(Credits: Far Out / Turner Classic Movies)
Over the course of a truly trailblazing career, Martin Sheen worked with directors of the highest calibre, such as Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg, on unforgettable projects. However, his 1979 collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola will always be the masterpiece that pops up in every conversation about their respective legacies.
Apocalypse Now permanently changed the landscape of American war movies, conducting a haunting investigation of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Viewed through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s seminal literary work Heart of Darkness, the film stars the psychologically devastating journey of Captain Willard (played by Sheen), who sets out to find Marlon Brando’s enigmatic Colonel Kurtz. In the process, he loses his sense of self and the world around him.
During a conversation with Bob Costas, Sheen revealed that the production was a very difficult one for many reasons. In addition to the countless obstacles that Coppola’s team endured while filming on location, Apocalypse Now was a tough project for Sheen because he was forced to confront some of his own issues. This is evident in one particular scene in Captain Willard’s room, where he punches a mirror during a breakdown and cuts his hand.
Sheen recalled: “I bled quite a lot, and Francis tried to stop the scene, and I begged him to continue rolling. There were two cameras going. He said he couldn’t do it, and they had a nurse standing by. And I said, ‘Please. I must do this for myself.’ And he did. And he allowed me, in a sense, to wrestle with some demons that I had been wrestling with for quite a while. Now, I was doing it in a public forum, and in a sense, I got them out.”
When asked about his retrospective thoughts about the character he played, Sheen admitted that he doesn’t recognise himself in that role: “I had done that scene at bars, I had done that scene at home… I had to come to grips with it. I had to exorcise that out of myself…. Pretty frightening. Today I don’t recognise that man. Pretty sad guy. Trying to be something he wasn’t, afraid of things that he shouldn’t have been. Very painful guy.”
The psychological complications only served to elevate Sheen’s brilliant performance, perfectly blending into the insanity and violence of a fundamentally absurd war. Rightly counted among Coppola’s finest cinematic achievements, Apocalypse Now is a terrifying reminder of humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for unabashed death and destruction.
Watch the iconic scene below.