Apocalypse Now was a film production full of oddly fated circumstances, and most of it seemed like it was being weaved in place by Methuselah himself. During the course of the production, Martin Sheen was continually nearly killed off, sets were beset by Typhoons, real wars besieged production, Marlon Brando did his best to unhinge everything and on and on until the only conclusion available to Francis Ford Coppola was that he was directing in a rare circle of hell. However, then happy accident, as Bob Ross would say, led to one of the greatest music moments in the history of cinema—so maybe there really is such a thing as karma after all.
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The classic Doors track ‘The End’ is not only a blistering rock ‘n’ roll record of the highest order, but it also allegorically forms an amazing touchstone for the elliptical apocalypse that is about to unfold as Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness meets with the insane horrors of the Vietnam War. As Coppola said of the film, it was about death, life and rebirth, thus, beginning with ‘The End’ is a perfect way to brisk the chaos into commotion. It is not without irony that even this choice was influenced by the manic production of the film in a very meta sense.
As it happens, Coppola had visited the editing suite to say his farewells to Barry Malcolm who was leaving to join another project the following day. As Coppola and Malcolm conversed, the directed spotted barrels of footage marking the beginning and end of the classic ‘Battle of the Valkyries’ napalm scene originally set to sit in the middle of the feature as the mad Lieutenant Bill Kilgore rambles about surfing while a portal to hell seemingly opens about a kilometre away. These cuts lying in the barrels were set for the trash, but suddenly Coppola had other ideas. Allured by the weird-looking celluloid cuts, this depiction of flame engulfed trees being panned across in quite a tranquil manner caught his eye.
Then, as if by magic, some mystic figures of fate had left a pile of records on the bin adjacent to the scrapped footage. One album was The Doors classic 1967 self-titled record. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the introduction that seems to contain bottomless metaphorical multitudes was borne from a flippant remark as Coppola simply joking turned to Malcolm and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we took a song called ‘The End’ and put it at the beginning of the movie.” No, Francis, that’s not really laugh out loud comedy, but I suppose fate was bound to throw them a bone at one point. If Coppola hadn’t been there that fateful Saturday, then the opening of the iconic movie would’ve been far different.
The original intro was set to be a mirror image of the ending as a black screen is flooded by an overture of insects and a soldier slowly emerges from the depths. While this doesn’t sound all that bad, it just doesn’t have the same fated feel that The Doors conjures; and it was far from merely fortuitous in the sense of lucky barrels full of film gold. As it happens, Coppola and The Doors went way back which further informed his decision.
Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison of The Doors both met at UCLA film school. Another enrolee at the time was none other than Coppola. This connection meant that Coppola was more aware of their music on a personal level and as such when he stumbled across the album lying there it seemed like a bolt from the past. They even sent their old pal the old original four-track master recording of the song so that Apocalypse Now version is different to the final cut on their album. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.