“Apocalypse Now” and The Doors

"Apocalypse Now" promo poster

The epic Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now” (1979) brought The Doors back into public view in the closing days of the 1970s. The connection wasn’t an accident; Doors fans have known since at least “No One Here Gets Out Alive” that director Francis Ford Coppola attended UCLA Film School at the same time as Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, and that Coppola knew them both. Indeed, the “Apocalypse Now” Blu-Ray version includes an interview with Coppola and screenwriter John Milius that talks about Morrison and The Doors.

(Suggestion: If you’re going to buy “Apocalypse Now” on disc, get the “Triple Feature” version, which includes both the original and “Redux” (extended) movies as well as the “Hearts of Darkness” documentary about the seemingly doomed effort to finish the film.)

Before we get to the Coppola interview, let’s look at a couple of other Doors and “Apocalypse Now” connections. The movie begins with what some have called the best opening sequence in cinema history. As the introductory notes of “The End” play in the background, we see helicopters drifting over the jungle, napalm strikes, and flames. Then we see US Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) peering out through the blinds of his room, apparently remembering the war scenes he’d witnessed. Finally we see Willard drunk and stumbling around in the shadows. As the music peaks, Willard slams his fist into his mirror, and, bleeding, he collapses to the floor. But if Willard thought he’d escaped, the next morning he’s dragged to his feet and sent down the river to find Colonel Kurtz.

Once on the river, Willard and the patrol boat crew encounter one bizarre, threatening situation after another. An eerie sequence known as the “Monkey Sampan” clip, deleted from the original film, shows the group approaching a wooden boat that appears to be deserted and adrift. On the riverbank, villagers seem to be performing a ceremony, yet they’re incongruously chanting the lyrics to “Light My Fire” as the scene unfolds. The “Monkey Sampan” segment is included in the “Apocalypse Now Redux” version as well as in the Blu-Ray extras.

The interview featuring Coppola talking about The Doors and Jim Morrison is short, running about a minute and a half (from around the 16-minute mark through 17:30). In it Coppola and Milius talk about how Milius wrote the screenplay for “Apocalypse.” Milius mentions that all he thought about was Richard Wagner and The Doors, and Coppola says that he was at UCLA and knew both Jim and Ray. We have included the full interview because it is an interesting look into how “Apocalypse Now” came to be.

For The Doors, “Apocalypse Now” came at an ideal time. The ’70s had seen the end of The Doors as a live act, the departure and subsequent death of Jim Morrison, and a series of mostly unloved projects like the “Other Voices/Full Circle” albums and the Butts Band. But “An American Prayer” (1978) and then “Apocalypse Now” put the group back into the public consciousness, and as the decade drew to a close, The Doors were primed for a comeback.

Originally published October 1, 2010.

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