Apocalypse Now has long been hailed as one of the greatest war movies ever made. Focusing as much on the psychological impact as the physical impact of war, Apocalypse Now was released in 1979 to immediate critical acclaim. Over the years, myths have sprung up around the making of the movie, with fans speculating about everything from the way Marlon Brando got into character as Colonel Kurtz to the challenging filming conditions. One of the most disturbing behind-the-scenes stories involves the alleged use of dead bodies as props.
In this case, truth is stranger than fiction.
‘Apocalypse Now’ initially used corpses as props
Apocalypse Now was a notoriously difficult movie to make, with Francis Ford Coppola jumping through hoops to get the film produced.
According to the Independent, the legendary director planned for the crew to film on location in the Philippines for 14 weeks. But logistics and weather intervened, and Ford constantly had to grapple with the difficulties of filming under such tense circumstances.
At one point, co-producer Gray Frederickson went to the temple set, which was being used for a big scene involving Kurtz, and found garbage and dead rats strewn everywhere. The Independent notes that Frederickson confronted production designer Dean Tavoularis, who told him the rats were intentional, meant to provide “atmosphere.”
Frederickson also allegedly learned that dead bodies were being used as props for the film — which the co-producer had previously discounted as an outrageous rumor.
What happened to the ‘Apocalypse Now’ cast after police learned about the bodies?
Slash Film reports that Frederickson finally saw the dead bodies, a row of corpses used as props hanging from trees and placed strategically around the temple set. Frederickson demanded the bodies be taken away, at which point the local police came to the set to question the crew.
The police detained every cast and crew member and seized their passports, Far Out Magazine reports. Because the bodies were unidentified, the local authorities had to be sure a serial killer wasn’t running amok in the Philippines.
Eventually, the truth came out.
“They didn’t know we hadn’t killed these people because the bodies were unidentified. I was pretty damn worried for a few days. But they got to the truth and put the guy in jail,” Frederickson said of the grave robber who was also said to have supplied bodies to medical schools.
But the nightmare didn’t end there.
Frederickson also said that when soldiers came to take the bodies away, he learned the corpses couldn’t be placed in a cemetery because there was no one to pay for the burials, the Independent reports.
“I don’t know what they did with them,” Frederickson said. “So for the scenes in the movie, we had extras hanging from trees, not dead bodies.”
The 1979 film earned eight Academy Award nominations
Despite the difficult conditions and the terrifying brush with local law enforcement, producers eventually completed Apocalypse Now. It premiered in theaters in 1979 to critical acclaim, eventually earning eight Academy Award nominations.
Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made and one of Coppola’s finest cinematic achievements. If anything, the stories about the making of the iconic film have only enhanced its complicated legacy.