now.