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Tuesday November 28th 2023

Apocalypse Now | 1979

Francis Ford Coppola films Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a total Vietnam experience, a series of overwhelming cinematic set-pieces. Filmed on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, the nightmare shoot was recorded in Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes and her amazing documentary film, Hearts of Darkness.

The Wagnerian helicopter attack on the quiet village was filmed at Baler on the northeastern coast of Luzon (the northern island of the Philippines, home to the capital, Manila). The helicopters, provided by President Marcos, were being used to put down Filipino insurgents at night, and occasionally during the day too, when they would suddenly veer off mid-shot.

The surfing beach, fresh with the smell of napalm, subsequently commandeered by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is Baler Bay, and is indeed just being discovered as the place to ride the waves in the Philippines. Baler is about 120 miles northeast of Manila, reachable by a seven-hour bus journey.

As the disaster toll mounted (the original Willard, Harvey Keitel, was replaced by Martin Sheen, who suffered a heart attack) the sets, originally located at Iba, on Luzon’s west coast, northwest of Manila, were wrecked by Hurricane Olga. Many had to be recreated at Pagsanjan, about an hour and a half’s drive southeast of Manila. The trippy ‘Do Long bridge’ was built here, on the Magdapio River, as was Kurtz’s compound.

Pagsanjan is worth the visit – to reach it, take the South Expressway from Manila as far as you can go, turn left to Calamba, then right, and it’s signposted. Alternatively, there’s a bumpy three hour bus ride. There’s also a thrilling, and extremely wet, boat trip up the rapids to Pagsanjan Falls (also known as Magdapio Falls).

Check with the local travel agencies, as some of the boatmen have been known to rip off tourists. The four mile paddle upriver to the falls passes the site of Kurtz’s nightmare empire, and it’s followed by a scary, white-water ride back over fourteen sets of rapids.

The local Ifugaos were recruited to play extras and disembodied heads (their bodies concealed in boxes buried beneath the set) in Kurtz’s kingdom, and the climactic hacking to death of a water buffalo – which Coppola managed to capture on film – is part of their ritual celebration, though whether an elaborate set and romantic backlighting are part of the tradition isn’t recorded.